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Ghassan Tueni, Lebanese journalist and statesman, dies at 86

WASHINGTON — Ghassan Tueni, a Lebanese journalist, diplomat, and intellectual whose dream of a secular, independent homeland was widely considered a harbinger of last year’s Arab Spring uprisings, died June 8 at a hospital in Beirut. He was 86.

His family announced the death but did not disclose the cause.

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Mr. Tueni, a Harvard-educated political scientist, was 22 when he took over his family’s Beirut newspaper, an-Nahar (The Day), in 1948. Over the next six decades, he guided the publication as a fiercely independent voice through the tumult of modern Lebanon, including a 15-year civil war, a 30-year Syrian occupation, and attacks by Israelis and Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas.

While running the paper, Mr. Tueni also engaged in his country’s thorny politics as an elected member of Parliament, starting in 1951. Among other positions, he served as deputy prime minister, head of several cabinet ministries, and ambassador to Greece. He was Lebanon’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1977 to 1982, amid the most turbulent years of the country’s civil war.

In his roles as a statesman and head of an-Nahar, Mr. Tueni fiercely defended his homeland. In 1978, with Lebanon reeling from internal unrest and an invasion in the south by Israel, he forcefully pleaded before the UN Security Council: ‘‘Let my people live. Let us have peace.’’

As he argued to ‘‘put an end to one of the most savage acts of aggression’’ in UN history, Mr. Tueni was viewed as a crucial voice in the adoption by the Security Council of Resolution 425, which called for the withdrawal of Israeli troops and established a 4,000-man UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.

Andrew Young, then the US ambassador to the United Nations, credited Mr. Tueni for pushing the Security Council to action ‘‘very simply and very powerfully.’’

In 2008, Mr. Tueni was among the politicians who signed an accord to end an 18-month clash between factions that brought Lebanon to the verge of another civil war.

As a journalist, Mr. Tueni published, by his own count, more than 5,000 editorials. He advocated a secular and independent Lebanese state and rights for women and minorities. He was jailed four or five times for opposing the Syrian occupation and in the 1970s published an-Nahar from Paris rather than submit to Syrian censorship of his newspaper.

For Mr. Tueni, an-Nahar was about promoting change. ‘‘I think I can create a current, yes,’’ he once said. ‘‘It makes me feel very worried. I might bump my head into a wall. But it might create a breakthrough. I have to try. I have to try very hard.’’

Sami Moubayed, a Syrian journalist, recalled in a memorial essay after Mr. Tueni’s death that at the height of the occupation, ‘‘Syrian students always looked left and right before buying the paper. As far as the security services were concerned, an-Nahar was a crime, and so was Ghassan Tueni.’’

Mr. Tueni’s supporters point to the uprisings of 2011 as proof that his vision for change remains valid in the Middle East today.

‘‘A movement,’’ wrote his friend, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, ‘‘took wing 18 months ago in the Arab Spring that was as fearless as Tueni — as determined to break down the culture of lies, and as insistent that rational citizens should rule their own lives through democratic government.’’

Ghassan Tueni was born in Beirut to a Greek Orthodox Christian family of Syrian descent. He considered his homeland, with its 18 ethnic and religious communities, a microcosm of the Arab world, a ‘‘laboratory of dialogue’’ for various factions. ‘‘If you fail here, it’s going to fail everywhere,’’ he told the Washington Post in 2006.

Mr. Tueni graduated from the American University of Beirut and received a master’s degree in political science from Harvard University in 1947. While he was pursuing his doctorate at Harvard, his father, Gebran, died. He returned to Beirut and took the helm of the newspaper, which his father had founded in 1933.

As his public stature grew, Mr. Tueni’s personal life was shadowed by tragedy.

His first wife, the poet Nadia Hamadeh Tueni, died of cancer in 1983 at age 47. Their daughter, Nayla, died of cancer at 7; one of his sons, Makram, was killed in a car accident in France in 1987.

Mr. Tueni’s other son, Gebran, a politician and journalist who took control of an-Nahar after his father’s retirement in 1999, was assassinated by a car bomb in 2005.

The attack was blamed on Syria, though no one officially asserted responsibility. After Gebran’s death, Mr. Tueni resumed his editorial role and ran unopposed to fill his son’s seat in Parliament.

‘‘I call today not for revenge, hatred, or blood,’’ Mr. Tueni said at Gebran’s funeral. ‘‘I call that we bury with Gebran all the hatred, all the controversies. I call on all the Lebanese, Muslims and Christians, to be united in the service of great Lebanon, in the service of its Arab cause.’’

When he returned to Parliament in 2006, he remarked to his fellow statesmen, ‘‘Let us bury our grudges and grief.’’

Mr. Tueni leaves his second wife, Shadia al-Khazen; and four granddaughters.

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