Encounter with Robert and Viviane Ghanem
Prestige International, N. 8, Feb. 1998
Prestige published in February 1998 an interview with Robert and Viviane Ghanem, whom we had met in their villa in Saghbine, overlooking Lake Qaraoun. Former MP and Minister who died on February 10, 2019, his opinions remain relevant today.
Robert, how did you first get involved in parliament? I was a law student and I needed to work to finance my studies. I first registered my name as a candidate for the Amicale at the university and won. I also needed to do something that would give me some independence. My father was a colonel in the army, I had two brothers who were still going to school, so my father wouldn’t let me go out whenever or as much as I wanted to. So I thought that working in parliament would help me find more independence. I asked my father to help me get such a job, but he wasn’t keen on the idea. I finally turned to my mother who got me what I wanted through Colonel Antoun Saad.
What did the young Robert who was not yet a lawyer learn there? Working in parliament, especially in those days, was a very enriching experience, even for a simple employee. I got used to working side by side with MP’s and learned a lot from them. For example, Rachid Karame always impressed me with the way he defended his causes in parliament. And there were many other MP’s like Albert Moukheiber, Raymond Edde, Abdel Aziz Chehab, Cheikh Khalil el Khoury, Edouard Honein, Kamal Joumblatt, Emir Majid Arslan, Joseph Skaff, Sabri Hamade, Saeb Salam… At first, I was the secretary of the foreign committee and my job was to make a note of the speeches and discussions that took place between MP’s. It was very hard because they always talked very fast, and sometimes in popular Arabic, not in literary Arabic (and there were no tapes or cassettes). So I learned to write very quickly and very well. I was still a student and my father was in the army but I was against the interference of the army in Lebanon’s political life. That’s why I worked against the 2nd bureau – I even got arrested once for 24 hours although I wasn’t working against the bureau in itself. In those days Lebanon was a country where opponents to Arab regimes could voice their political opinions, especially revolutionary ideas. The presence of such a body was very important to preserve peace and order but the problems started when the Bureau became a shelter for a certain group of politicians working against other politicians and started interfering in Lebanese people’s lives, creating pressure for a lot of people. That’s why we started to be against it because it had moved away from its main function. After 1965 I was already a lawyer and became a counsellor in parliament. This period allowed me to know a lot of MP’s better and they always treated me with respect and consideration. We were all on the same team and there was no big difference between an officer in parliament and an MP.
To what extent do you think that today’s parliamentary figures differ from the past? I think that no one can be great by himself. There are many charismatic personalities but none of them can become a great leader if they don’t encounter certain conditions, a certain social or political situation that propels them to the top. Previously, people were more simple and faithful, so it was quite easy for a good and well-trained politician to gather big crowds around him as the feudal system still existed and people were easily impressed with titles. Thanks to the media, people are more aware and don’t blindly follow a personality anymore just because they liked his speech. Now they need to follow projects, not people.
«There are many charismatic personalities but none of them can become a great leader if he doesn’t encounter certain conditions.»
What did you find in common that made you closer to one another? Viviane: Well, I was a journalist for L’Orient-Le Jour and I was responsible for the social part because I really love people and socializing. I think it was an important part – though Robert thinks it was just gossiping or tittle-tattle – because in Lebanon, politics is related to social life and sometimes I could guess after a dinner, for example, what was going to happen politically next week in Lebanon. I think we shared the same circle of friends and the same approach to many things, despite the fact that our respective families are very different: my family was very open socially and many members are related to political personalities, while Robert’s family was very military, strict family. But there was never any conflict.
Robert: Viviane and I first met in the lift and she was used to being warmly greeted by everyone while I seldom said ‘Good Morning’ to her.
Viviane: And I had a lot of parking tickets because the staff parked my car in no parking places. One day two policemen arrested me and took me to court. Robert defended me there and I didn’t have any more problems. The next day I went to thank him with a big present and that’s how we started seeing each other. We got married three years later in 1975. In 1978 we left for Paris because of the war. I couldn’t work in Lebanon any more because I was a journalist and many events had happened to us: our newly-built house collapsed twice at the beginning of the war, and Robert almost got killed by a bomb which fell next to his car while he was driving home from An-Nahar. And one day we learned about the murder of Tony Frangieh, who was a very close friend of ours, and we decided to leave Lebanon. Not just because we were afraid, that’s natural, but mostly because we were completely disgusted and decided we couldn’t stay in Lebanon anymore, although we had tried everything to stay here. We left for Paris with our son, who was two-years old at the time and I started working as a correspondent for L’Orient-Le Jour and I founded the magazine Fairuz with Elham Freiha and worked for Paris Match. I never stopped working as a journalist, even when I was sick or when I was pregnant because writing is my main passion. I could have continued to work as a political journalist, like Christine Ockrent and Anne Sinclair for example but I stopped because Lebanese people don’t understand that a politician’s wife can write her own political opinions in a newspaper and not necessarily her husband’s or to serve his cause. I also wanted to help my husband in his career so I gave up journalism to devote my time to helping Robert.
Robert: You know how important it is to get the maximum help you can, from your friends, and especially from your wife in a political career, particularly in Lebanon where propaganda is not well organized like in other countries such as France for example, and where there is a strong relationship between the elected MP and his voters, because he always has to support them and serve them. And this reciprocity, this exchange of services is a very positive thing, despite the fact that it takes up a lot of an MP’s busy schedule.
Their wedding was one of the top society weddings of its day and an occasion which bore fitting testament to a true love story.
Viviane, how did you help Robert? I built up two associations to help Robert. In his electoral campaign, Robert’s slogan was, «to build the Lebanese human being» and I was mostly interested in children, and in culture and education. I started by helping the state schools in the Bekaa which were in very bad conditions, so I built up «The Association for Development of Education in the Bekaa region» in 1994. We granted thirty-seven schools a library with two to three hundred books for children, a television, a video, educational films, cassettes with stories for children and educational games and toys. We also contributed to the construction of a theatre that seats four hundred at Qabb Elias.
Robert, what was the influence of your father’s position in the army on your career as a lawyer? Well, it had a positive influence on my career, of course, I mean that my father’s reputation did help me because he was well-known for his patriotism, his strong principles and his work for our country. But there were also times when he put me in a very critical situation. I remember when he was chief commander in the army at the time that Rachid Karame was Prime Minister. The government decided to put An Nahar on trial in a martial court because Ghassan Tueini wrote about events and incidents that were happening in South Lebanon. My father gave the order to arrest Ghassan Tueini and Wafik Ramadan. As I was An-Nahar’s attorney, I tried to convince my father to leave the matter to the civil court under the press law.
Viviane: Robert even left his parents home during this period.
Robert: Ghassan was arrested and I was in charge of his defence until he was finally released from prison two weeks later. My father was a military man and he had a military temperament. He had very strong convictions and in particular a very strong sense of duty, sacrifice and honour. He was never a diplomat and always said and did what he thought was true without any other considerations.
What was your reaction when he was forced to resign in late 1975? Robert: My work didn’t suffer from my father’s forced resignation but I was shocked and I still believe that he was a victim of unfair treatment especially because he served his country for many years with courage and loyalty.
«We’re living in the XXIst century and I don’t actually believe in political inheritance.»
When you came back to Lebanon after a long absence (thirteen years in Paris) did you find any difficulties in taking up your political and social life again? Robert: No, not at all because when I came back to Lebanon, most of the political personalities were still present and I was completely able to take up again with politics here. Of course, there was a new generation, people had a new way of thinking, but this was not an obstacle to my reintegration to Lebanese politics, because, while I was in Paris, I never broke off links with my country: my office was always open in West Beirut and I had many lawyers working there, my parents were still there, so was my house and I was always commuting between France and Lebanon. I celebrated Christmas in Lebanon with my children and the whole family and I used to spend summer there. So, I was never completely absent. Now as for noticing a change in social relations between Lebanese people, with their different religions or opinions, and the influence of war and its consequences on the Lebanese society, I can say that there was actually a change, and I noticed that everywhere in Lebanon, relations between people from different religions or opinions became worse than they had ever been. But in West Bekaa, relations between political people remained good and friendly. I think the main reason is that there has always been strong communication between the people there and whenever there was a problem, they used to gather together and talk about it to find a solution. So there is no doubt I was accepted easily and welcomed by everyone there.
Tell us about your work in the Ministry of Education, and about the difficulties you encountered? I had to face many problems, the first of which was the teachers’ strike. Even before my nomination, the teachers went on strike. I was supposed to go on a trip to Brazil with the rest of the government staff after the new government was formed in May 1995 but I refused to leave the country in the circumstances. The strike gave me lots of work, many complaints to answer, many communications to make, and I had to attend many meetings. Let’s talk about the problem of the renovation of the educational programs. Subsequent to war, the country was facing a dangerous regression in all fields. I believe that culture and instruction have always been Lebanon’s main richness, and if we want to remain up-to-date with the universal advances we should look forward to renewing the educational programs, reviewing the levels, operating radical modernization and remodelling the programs if we want to help our country recover some stability. This project of the renovation was put together, planned, and finally declared on the 9th of December, 1995. Committees were soon formed to study and work on the whole project and particularly on the creation of a new Civic Education Book. I believe that the achievement of the whole project is my most important and successful accomplishment.
And what about the teachers’ problem? They had to go on strike a lot before their complaints were heard. Robert: The complaints were heard and the problem solved a long time ago. I took good note of all their complaints in February 1996. I sent the decree of salaries and degrees but the MP’s didn’t study it all because complications set in when opinions started to diverge: some MP’s and ministers thought that not only teachers but the whole public sector should be concerned and others that it should be only teachers and that the two decrees should be studied separately. The Prime Minister refused to sign if both decrees weren’t put together. So at the last sitting of the MP’s I promised that if my project wasn’t accepted and signed I would resign and reveal the reasons for my resignation. They finally accepted my projects but omitted to vote both decrees separately and that was a major setback because the new teachers’ salaries law was declared but couldn’t be applied immediately. Later on, the problem was resolved. I think that the teachers appreciated my efforts as throughout my electoral battle in the Bekaa there was an important group of teachers that worked on my side and really helped me.
Are there any other projects you would like to have accomplished? Yes, many and most of them are for the basics of education at primary level. I signed an agreement with UNDP for a project to create one hundred schools. One of Lebanon’s main educational problems is the lack of specialized teachers in our schools, as well as their great number. So the government and the whole country have to carry the weight of this unproductivity. The weakness of Baccalaureate students is one of the consequences of that problem. I tried to find a solution by proposing to the government a lowering of the age of retirement from 64 to 56 years old for teachers, but this was refused. I thought about moving teachers from one village to another where they are most needed and pay them for each km they travel. That was refused too. The project I signed with the UNDP was to create courses to provide small groups of well-qualified teachers one group from every Mohafazat – a level renovation or a requalification and then to put them in charge of giving the same courses to other teachers. This project could provide continual professional training for teachers and will soon be put into practice. I studied the villages where there weren’t any schools, and we established a map where we localized every town where there weren’t any public schools. If you could see how many towns lack schools you wouldn’t believe it! I strongly believe in the prominent role of education. The human being is the greatest richness of our country. And the strongest vehicle to form this human being in Lebanon is the public school because it ensures the democratization of education and it promotes equality of opportunities among Lebanese citizens.
«I was fulfilled and living at ease. I decided to come back to do what I didn’t have the chance to do during the war. Then your voice wasn’t heard unless you had a rifle.»
Do you believe in political inheritance? Would you like your children to be politicians like you? I would like my children to do whatever they believe in doing and to be whatever they want to be as long as they are capable and up to it. We’re living in the 21st century and I don’t actually believe in political inheritance. Of course, I believe that there are political families where children get used to a political climate and sometimes continue their father’s work when they grow up. But I don’t think it’s a general rule, neither do I think that politics is something you can inherit and if the young person doesn’t have the will or ability to start a political career, he cannot become a politician. And I believe it is important to let youth participate in Lebanon’s political life because only they can refresh and renew it, only they can change the mentality that says politics is a dirty career and that it is made up of lies, treason and betrayal. The fact that people believe you should lie and steal to survive, and that honesty leads nowhere, shows a sick mentality. And I do think that politics is – in its correct sense – an honourable career because its purpose is to serve the country and to help people live a better life.
Viviane, would you encourage your children to take up politics? Yes, only if they have the will and the ability to work for it – I absolutely agree with Robert in this matter, and not because their father is Robert Ghanem, a well-known politician, or because lskander Ghanem their grandfather, was an important general in the army. Many people say that in a few years time, my eldest son Alexander will carry on his father’s career and I always answer «not necessarily».
You talked about their father being a political man. Wouldn’t you say that you work in politics too? I don’t work in politics, I work nearby or next to politics. And it has always been like this since I was working for L’Orient Le Jour and even now, working with my husband, I never get involved in politics, I only work next to it.
Do you think you can find friendship in politics? Are there any politicians’ wives who are your friends? Viviane: Well, in fact, many of my friends aren’t politicians or related to politics. I think of all my old friends who are still my very close friends and are not involved in politics. But on the other hand, we do have friends that are politicians. For example, Marwan Hamade is a very close friend and I knew him long before he started in politics. And we have, of course, many acquaintances and social relations.
Robert: Being a politician doesn’t mean that all my friends should be from politics. Many of my friends are not politicians and many are, and not because I have an ulterior motive in being their friend. In fact, it is quite difficult to make the difference between real friends and people who want to get close to you just because you can be useful to them. And my last experience taught me many things on this matter, helped me be more realistic and helped me to find out who my real friends were. I particularly learned to use my brains more than emotions. It was a very hard experience, but a very enriching one too because it made me see things I never noticed before and made me be more conscious about many things.
Would you like to talk a little more about that experience? Well as you know, I was a candidate for the elections and I failed. After a while, I started to realise and to believe, that the elections took place in conditions that were not very clear and that I had been a victim of an unfair scheme. I am conscious of my being very well known in the country and I never needed to win the election and become an MP to enhance my reputation. My reputation remains intact. Besides, being an MP has never been my first goal. I only perceive it as a way to serve my country and the people of my country, as my father did before me. And I believe I am capable of serving, as an MP, but also without being an MP and I will never stop serving my country. And when I was certain that something had been conspired to cause my failure, I worked to fix the whole thing up.
Viviane: I’d like to say how pleased I was to see all the friends and people who came to see us and support us during this difficult time. People soon forget the failure of a candidate in the elections but in the case of Robert it was different, and many people came from the Bekaa and from outside the Bekaa to show their faithfulness and give us their support.
The error was corrected but you didn’t get the chance to fight the elections a second time as your opponent withdrew. Why? He didn’t get the support he needed. But I would have preferred to repeat the process the right way.
Can you tell us if you are going to be a candidate in the presidential elections? It’s too early to answer your question, I promise to answer it later. But what I’d like to say is that when I left France I gave up many things, I was fulfilled and living at ease. I decided to come back to do what I didn’t have the chance to do during the war. Then your voice wasn’t heard unless you had a rifle and I was against this. My goal was serving my country and I didn’t even plan to become a minister or MP. I believe that from any given position, one can serve his country very well. Interview conducted by Bariaa Sreih for Prestige.