Despite being targeted by a bomb attack in which she lost an arm and leg, political TV journalist May Chidiac, a staunch critic of Syria, remains defiant and is back presenting for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation.
May Chidiac was the first woman to be targeted in a long list of attacks against prominent Lebanese figures, including the killing of Brigadier General Francois Hajj, tipped to be head of Lebanon’s army, on 12 December 2007. The assassination attempt on Chidiac took place in the aftermath of the Cedar Revolution – the national movement that triggered the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon in April 2005. A 1kg bomb made from plastic explosions was placed under the seat of her Range Rover. The attackers detonated it as she got into the car, blowing off her left leg below the knee, and setting her clothes on fire. Her severely injured left arm would later have to be amputated.
A critic of Syria and supporter of the pro-western 14 March parliamentary majority, she gained international support after the attack, receiving several awards. Eight months into recovery in Europe, Chidiac announced on the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) that she would resume her job as a journalist.
On 12 July 2006, the day before the war between Israel and Hezbollah erupted, Chidiac returned triumphantly to Lebanon. She has also published a book in France, Le Ciel m’attendra... (“Heaven Can Wait”), which tells the story of her attack and recovery. A hero for some, her opinions continue to provoke and keep her in the spotlight.
Monocle: In the long spate of attacks on prominent Lebanese politicians and journalists, you are the only woman to have been targeted and one of only two people to have survived. How does this make you feel?
May Chidiac: Quite against my will, I have become a kind of symbol, a living martyr. A colleague at LBC even said I was a Lebanese Joan of Arc. But being a symbol is a heavy burden to bear on one’s shoulders. Many people would rather have me step down from public life and keep quiet, and that includes those who tried to kill me. They realise I have become more dangerous alive than dead. The impact I have now is stronger. That is why they are constantly at war with me and the ideas I defend. Only a few days ago, a high-ranking general, in jail for his presumed involvement in the Hariri [Rafik Hariri, former prime minister, killed in 2005] assassination, found a way to threaten me from his prison cell.
M: Do you take security precautions?
MC: Even if I do not feel safe, I cannot live in constant fear. Whatever the situation, I must feel independent. There is an Arabic proverb that says, “If you are already drenched in water, you cannot be afraid of getting wet.” I have already lost half of my body, what else can happen? As for security measures, there are ISF [Internal Security Forces] soldiers on duty outside my house and I have two guards, but I consider them to be more like helpers.
M: You are famous for being concerned about how you look – even just after the attack.
MC: I have a prosthetic leg with an arched foot and artificial toes, which lets me wear 6.5cm high-heels. It’s unique in the world. The doctors said it was impossible without a real knee. I told them the word impossible is not part of my vocabulary. It helps me be myself again.
M: How dangerous is it to be a journalist in Lebanon?
MC: I have always been known for being outspoken. I have always defended a free Lebanese state at the expense of objectivity. I am not a foreign journalist. I am implicated in what is going on. But I’ve never intentionally risked my life. During the civil war, I never went on the Green Line for instance and I would never go in areas where people were known to be kidnapped. And even though I had already been threatened, I always thought it was just intimidation. I never thought they would actually attack a woman. By placing a bomb under my car, I became a pioneer. Through me, I think they were sending a message to the LBC and the Lebanese media in general; they were telling them to keep silent.
M: Is it impossible then for a journalist to be neutral in this country?
MC: Neutrality does not exist in this country. For the past 30 years, Lebanon has been at war. How can we be impervious to this? It is impossible. The cause I defend is Lebanon. The second cause I defend is the presence of Christians in Lebanon. The Christians are what make this country different from all the other Arab states. By defending the Christians, I am not only defending a minority, I am defending a certain vision of Lebanon. We are a country with a mixed culture. I cannot live without my Muslim friends and they say the same about me.
M: You’ve always criticised Syria’s interference in Lebanon’s affairs. Will Lebanon ever be able to set itself free?
MC: Unfortunately, we are a small country that can’t resist regional and international forces. But when international interest is in our favour, we can benefit. This was the case when France and the US supported UN Resolution 1559 asking for the complete withdrawal of Syria’s army from Lebanon. But this was not always the case. In 1990, in exchange for Syria’s symbolic military support against Iraq in the first Gulf War, the US gave it carte blanche in Lebanon under the condition the country would remain calm. It was only post September 11 that things changed. After France’s refusal to support America’s military action in Iraq, the two countries made peace over Lebanon. The result was resolution 1559.
M: What is international support like now?
MC: Everything has changed again. While Lebanon has been delaying the appointment of a new president, the Americans have held talks in Annapolis. Suddenly, they have changed their policy of isolating Syria and are trying to force stability on Lebanon at any cost. The Americans stopped supporting the pro-western forces in the country that asked for presidential elections to go through a majority vote. France is following suit. President Sarkozy is trying to distance his foreign policy from that of Chirac’s. His foreign minister Bernard Kouchner is putting a lot of effort into getting Lebanon’s various parties to agree with each other, but you can’t deal with a political crisis as you would a humanitarian one. All along, Syria has been counting on the time factor, and it looks like they are going to win after all. The West thinks it can get Syria to turn away from Iran but Syria’s alliance with Iran is much stronger. I am afraid that once again, we will be left to our own fate.
M: So you’re not optimistic about the future?
MC: By nature I’m an optimist. But it looks like we are going to be the big losers. I have a feeling that politics will interfere with the investigation into the long list of assassinations that have rocked the country. A few political figures in Syria will be incriminated but the people at the top will be protected. The [Syrian] president will sacrifice some of his officers to save the regime. Many will be content with these findings but not me. What is important is not to judge the executors, but those who gave the orders.
M: How do you view Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese politics?
MC: They pretend to speak for Lebanon’s Shiites, but in fact they are crushing them. Hezbollah calls itself “the Islamic resistance in Lebanon” – they don’t consider themselves Arabs but Iranians. Hezbollah has received an estimated $20bn (€13.6bn) from Iran in the past 20 years. With that, they are buying up land and arms. No one dares oppose them. We are too afraid of a conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. The Shiites are helped by Iran; the Sunnis are helped by Saudi Arabia; and the Christians? All they get are prayers from the Vatican and that’s not enough. I don’t want my country to become an Islamic republic.
M: The Americans tried to broker a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians in Annapolis. How important do you think this is to Lebanon?
MC: Each time a US president nears the end of his term, he decides to hold a peace summit between Palestinians and Israelis, to leave a good impression. Whether we want it or not, as long as the Palestinian question is not settled, there will be instability in Lebanon. We are the weakest link. The rights of Palestinians are always fought from Lebanon. And why not from the Golan? Syria has always made war on Israel through Lebanon. That’s what we want to stop.
1963: Born in Beirut.
1984: Starts working as a radio journalist before joining Lebanon’s national television service.
1985: Becomes a news anchor for the LBC, known for its anti-Syrian stance.
2005: Loses her left arm and leg and severely burnt after a targeted car bomb attack. She undergoes a year of intensive surgery in Europe before returning to Lebanon.
2006: Returns to LBC to host a weekly political TV show, the aptly titled Bikol Joraa (“With Audacity”).