America’s Sept. 11 ordeal, followed by the war in Afghanistan, made world headlines during the last months of 2001. Even in the Middle East press, other events—with the exception of the Israeli atrocities in Palestine—received minor coverage, if any. Grossly under-covered and almost unnoticed was a transformation that took place in Lebanon: the election of the eloquent statesman and Phalange vice president Karim Pakradouni as president of the Phalange Party, the standard-bearer of Lebanon’s Christians, and the political defeat of former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel.
The Phalange Party was founded in 1936 by Pierre Gemayel, one of the most influential statesmen of his generation. Unlike other Lebanese political organizations, the Phalange was neither in favor of union with Syria, a common position in Muslim circles, nor was it in favor of collaboration with France. Advocating a distinct identity and political program based on pan-Lebanese solidarity, Gemayel clashed with the pro-French movement of then-President Emile Edde and the pro-Syrian movement of Beiruti chief Saeb Salam.
Following independence from France, Gemayel’s name became synonymous with that of his party, and he served as a crucial decision-maker, deputy, and minister in all administrations that ensued. When the Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975, Gemayel was vehemently opposed to having the Palestinians control the day-to-day affairs of his country, and launched a massive campaign against Yasser Arafat’s forces aimed at expunging the PLO from Lebanon. In fact, the very first shots fired in Lebanon were between Gemayel’s bodyguards and armed militias loyal to Chairman Arafat. Leading a delegation of Maronite notables to Damascus in 1976, Pierre Gemayel met with President Hafez al-Assad and secured Syrian intervention to help eradicate the PLO. When Gemayel died in 1984, leadership of the party passed to Elie Karameh, who served briefly until 1986. Real authority, however, lay in the hands of Pierre’s eldest son, Amin, who was serving as president of the Republic.
From 1986 until 1988, George Saadah, another Gemayel loyalist, assumed power of the Phalangists. In 1988, Gemayel’s tenure as president ended, and he was forced into exile. As a result, Damascus orchestrated the rise of Mounir al-Haj, a weak official with little talent or legitimacy, to become head of the Phalange. From exile, Gemayel could do little but object verbally. In the post-war period, due to weak leadership, the Phalange Party lost any real significance in Lebanon. It ceased to serve as a political outlet for the Maronites, becoming instead a colorless puppet organization loyal to the regime and Syria.
In 2000, Haj nominated himself for parliament—not on a party ticket, but on the pro-Syrian slate of Interior Minister Michel al-Murr. This outright defiance by Haj infuriated the Maronite community, which launched a vociferous campaign to ensure his defeat. Backed by Maronite elders, Pierre Gemayel, 26, Amin’s eldest son, who holds the name of his grandfather, presented his candidacy against Haj and secured victory.
Blaming the Gemayel family for his loss, Haj began to lobby against their comeback to Lebanese politics. In the summer of 2000, former President Amin Gemayel, having made his temporary peace with Damascus, returned to Beirut and declared his intention of restoring the Phalange Party to its rightful owners. Matters had changed greatly during his long exile, however, something the former president was slow to realize and who, after so many years abroad, seemed distant from Lebanon’s day-to-day intricacies. Other statesmen, having maneuvered extensively in his absence, asserted their right to party leadership. Nobody, apparently, was willing to return to Gemayel’s orbit, To his dismay, the party’s political bureau voted him off the candidature list for the party’s October elections.
On Oct. 4, Gemayel’s former adviser Karim Pakradouni, 57, was elected president of the party with 80 percent of the votes (74 of 90 ballots). Venting their anger, the Gemayels turned on Pakradouni, claiming that he was responsible for torpedoing the ex-president’s candidacy. Gemayel’s son, Metn MP Pierre, accused Pakradouni of having launched a “coup détat” against the party’s rightful leaders, adding, “All that is built on oppression and fraud will not last.”
The Gemayels and other hard-line Maronites had reason to object to Pakradouni. To the former president, Pakradouni’s main disqualification was that he was not a Gemayel. In addition, Pakradouni is a Catholic in a party predominately composed of Maronites, and is an ethnic Armenian, not a red-blooded Lebanese. Gemayel and his followers were opposed to the new leader’s soft line on Syria, and his seemingly cozy relations with the Syrian-backed administration of President Emile Lahoud. Unlike Gemayel, who held grudges against Lebanon’s Shi’i and Druze communities from his tenure as president (1982-1988), Pakradouni had good relations with all of the country’s political sects.
Amin Gemayel boycotted the Phalange elections and, when he received news of Pakradouni’s victory, dismissed them as “the biggest forgery in the history of the Phalange.” The former president announced that a legal team is preparing to file a lawsuit for the annulment of this “masquerade.”
Assuming his new duties, Pakradouni set out to build bridges with former party enemies and root out pro-Gemayel elements. In mid-October, acting on Pakradouni’s orders, the party’s politburo released a statement criticizing a political gathering at Gemayel’s residence in his native village of Bikfaya, calling the event “an attempt to sow confusion in the ranks of Phalange officials.” Without naming him, the party then slammed its former leader, saying the Bikfaya gathering involved “demogoguery” and that it worked against the politburo’s bid to base the party on institutions rather than “family allegiances.”
Pakradouni called Gemayel an “impostor” for claiming to be speaking in the name of the Phalange, then used his influence to secure an official ban for a dinner hosted by Gemayel in the town of Byblos to coincide with Lebanon’s Independence Day on Nov. 22. The invitation, Pakradouni claimed, was made in the name of the Phalange Party, and thus was a violation of the law. Lebanese authorities, who have always been at odds with Gemayel, were eager to comply and strike at a traditional enemy. “No one has the right to host a dinner, festival or celebration in the name of the Phalange,” Pakradouni and the Interior Ministry maintained, “unless the invitation comes from the official party itself.”
Gemayel snapped back, accusing the new party leader of being a “tool” of the Lahoud regime. Pakradouni responded by reviving a dormant accusation that, as president, Gemayel had pocketed millions from the purchase of helicopters for the Defense Ministry. On Sept. 19 the case was reopened and presented to Public Prosecutor Adnan Addoum, who claims that Gemayel could be brought in for questioning at any minute.
Pakradouni’s election was viewed with approval in Muslim and Arab circles—especially in neighboring Syria, which had always endorsed his leadership. Knowing that a thumbs-up from Damascus was crucial for his election, Pakradouni actively had snuggled up to Syrian authorities in recent months. As early as 1999, in fact, he had allied himself with Damascus in order to evade arrest on charges of meeting with Israeli officials in the 1980s—a serious crime punishable by death under Lebanese law.
In August, when 200 activists were arrested during the crackdown on anti-Syrian elements in Beirut, Pakradouni wrote an article in the London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat entitled, “What Is Happening in Lebanon: Is There a Secret Scenario?” In the article, he accused Syria’s archenemy, exiled former army commander Michel Aoun, and his many supporters at home, of having collaborated with Israel to undermine Syria. Pakradouni charged in another article that Lebanese Christian opposition to pro-Syrian President Lahoud is “related directly or indirectly to American and Israeli pressure.”
The summer manhunt in Beirut had threatened to boost the reputation of vocal anti-Syrian politicians like Amin Gemayel. Fearing that the events would give the former president more room to maneuver and enable him to increase his power base, Pakradouni, in his capacity as Phalange vice president, called for early party elections, and rescheduling the date from March 2002 to October 2001. Gemayel immediately condemned the decision and declared that he would boycott the elections.
A Hard-Fought Campaign
From August to October, Maronite circles were rife with pro- and anti-Gemayel campaigns. In mid-September, for example, a memorial service was held in the Christian district of Ashrafiyyieh commemorating Gemayel’s young brother, Bashir, who was assassinated before he could assume the presidency in 1982. Amid a crowd of party flags and photos of the Gemayel family trinity—Pierre, Bashir and Amin—an estimated 1,000 demonstrators chanting pro-Gemayel slogans marched to the church. Lebanese security officers, armed and in full uniform, patroled the streets to ward off any civil disturbances. Following the service, fighting broke off between pro-Gemayel and pro-Pakradouni elements, resulting in the arrest of four people and the detention of 36 others.
In his bid to appeal further to Syria and its allies, Pakradouni told an audience of well-wishers, “We shall be the party of the president, the army and the judiciary.” All three institutions are greatly under the influence of Damascus. On Oct. 22, seeking a honeymoon with Hezbollah, the new Phalange president praised the resistance’s latest attacks on the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms. Deviating from earlier Maronite rhetoric, he added, “Israel viciously attacks the Palestinians every day and is still occupying Syrian lands.”
Objecting to U.S. charges that Hezbollah is a “terrorist” organization, Pakradouni expressed his support for “the right of Hezbollah and the Islamic resistance to carry out operations” in Israel. Shortly afterward he received a delegation of senior Hezbollah clerics, who congratulated him on his new post and stressed the need for future cooperation between the Islamic resistance and the Phalange Party.
Pakradouni went one step further by holding a public ceremony to celebrate the party’s 65th birthday. Naturally, Gemayel and his followers were not invited. Instead, pro-Syrian statesmen, anti-Gemayel officials, and moderate Christians filled their seats. President Lahoud’s son, Metn MP Emile Lahoud Jr, was seated in the front row, next to Hezbollah officials, and delegates representing the Lebanese president, Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri. Addressing Lahoud’s representative, Industry Minister George Frem, Pakradouni said, “Mr. President, we call on you to adjust the gap on the Christian level and the Phalange will remain by your side.”
Is the Phalange Party dead, one wonders, or has it been resurrected? Is the new Phalange the true solution to a country with 17 religious communities, 40 percent of which are Christian? A better question might be whether Karim Pakradouni or Amin Gemayel—or neither—is the answer to Christian grievances in Lebanon. In the August interview with theWashington Report on Middle East Affairs, cited above, President Gemayel said that his “duty” would be to restore his party to the status it had enjoyed under the leadership of his father. The Phalange Party has been in paralysis, he added, because of intercommunal rivalries and Syrian intervention. “The Syrians fear the resurrection of the Phalange with someone like Amin Gemayel at its head,” Gemayel said. Under his upcoming leadership, he added, the party would symbolize“the true representatives of the people assuming their leadership role.”
In a country like Lebanon, however, who are the true representatives of the people? Is it the Maronites, the Shi’i, the Druze, the Sunnis, the Catholics—or the Syrians? As its history demonstrates, Lebanon has yet to determine the answer.
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February 2002