Amin Gemayel was elected president of Lebanon on Sept. 23, 1982, thus coming to power in the midst of the Israeli siege of Beirut and the height of Lebanon’s bloody civil war. A Maronite notable from the village of Bikfayya, Gemayel was born in 1942 and earned a law degree from St. Joseph University in Beirut in 1965. Five years later he became the youngest deputy in the Lebanese parliament. Unlike other members of his immediate family, however, he was not associated with the early years of the civil war.
Amin’s father, Pierre Gemayel, was the most prominent Maronite leader of his generation. The elder Gemayel, or Sheikh Pierre as he was customarily called in Lebanon, established in 1936 a left-wing pan-Maronite political party called al-Kataeb al-Lubnaniyya (the Lebanese Phalange). He served as a government deputy and minister almost continuously from the time of the French Mandate until his passing in 1984.
Two years prior to Sheikh Pierre’s death, leadership of the party and of the Maronite community had passed to his son Bashir. The young man spearheaded the anti-Palestinian movement in Lebanon during the early war years, led an armed battle against the Syrians and, in 1982, collaborated with Ariel Sharon’s invading forces, in the hope that Israel would put an end to the Syrian-PLO presence. With Israeli endorsement and overwhelming Maronite support, Bashir was elected president of Lebanon in August 1982. On Sept. 14, however, shortly before he was to assume his duties, Bashir was assassinated at Kataeb Party headquarters in Beirut’s Ashrafieh district. His brother, Amin, considered by many to be a moderate, was elected to succeed him.
Amin Gemayel ruled Lebanon from 1982 to 1988, battling the traditional enemies of the Maronite community. On May 17, 1983, he signed a peace treaty with Israel that never was implemented. Coming to blows with Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad over the proposed peace with Israel, Gemayel declared in September 1983 that Syrian forces, invited in by an earlier Maronite leadership in 1976 as the main component of an Arab peacekeeping force, no longer were welcome in Lebanon. His request, however, fell on deaf ears in Damascus.
In March 1984, Gemayel dissolved the Arab League mandate for security troops in Lebanon, and had all Arab forces—except for the Syrians—evacuated. Fifteen minutes before his term as president ended, Gemayel appointed as prime minister Gen. Michel Aoun, the Maronite chief of staff and archenemy of Syria. Aoun clashed with the Syrian-backed civilian cabinet of Lebanon’s new president, Salim al-Hoss, and Gemayel went off into exile.
In 1989, the former Lebanese leader joined Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs and began to write books and lecture about his years as president. Among his books on Lebanon the most well-known are Méditations d’Espoir (1990) and Rebuilding Lebanon’s Future (1992). Gemayel spent the 1990s coordinating, sometimes unwillingly, the anti-Syrian movement with fellow exile General Aoun. Following the death of Hafez Al-Assad in June 2000, he was invited to return home after 12 years of banishment.
In an Aug. 2 interview in his ancestral Mt. Lebanon village of Bikfayya during which he discussed his past and hopes for the future, President Amin Gemayel recounted the civil war’s most complex moments. “The last meeting I had with President Assad,” he said, “took place on Sept. 21, 1988, 48 hours before the end of my tenure as president. I visited Damascus to deal with the presidential crisis.”
According to the National Pact, a 1943 gentleman’s agreement regarding the division of power in Lebanon, the prime minister always would be a Sunni Muslim, and the president of the Republic a Maronite. In 1988, that rule, in place for nearly 50 years, was at risk of being broken. If Gemayel left office without having secured a successor as president, presidential authority would revert to the Sunni prime minister, Salim al-Hoss.
In an attempt to avoid such an outcome, Gemayel appointed Aoun, a fellow Maronite, as prime minister. By doing so, he also violated the National Pact—in favor of the Maronites. “Syria’s stance was clear,” Gemayel recalled. “Damascus wanted us to appoint Michael Daher [a moderate ally of Syria who later became minister of education in the first Harriri cabinet] as president. Ultimately, however, I could not find common ground with President Assad on the matter. Therefore, I created a Military Council and appointed Michel Aoun as prime minister.”
The move, Gemayel insisted, was “not based on personal motives, or in regard to one person or another. It was my duty to fill this vacuum, and the choices before me were very few. It was either a national civilian government, composed of all the rival factions, or a cabinet based on one of the institutions still surviving in Lebanon [either the military or judiciary].
“A national cabinet was in fact under consideration,” the former president continued, “to be headed by either ex-President Charles Helou, deputy Pierre Helou, or Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss. Dr. Hoss was the most likely option, and I told him that a national government had to be balanced—meaning that it would include all rival factions…Shi’i militia leader Nabih Berri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and Maronite militia leader Samir Geagea. Hoss vetoed both Geagea and General Aoun.
“Not having both men, who enjoy paramount influence in Lebanese Christian circles,” explained Gemayel, “would definitely have led to a sectarian outburst within the Maronite community. It would have created a temporary alliance that would have developed into an armed insurrection. Therefore, a national government was unlikely, and I relied on the Military Council of six officers—all of whom, it must be noted, had good relations with Syria, including General Aoun himself.”
Despite Syrian objections the government was formed, and Gemayel moved on to the U.S. and Europe. “When Aoun was still here,” he added, “I had my reservations on his way of rule, and would convey my views to him either personally or through intermediaries.”
The General, as he is known in Lebanon, led a full-scale war against Syria, occupying the presidential palace at Baabda, while Hoss led a rival cabinet in Beirut. Aoun then trained his guns against his own community, and began a “war of elimination” against Geagea’s Lebanese Forces. The conflict eventually lead to a U.S.-backed Syrian campaign that brought down Aoun, and sent him into exile in Paris. Describing his relations with Aoun as always having been “shaky,” Gemayel claimed, “We are different by nature, but that never reduced the friendship that was between us.”
Gemayel then turned to the current state of sectarian politics in Lebanon. Every current “leader,” he asserted, was the creation of Syria, or came to power with Syrian endorsement. The only exceptions, he continued, were in the Maronite and Druze communities. Both groups had been historical enemies and, during the civil war years, led bloody campaigns against each other. In recent months, however, the Druze and Maronites had reconciled. Gemayel himself had made his peace with his former enemy, Walid Jumblatt, a one-time pro-Syrian chieftain who, following the passing of Hafez Al-Assad, has moved into “the opposition” (see January/Febuary 2001 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 35).
Common Cause With Jumblatt
Praising Jumblatt’s courage in speaking out and shaking off Syrian influence, Gemayel said, “The Jumblatt family is a rich and cultured one, where political and religious legitimacy are combined. The Druze community is based on one-man leadership, first by the late Kamal Jumblatt [who was assassinated by Syria in 1977], and then his son, Walid. Some elements [meaning Syria] tried recently to curtail and contain the influence of Walid Jumblatt, but they failed to do so.”
Gemayel had a different opinion of his long-time foe Nabih Berri, the one-time Shi’i militia leader and current speaker of parliament. “All he did was inherit leadership of the Amal militia from the Imam Mousa al-Sadr,” Gemayel claimed. “We cannot disregard or forget the active and effective role that Syria played in boosting his leadership, as a leader of Amal in the Shi’i community. Berri is not an historic political leader,” Gemayel concluded, “but only a successor of one who derives his influence from Syrian support.”
The former president had a similar assessment of the current strongman of Lebanese Shi’i politics, Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah, whose rise, in Gemayel’s view, “is the biggest result of Syrian-Iranian cooperation.”
As for Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community, he added, “Money politics played a fundamental role in solidifying the leadership of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Harriri, due to the suffocating economic conditions of the Sunni community.”
At the end of the day, Gemayel pointed out, all of Lebanon’s current leaders—whether Druze, Sunni or Shi’i—derive their legitimacy from Syria. Within Christian circles, however, he averred, “There is a fear of Syria, and deep caution among the emerging Maronite leaders, because of their demands for autonomy. The Syrians fear the resurrection of the Kataeb Party with someone like Amin Gemayel at its head, knowing that this would embarrass Damascus and corner its policies in Lebanon.”
It was this fear, he added, which resulted in Aoun’s exile and the imprisonment of Samir Geagea, “whose trial was political,” Gemayel alleged, and tailored to the needs of Syria. “There is pressure on the Kataeb Party and on myself,” he claimed. “I face pressure daily, and direct threats at times that hamper political maneuvering to re-create a real Maronite leadership.”
The Gemayel family, the ex-president claimed, is the legitimate and historic representative of Lebanon’s Maronite community. “This house I live in was constructed in 1540 exclusively for the Gemayel family,” he pointed out. “It is a manifestation of our roots and presentation of our rich heritage. Their history has become united with that of this country. My great-uncle Antoine Gemayel accompanied Patriarch Huwayek to the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919 as a political representative of the Maronite community. My father’s history runs parallel with that of Lebanon from 1936 until his passing in 1984, both my brother and I were presidents of Lebanon, and my son Pierre today is a deputy in parliament. We are the true representatives of this country.”
Declining to use the word “optimism” to describe his view of the future, President Gemayel noted, “There is a reality before us that cannot be ignored. Everyone, including President Bashar Al-Assad himself, recognizes that Syrian-Lebanese relations need mending. So long as he knows that, this is very assuring to us.
“For the present, that is adequate,” Gemayel continued, “since the man has only been in power for one year, and state strategies and policies cannot be changed that easily. But, so long as he recognizes it, then there is hope in mending. When you don’t recognize a problem, as was customary in the past, then there is a problem.”
Ultimately, according to Gemayel, the only solution to the Lebanese crisis would be the restoration of “legitimate” channels of dialogue within the country’s sectarian communities. This cannot be done, he argued, as long as the Kataeb face state persecution. “The Kataeb can rescue Lebanon,” he emphasized, “because it always was a party of tolerance and dialogue. In 1943, Sheikh Pierre Gemayel and [Sunni Prime Minister] Riad Bey al-Solh worked together to earn for Lebanon its independence. In November 1943 Pierre Gemayel headed the Maronite and Sunni communities as well, in a Lebanese intifada against the French Mandate.”
By curtailing the Kataeb, he lamented, “the Christian political scene has lost its honest, brave, and legitimate speaker. By losing that, we in Lebanon have lost dialogue. By losing dialogue, we lost confidence in one another and in ourselves. We must restore confidence to the Lebanese, and this cannot be achieved unless the true representatives of the people assume their duties in leading them. This is the ultimate role of the Kataeb Party,” concluded former President Amin Gemayel, “and this is where I will find my future career.”
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2001