Every September 14, a part of Lebanon commemorates the assassination of Bashir Gemayel. For 21 days in 1982, Gemayel, the leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces militia at the time, was the country’s president-elect, until he was killed in a bomb explosion. This was a pivotal event during one of the most turbulent periods of the Lebanese conflict, and its impact is still relevant today.
Commemorations are not only occasions to remember, mourn, or celebrate. They should also be vantage points from which to look back and take the measure of changes, evolutions, or setbacks. Reflecting today on a dramatic turn in Lebanon’s long war, one is able to derive lessons about permanence and change in the country.
Bashir died at 34, after a meteoric rise that took him from university activism to militia leadership to Lebanon’s presidency, thanks to a series of bold, ruthless moves. He was an anomaly of sorts: the young product of a political system in which politicians tended to be much older and, generally, inherited power upon the death of their fathers. Bashir was the son of Pierre Gemayel, the paramount leader of the Kataeb, the most important Christian political party at the time, who would outlive him.
The war allowed Bashir to circumvent tradition. He rebelled against his father and older members of the party, and his relations with his elder brother, Amin, the one most likely to inherit the Kataeb, were strained. Instead, Bashir surrounded himself with a new generation of paramilitary peers, technocrats, and middle-class adventurers, who had risen with him in the Lebanese Forces. This represented a rupture with the classical Christian—especially Maronite—pattern of dynastical elite recruitment.
The decades following his death were ones in which his epigones in the radical spectrum of Christian politics also began their own careers as rebels against the traditional political class, before coming to embody the same ossified semi-feudal system of politics that its members did.
Michel Aoun, a former army commander, is now arbitrating between two ambitious sons-in-law to determine what each will inherit of his legacy. Samir Geagea, hitherto the beneficiary of Maronite plebeian aspirations, is now presiding over the tightly-knit party structure of the Lebanese Forces with his wife and a few loyalists. And the Kataeb Party, at one time momentarily under the control of pro-Syrian figures, has re-entered the Gemayel family fold, with Sami Gemayel, Amin’s son, now the party leader. The rest of the Christian political leadership is also in full self-reproductive mode—very far from the system of meritocracy that Bashir purportedly embodied and advocated.
On the national level, Gemayel projected a desire to break with the National Pact of 1943, which put in place a political system based on consensus and power-sharing that most often led to paralysis and corruption. His preference was for a more centralized state, one that most probably would have been authoritarian and certainly Christian-led. This came after a period when he contemplated Christian separatism in his quest for communal homogeneity, and his own hegemony over Christians.
In fact, the sectarian system survived Bashir’s death, the war, and many other projects for radical change of the Lebanese system—and its flaws were amplified. This included greater autonomy for the different sects, permanent gridlock in public affairs, and the legitimatization of an armed group, Hezbollah, which replaced the Palestine Liberation Organization as the “state within a state” that Bashir had built his legend fighting against.
But the greatest irony of all was that while Bashir’s rise to power incarnated the pinnacle of Maronite political aspirations, his assassination foreshadowed, indeed initiated, the death of Maronite hegemony. It would be replaced by a new Lebanon in which the Sunnis and Shia would compete to play what had been the Maronite role.
Finally, there is a striking contrast in the regional context between 1982 and today. At the time Israel conducted what was to be one of its last major wars in the Middle East—a well-planned, wide-ranging, and lasting invasion, taking its forces into the first (and last) Arab capital it ever occupied.
The relationship between Israel’s political and military establishment and Bashir Gemayel represented the epitome of Israel’s strategy to build up alliances with countries and minorities in the broader Middle East and Africa, as a means of containing Israel’s enemies. Yet what we also know is that Lebanon’s war, and its disastrous results for Israel and part of its political leadership after the Sabra-Shatila massacre, signaled the death knell for such an approach. Never again would Israel ally itself with an Arab group that might only dump or deceive it later on.
The invasion was also an Israeli attempt to reshape relations with the Palestinians to its advantage, and produce a new regime in Lebanon. This was the fulfillment of David Ben-Gurion’s and Moshe Dayan’s dream of finding a “Christian officer” with whom Israel could make peace, in that way neutralizing its northern border. But today Israel shows no inclination of repeating this experience. Indeed, 34 years after imposing the election of an Arab president, its silence is deafening amid the most important cycle of Arab upheavals since 1948.