Bachir Gemayel was president of Lebanon for 21 days, until he was assassinated almost exactly 40 years ago.
He was, however, Lebanon’s most important president because for large groups of the Lebanese he was a dream and the embodiment of the promise of the modern state of Lebanon that was established a century ago in 1920.
But for other large groups of Lebanese he was a nightmare and the manifestation of an insoluble problem at the core of the modern state.
The division of the groups is largely sectarian. The vast majority of those who see Bachir Gemayel as a dream are the Christian Maronites, the closest Eastern Christians to the Roman Catholic Church. The vast majority of the people who regard him as a nightmare are Muslims.
Yet, the lines blur, and there are those of opposite religions, and without any religion, who cross to the other camp and see him as a president who could have moved Lebanon beyond the decay and blood of the past 40 years of the country’s history.
Blood featured heavily in Bachir Gemayel’s story, and he was a leader of a militia that was accused of a number of the most horrendous massacres of the Lebanese Civil War.
For his admirers, however, he was not merely a warrior. He was a saviour.
In the early 1970s, large groups of Palestinian fighters were expelled from Jordan following the 1970 “Black September” battles between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Jordanian armed forces and came to Lebanon. The fighters joined tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees who had been in the country since the 1948 War.
For many in Lebanon, especially the country’s Christians, the influx threatened Lebanon’s delicate demographic and social balance.
The threat seemed particularly grave because the Palestinian leadership found an ally in Kamal Jumblatt, the preeminent Lebanese Druze leader of the time and one of Lebanon’s most sophisticated 20th-century minds. The meeting between the Palestinians and Jumblatt and behind him an array of socialist forces was for most Lebanese Christians a tsunami that could wipe out their special position in Lebanon.
The Maronites, the followers of Mar Maron, one of the most intriguing monks in the entire history of Eastern Christianity, felt compelled to act. They had for centuries been largely farmers in Mount Lebanon, most of them under the authority of Druze clans.
The situation changed in the 17th and 18th centuries when demographic trends and successive revolts altered the power dynamics in Mount Lebanon in favour of the Maronites. But the greatest momentum behind Maronite power came from Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Mohamed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, who took control of the entire Levant in the 1830s. Throughout that decade he made a Maronite leader, Bachir Al-Shihabi, his viceroy in Mount Lebanon.
But Maronite power remained contested. Mount Lebanon witnessed acute violence in the second half of the 19th century, and by the end of World War I it had become clear that France, which had come to control the entire Levant, was keen to establish order by creating sectarian-based statelets in the region.
It was the Maronite Church, however, along with a select group of Sunni Muslim families from Beirut, that lobbied France for the creation of a national state. Modern Lebanon came into existence in 1920.
The new state’s key positions were distributed between the Maronites and Sunni and Shia Muslims, with a special position reserved for the Druze. But from its beginning, modern Lebanon was a Maronite project, and it gave rise to Lebanon’s golden age during the 1950s and 1960s, especially after liberal, cosmopolitan Egypt was coming to an end after the fall of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952.
Lebanon emerged as the centre of free Arab media, the financial hub of the region, the birthplace of the most daring art and culture in the entire Arab Mashreq, and the destination in the region for entertainment of every sort.
For the vast majority of Maronites, this Lebanon – a project that encompasses diversity but that is anchored on the Maronite view of Lebanon as the core of Eastern Christianity – was under threat because of the influx of tens of thousands of Palestinians. It was aggravated because Yasser Arafat, the then leader of the PLO, was establishing himself as the de facto ruler of large parts of the country, and Jumblatt was determined to transform Lebanese politics by ending the supremacy of the Maronites and the “Christian Right” as it was then called.
This was the moment when Bachir Gemayel rose to power. He organised his followers, attracted thousands of young Christian Lebanese around him, obtained funds and arms from near and far, and fought tenaciously and brutally to promote his cause. The blood that was spilled as a result included that of many Christian Maronites, particularly those from rival political dynasties. He was, in a slight distortion of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea, a perfect example of the “will to power.”
However, for many Bachir Gemayel’s most memorable decision was to ally himself with Israel. Perhaps he and the Christian Maronite leaders of the time who supported him felt they had no other option. They felt they were facing an existential threat, and indeed at one moment in 1976-1977 Jumblatt, supported by Palestinian forces, was on the verge of dealing the Maronites and the Christian Right a devastating defeat.
It was only the categorical refusal of then Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad to allow such a defeat to take place that gave the Christian Right another chance in the fight.
Bachir Gemayel seized the opportunity that Syria had provided him, but he calculated that Israel could help him more. He became the political darling of then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and a close friend of future Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. It was Bachir Gemayel’s alliance with Israel that spearheaded the latter’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which ended the presence of the PLO in the country and secured him the Lebanese presidency.
Many who worked closely with Bachir Gemayel say that he intended to enforce the withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian forces from Lebanon, to strengthen the institutions of the state by eliminating all the militias including the one he had himself set up, and to forge a new governing structure for the country, one that would reconcile all Lebanese to the notion of a unified state.
Perhaps he did indeed intend to do these things. But his rule did not last long enough for these intentions to be translated into facts on the ground.
Interestingly, outside Lebanon Bachir Gemayel was then quickly dispatched to the margins of history. Even in Israel, although Sharon continued to consider him as a dear friend, Lebanon-focused analysts at Israel’s external intelligence agency Mossad held derogatory views of his character.
Inside Lebanon, however, Bachir Gemayel lives on as a symbol. For some, he is an icon of the Maronite presence and determination to sustain their understanding of the idea of modern Lebanon. For others, he symbolises a quintessentially narrow identity that could never be reconciled with those of the other major communities living in the country.
Symbols matter, because they shape people’s collective psyche. But symbols also distort history. This is particularly problematic in Lebanon because the inherent sectarian tensions and opposing views about the essence of the Lebanese project, the Lebanese idea, remain not far beneath the surface and the decay of the state over recent decades.
Liberating Bachir Gemayel’s legacy from the symbols and legends surrounding him, and subjecting it to serious assessment, could be the beginning of forging a new understanding among all Lebanese of their history over the past 40 years.
Blurring emotions into false historicity will only propagate the confinement of the Lebanese psyche into conflicting narratives of imagined versions of the past. The result would be a clash of identities that could ultimately seek diverging futures.
The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.