My breath-taking meeting with President Gemayel

Posted in Broader Middle East | 19-Apr-05 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

With only a few days left before leaving Beirut, I had the opportunity to meet Sheikh Amine Gemayel, the former President of Lebanon.

As anywhere else in the world, in Lebanon one cannot meet or interview the important political players without being recommended by someone from their entourage. The recommendation brings you a step closer to the aim, but even then it's not sure you will reach it.

Pierre Maroun, a dear friend and respected member of the Lebanese American lobby for a free and independent Lebanon, used his personal connections to get me on the list of journalists eager to talk with President Amine Gemayel.

After a few phone conversations with Amine Gemayel's secretary, we scheduled the interview for my last day in Beirut. Although the president had a full agenda for the day, his secretary squeezed me in for a brief interview. I cannot express how honored I felt to be able to meet the president at my (still) young age and on short notice.

Although I began my journey to the president's office one hour before the scheduled appointment, I arrived 10 minutes late for the meeting. This was a very stressful situation, but the taxi driver was not familiar with the Christian area outside Beirut where the president has his office and we had to ask numerous times for directions until we arrived at my destination. I thought to myself: "Great! I've started out on the wrong foot. Maybe he will cancel the interview." President Gemayel's secretary announced to him that the taxi driver had trouble finding the office, and therefore in a few minutes time, I was able to meet with him. It is difficult to describe how I felt while waiting in the anteroom, anxious to meet President Gemayel. I have read and heard many things about him and was fearful that it may not work the way I wanted it to. During his mandate, Amine Gemayel confronted attempts by the PLO to establish itself on a permanent basis in Lebanon as well as Syria's bid to control the political life of the country.

Finally, when the secretary told me I could proceed to the president's office, my knees began to tremble and I clearly heard my heartbeat in my ears. Could he (the president) hear it, too? Hopefully not.

My first impression was that of an extremely polite, yet distant person. After asking me a few questions about the publication I write for, about my educational background and about the way I perceive the situation in Lebanon, Amine Gemayel was ready to answer my questions. We were brought water, tea and coffee.

Once we started the interview, the emotions were still high, but the answers captured my whole attention. Sheikh Amine Gemayel was as open as possible, although obviously tired because of his extremely busy schedule. He emphasized the fact that Lebanon needs to stand on its own feet without the interference of the Iranians, Palestinians or Syrians, and then we will see a democratic Lebanon. His past experiences with all of the above groups was enough for me to trust his judgment. By asking for free, independent parliamentary elections and emphasizing the importance of voting, the current opposition has won only half the battle. Much more should be done to improve the quality of citizenship in the country and to elect a parliament - a government that truly represents Lebanon in all its diversity.

The new office will represent Lebanon in the world, and the messages it will send to the EU, UN, US and the world at large will matter. President Gemayel and many others were ready to pay with their lives to see Lebanon independent again. The 1.2 million people who demonstrated after Hariri's assassination proved that President Gemayel is not alone. Hopefully, the opposition will know how to use this important and rare popular momentum that they are now experiencing to the benefit of the people of Lebanon

At the end of the meeting, I was reminded of an important life lesson: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

Prior to this meeting I took the opportunity to interview exclusively for WSN:

  • Former Prime Minister General Michel Aoun

  • Rita Samra, Chairwoman of International Affairs in the Lebanese American Coordination Council

  • Ziad Abs, Political Bureau of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM)

  • Dory Chamoun, Member of the National Liberal Party
My conclusions are:
  • The Lebanese people are ready for democracy

  • Lebanon needs fair and free elections

  • Tolerance between all groups is the prerequesite for success

  • The "West" has no choice than to deliver immediate support

  • The "Broader Middle East" has a chance for more democracy and stability