Pissing Off a Lebanese Politician

The esteemed politician before the storm

Source Sethrida Geagea

Why you should care

Because slips of the tongue can be dangerous.

Against a protester battle cry of “All of them means all of them,” Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea on Friday, Nov. 1, called for the formation of a “salvation government” in Lebanon as he blasted Caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and Caretaker Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab. Member of Parliament Sethrida Tawk Geagea, Samir’s wife, also remains politically active. Despite persistent rumors of divorce, the Geageas are still married.

In March 2013, Lebanon had gone Lebanon. Again. And this time two years after Prime Minister Saad Hariri was ousted by a Hezbollah-led bloc, leaving their parliament bitterly divided. The new prime minister, Najib Mikati, announced that his 30-person cabinet was resigning. All of them.

But in the flurry of news stories, one guy attracted my attention. Not because he almost died of starvation in a Lebanese hellhole of a prison where he had winnowed four life sentences down to 11 years for trumped-up church-bombing charges — Amnesty International declared his jailing unjust and politically motivated — but because Samir Geagea (pronounced “jah-jah”) seemed like a badass. Surviving an assassination attempt the year before helped bolster this impression. And whispers of him running for president the next year were just enough to move someone else into my eyeline … his wife.

I’d be interviewing a shining star of Lebanese politics who I was lucky was even talking to me in the first place. … Over janky wi-fi from some arrondissement in Paris … What could go wrong?

Sethrida Tawk Geagea, then 47 and now 52, was straight out of central casting — if they were casting a movie about total cool. Ignorant of the finer political points of the region, which, as an American, is my God-given right, all I knew was that through what seemed like dogged determination Sethrida had driven Syria out of Lebanon.

That is, Sethrida, with her degree in political science, had figured out that words minus action tallied up to not very much. So she kept up the action despite threats and arrests. She enforced a sense of unity in-country, as part of the Lebanese Forces, all through her husband’s 11 years in the stony lonesome of his basement jail cell.

And then, amid rumors that they were divorcing, the clouds cleared and I was emailing her assistant. I was going through my own divorce at the time, so it seemed like providence was guiding my hand and what had given her strength might also be something I could use. Her assistants wrote me back and we were off to the races, with dozens of emails back and forth setting up the ground rules and then … a wrinkle: “Mrs. Geagea prefers to converse in Arabic, so you could either send the questions and you would receive your reply in written English, or there would be an on-site translator.”

If I sent the questions, I could never be sure who had really answered them. So a translator it was. Then, because it wasn’t difficult enough with multiple schedule changes, shifting dates of availability and coordinating all of the moving parts, all part of the job, another twist: I’d be going to Paris and would do the interview there. But Sethrida would not actually be there. In the end, I’d be calling her from there.

Which is to say I’d be interviewing a shining star of Lebanese politics, who I was lucky was even talking to me in the first place, by cellphone. On a cellphone through a U.S. subcarrier via a French telecom company. Over janky Wi-Fi from some arrondissement in Paris. To? To a translator I had never met who had to go through a security screening to get into Sethrida’s office at a designated hour that was probably way too early for me and way too late for them.

Having ZERO time for Mr. Robinson’s monkeyshines.

What could go wrong?

Actually: nothing. Or rather, nothing bad.

Sethrida Geagea was engaging and forthcoming in micro and in macro. About her place in space given that there had just been a double suicide bombing outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut that killed 23 people.

“Lebanon will not collapse. The Lebanese people are heroes in this situation,” said Sethrida, “and in the last 25 years have been involved in a silent war. Without missiles and bombs and destruction of buildings. But being controlled by Syria. By way of a group of militarized people whose power lies outside of the Lebanese state.”

And she discussed women’s strides forward, or not: “With the big democratic changes through the region, the aspirations of women will probably be on hold,” she said through our translator, her voice steady and strong. “We as the LFP [Lebanese Forces Party] had a quota of 20 percent for women in the highest decision-making positions but … with 128 members of parliament, only four are women. Women will eventually have a pure presence in the party, however.”

She rejected her own candidacy out of hand after a little probing: “Certainly I will not run for the presidency.”

It was now December and while it might seem that the lion’s share of the work had been done, this is where it started: coordinating getting the translated version fact-checked, photos, due diligence, all of the publishing stuff that you have to do to maintain that not everyone hates the piece when it hits. Given that we were talking about Lebanese politics, that last part was probably inevitable.

In the face of quickly changing situations on the ground, follow-up interviews had to be scheduled. Her office said that she would let us know when would best work for her, and then came my 100-foot dive into failure.

“As you wish.”

After more than 40 emails and multiple phone calls, I had assumed a collegial familiarity. Which, apparently, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Due to the unprofessionalism and disrespect shown from your behalf to MP Sethrida Geagea, for an interview that took place over two months ago … and of course your last ‘As you wish’ email, we request that the interview done on December 8, 2013, not be published.”

I was baffled. But while the temptation would be to not understand what had just happened, I, sort of, more than understood. The most difficult thing in my day on any average day? Traffic. Specifically, traffic being too slow.

Her day? One million Syrian refugees, soon to be 1.5 million in 2016, and now at the end of 2019, protests and riots called a tax intifada triggered by newly imposed taxes on everything from WhatsApp to gas. So yeah, I totally understood.

“The situation in Lebanon is very difficult now,” she said toward the end of the interview. “And the situation in Syria will not be stopped soon. I am sure there will be a lot more bloodshed.”

Same planet, different world, and I wish her continued success in hers.

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