Lebanon News

The president who never was: Bachir

Editor’s note: Ahead of the 2014 presidential election, this is the seventh in a series of articles examining the circumstances and conditions that shaped the elections of Lebanon’s 12 presidents since 1943.

BEIRUT: Elected in 1982, while most of Lebanon was under Israeli occupation, controversial leader Bachir Gemayel is the only Lebanese presidential candidate to have been assassinated before he could be sworn in.

Born in 1947 to Pierre Gemayel, the founder of the Christian Kataeb Party, Bachir rose to prominence with the start of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War.

The fighting pitted the Kataeb, Camille Chamoun’s National Liberal Party and other Christian groups against the Lebanese National Movement, a coalition of leftist, mainly Muslim groups allied to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Young and charismatic, the Université Saint Joseph law student used force to unite most Christian armed groups under the command of the Lebanese Forces, which he founded in 1976. He was known for his hard-line stances, which were manifested in his opposition to the presence in Lebanon of Palestinian armed groups and refugees as well as Syrian troops.

The candidacy of Gemayel, officially announced in July 1982 but hinted at several months earlier, was viewed as highly provocative by the Syria-backed LNM and other Lebanese groups, which saw him as an Israeli imposition. He was the sole candidate in the election.

Gemayel had previously been part of an alliance that invited Syria into the country in 1976 to quell fighting, but by the late ’70s, Lebanon’s southern neighbor had become his main ally instead. On June 6, just a month before he announced that he would run, Israel invaded Lebanon, with soldiers reaching the outskirts of Beirut a week later.

“The candidacy of Bashir Gemayel is an act of defiance, it is the candidacy of Israeli artillery and tanks. It would have been better for Israel to just appoint him in Baabda as the governor of Lebanon or help him stage a coup to kick out all Palestinians and arrest and execute all patriotic people,” said Walid Jumblatt, then leader of the LNM.

But Edmond Rizq, a former Kataeb MP hailed Gemayel as a “charismatic leader who will fulfill the Lebanese youth’s aspiration for a unified Lebanon.”

Rizq said the fact that Gemayel was also backed by non-Christian leaders such as MP Majid Arslan made his election a national event.

In his book, “A History of Modern Lebanon,” historian Fawwaz Traboulsi explained that Gemayel knew about the Israeli invasion ahead of time and claimed that one of its goals was to make him president.

Many Lebanese were full of hope that, if elected, Gemayel would be able to free Lebanon from all foreign armies and put an end to seven years of deadly fighting that had left many parts of the country in tatters.

This feeling was bolstered by the conciliatory tone Gemayel resorted to during his election campaign, in which he emphasized Muslim-Christian coexistence and working for all “10,452 square kilometers” of Lebanon.

In an interview with French daily Le Monde, Gemayel said that once elected, he would work swiftly and firmly to liberate Lebanon from both the Syrian and Israeli armies.

After over two months of an Israeli siege and the brutal bombardment of West Beirut, where PLO leadership, forces and civilians were trapped, a U.S.-brokered agreement was reached on Aug. 18 stating that Palestinian armed groups and PLO leaders, including Yasser Arafat, would leave the country under the supervision of multinational forces.

On Aug. 23, two days before the PLO evacuation was to begin, Parliament held an election session in the Military Academy in Fayyadieh, east of Beirut, which was under Israel occupation. Initially postponed, Speaker Kamel Asaad managed to resist Syrian pressure to cancel the session completely.

The Christian parties were faced with the duel challenge of achieving a quorum and garnering enough votes for Gemayel amid fierce opposition to his candidacy by the LNM.

“He got them by intimidation, terror and buying MPs’ votes, his campaign directors acknowledged,” according to Traboulsi. Albert Mansour, an LNM MP who did not attend the session, confirmed this in his book “The Demise of a Republic.”

Following years of war and the deaths of several ministers, however, Parliament was depleted, and Asaad came up with a temporary legal intervention allowing the quorum to be two-thirds of the 93 MPs present rather than two-thirds of the usual 99 MPs.

“This made the quorum 62 rather than 66. ... The quorum decreased by one every time an MP died,’ Mansour wrote. As a result, he explained, several MPs were targeted in assassination attempts intended to boost Gemayel’s chances.

Mansour said that during a meeting with Gemayel and Rizq, the latter hinted that Mansour would be kidnapped if he did not choose the party’s leader.

LF fighters even tried to prevent some MPs from leaving areas under Christian control before the day of the election to ensure that they would attend Parliament’s session.

MPs waited for many hours at the Military Academy on Aug. 23 before the quorum was finally achieved. Gemayel was elected in the second round of voting, with 57 votes. There were five blank votes and 30 MPs boycotted the election, including former Prime Minister Saeb Salam.

“The quorum of the election session was achieved after huge efforts exerted by the Lebanese Forces first, President [Elias] Sarkis second and some Lebanese financiers,” Mansour wrote.

In reaction, the West Beirut houses and offices of many MPs who elected Gemayel were torched and attacked by gunmen.

On Sept. 1, 1982, Gemayel visited Netanya in Israel to meet with Israel’s then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Traboulsi wrote that during the meeting Gemayel refused a request by the Israeli premier to start immediate negotiations and conclude a peace treaty between the two countries, asking instead for a respite of six to nine months to establish his authority.

“Upon the insistence of Begin, he conceded to an agreement to ‘normalize’ relations between the two countries. Begin still wanted a peace treaty, or else, he threatened, the Israeli army would occupy a 40-50 kilometer strip deep inside the Lebanese territory. Lebanon’s president-elect left the meeting humiliated,” wrote Traboulsi.

But Lebanon’s youngest president-elect would never be able to fulfill any of his promises; he and a score of Kataeb officials were killed on Sept. 14, 1982, when an explosion rocked the Kataeb headquarters in the Ashrafieh neighborhood of Beirut where Gemayel was chairing a meeting for party officials.

Habib Shartouni, a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party who was arrested by the LF shortly after the event, confessed to planting a bomb in the building.

While some Lebanese rejoiced when hearing the news of Gemayel’s death, others felt that an opportunity to salvage the country was gone.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 18, 2014, on page 3.




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