Steering through stormy times

One of Executive’s former managing editors takes a look back at some of Lebanon’s most turbulent years

I was appointed Editor of Executive in the late summer of 2002. I’d been a freelancer with the magazine for just over six months, but had been out of journalism for nearly two years. My metaphorical footprints in the sand were in danger of being washed away and I needed to get back into a managerial editing job.

Then, in August 2002, the editor very publicly resigned. It was a week before going to print. I was in the office and heard it all. I waited for the dust to settle before popping my head around Yasser Akkaoui’s door and telling him I was willing to help bring out the issue. He agreed. I stayed for five years.

And what a five years they were, capturing arguably the most amazing (and often sad) period in Lebanon’s short history. They were five years of hope, dismay, more hope, unbounded joy, fear and eventually solidarity as we reported on an economy hamstrung by occupation; driven by reconstruction, defined by prosperity, terror, revolution, assassination, war and even more reconstruction.

But back in 2002, the Downtown, Solidere, Beirut Central District – we never quite knew what to call it – had just opened up for business and it appeared that Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s “build-it-and-they-will-come” dream just might morph into a money-spinning reality. The fallout from 9/11 meant that Beirut was once more the darling of the Arab World and we truly felt that the soul of the city had returned.

And even though Syria ran the show (and regularly arched an eyebrow at our content, some of which sailed very close to the Baathist wind) there was a feeling that economically Lebanon was back in the saddle. Hariri and his Trade and Economy Minister Basil Fuleihan organized a second Paris donor conference in November 2002, while other money (clean or otherwise) was flowing in, be it tourist dollars, remittances or from growth in banking, real estate, hospitality and retail. Hotel chains inked deals, international brands arrived and life was good.

But we forgot, or chose to forget, or figured we couldn’t do anything about, the fact that Syria was in charge and, on Valentine’s Day 2005, things changed forever. Hariri, the man who had single handedly gripped Lebanon by the scruff of its neck and convinced us we could get back on our feet, and Basil Fuleihan, the poster boy for a postwar generation who wanted to give back to its country, were murdered along with 20 other innocent passersby in front of the St. Georges Hotel. We realized then that we could no longer turn a blind eye. The whole office, like a quarter of the country, descended on Martyr’s Square on March 14 to demand that Syria leave. And when Syria did leave, we couldn’t quite believe what we had done.

In the run up to the 2005 elections in a two-part cover story, we decided to ask the parties contesting the first Syrian-free polls about their economic policies. We called Hezbollah, we called the PSP; we even called Michel Aoun in Paris. They thought we were mad; we thought they were clueless. History has proved us right.

The 2006 war nearly closed us down but the owners decided, bravely and defiantly, to reinvest and go regional. During that month long war, we didn’t miss an issue even as the Israeli Air Force rained bombs on southern Beirut and other strategic targets. We then had to contend with the occupation of the Beirut Central District by the pro-Syrian, and, it would appear, anti-business, March 8 bloc, the repercussions of which are still felt to this day.

2007 was my last year as managing editor. If I close my eyes I can still hear the daily arrival of army helicopters ferrying the wounded soldiers from the battle of Nahr el Bared onto the roof of Hotel Dieu Hospital. Lebanon was still reeling from the momentous events of 2005 and it would not be until the next summer, after a failed coup by Hezbollah and its allies and the subsequent election of a new president, that the country would once more bask in the sun of economic optimism.

Today Lebanon faces arguably greater challenges, with the fallout of the Syrian Civil War once again forcing Lebanon to adapt to the shifting tectonic plates of the region. Executive continues to hold the government to account. The private sector is the heartbeat of the country, and the political class can play regional clientelism as much as it wants as long as it lets the business class do what it has always done: keep the country working. In this way, Executive has not shirked away from its duty, be it in asking what has happened to Lebanon’s scandalously managed oil and gas files, the corruption at Electricite du Liban, or the more recent garbage crisis – an event that is a stain of shame on our entire political class.

When I was appointed full time editor in October 2002, I was determined to make the relatively young magazine a success in a cutthroat market. To do this I knew I had to defend my editorial corner, and I am grateful to have been able to work with such a wise team. We all knew that the magazine could not survive without ads, but we also recognized that our readers would desert us in a millisecond if they knew our content was just rehashed PR. We played it smart. The sales department made it clear what the commercial imperatives were if we were to stay in business and it was up to us to satisfy these without selling our editorial soul. It worked. Even the stories I’d have rather not included in the magazine were never sell-outs, and the vast majority of our content was fresh, original, dynamic, daring and, most importantly, credible. It was content that made me proud to put my name to the masthead for over 60 issues.

So, to the talented and committed people I worked with who became like a second family, and to the contributors, who I always thought would desert me from one month to the next but who always came back for more work – thanks. It was one hell of a ride.

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