Lebanese political and military leader Bashir Gemayel (1947-1982) served as the commander for the Lebanese Forces and, in 1982, was elected president of Lebanon. However, the charismatic yet ruthless Gemayel was assassinated only days before he was scheduled to assume office. During his rise to power, he established a covert relationship with Israel that led to that country's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He also served as an informant for the United State's Central Intelligence Agency.
Bashir Gemayel was born into political power. His father was Sheikh Pierre Gemayel, a founder and main leader of the Lebanese Phalange (al-Kataeb alLubnaniah), the paramilitary organization that became a potent political force in Lebanon's national affairs. But because he was his family's youngest child among six children, Bashir Gemayel was not expected to rise to a position of prominence and power. Rather, it was anticipated that his brother, Amin, would precede him. However, by the time he was thirty-four years old, the charismatic Gemayel had defied expectations to become one of the most important leaders in Lebanon's history. In 1982, he became president of the country. Despite realizing an ambition that, at that point, had eluded both his father and his brother, he never served in that role as he was assassinated before he had a chance to assume office.
Bashir Gemayel was born on November 10, 1947 in Bikfaya, Lebanon, a mountain village near Beirut. He had four sisters and an older brother, Amin. The organization that their father founded, the Lebanese Phalange, was a right–wing organization that was primarily supported by Maronite Christians, even though it was officially considered secular. Its vision included the establishment of a strong Lebanese state.
While growing up, Bashir Gemayel benefited from an excellent education. He completed his primary and intermediate studies at Notre–Dame de Jamhour, a leading educational institution in Lebanon, and his secondary studies at the Lebanese Modern Institute. In 1962, he joined the Kataeb party and became a member in the Kataeb Student Section. He later attended Saint Joseph University in Beirut and received degrees in law and political science. While attending the university, he taught intermediate– and secondary–level civil education at the Lebanese Modern Institute for three years (1968–1971).
Rise to Power
Gemayel's rise to power began in the early 1970s. Relatively young but politically shrewd, he engineered a swift ascent through the ranks of the right–wing Phalange organization. He had a strong base within his country's Maronite Christian community, and he was able to use this to his advantage. Lebanon was an unevenly divided country, and its Muslim population outnumbered the Christian segment. Even so, the country's political system tended to favor the Christians, a situation established as far back as 1943, when Lebanon's National Pact established the modern state as a sectarian democracy with a Christian president and a parliament comprised of more Christians that Muslims.
The decade started off in grim fashion for Gemayel when, in 1970, Palestinian militants kidnapped him from Dekwaneh to the Tal el–Zaater camp. He was released, however, after eight hours. On a better note, that same year, he was invited to Egypt to meet Khaled Abdul–Nasser, the son of President Jamal Abdul–Nasser.
In 1971, he was appointed inspector in the Kataeb Regular Forces, the para–military branch of the Kataeb party. That same year, he traveled to the United States to take a law course. In 1972, he received a degree from the American and International Law Academy in Plano, Texas. During the early 1970s, when he worked in a Washington, D.C. law firm, he was recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to be an informant. At first, Gemayel served the CIA on a straight exchange basis, providing information for money. However, when Gemayel later took charge of the Maronite militia in 1976, his importance to the CIA substantially grew and his payments increased. (Later, during the administration of Ronald Reagan, Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon urged President Reagan to authorize $10 million in covert aid to Gemayel's militia).
During this period, Gemayel, who become a member of the bar association, opened a law office in West Beirut, which operated from 1972 to 1975. In 1973, Gemayel was appointed to be political director of the Phalange office in Ashrafieh. In 1974, he established the “B.G.” squad, which became a core faction of the Lebanese Forces. Comprised of university students, the squad sought to address the dangers posed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been setting up armed barricades and kidnapping and attacking civilians.
In 1976, the Maronite forces staged a siege at Tel al– Zaater, a Palestine refugee camp set up in East Beirut. The battle and aftermath would propel Gemayel to national prominence. During the siege, Gemayel became deputy commander of the Phalange militia. Then, on July 13 of that year, he was promoted to the position of chief of the militia's military council after previous leader William Hawi was killed in the Tal el–Zaater battle. The refugee camp eventually fell. The Christian militias recognized the need for a unified front. Gemayel met with Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt to unify the Lebanese ranks to forestall an increased presence of the Syrian army in Lebanon. Afterward, Gemayel became head of the joint command council of the newly united Lebanese Forces, which had combined the Maronite militias.
As events continued unfolding, renowned Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward (who gained fame when he teamed with fellow reporter Carl Bernstein to break the story of the Watergate break–in in Washington, D.C.) described Gemayel as “a baby–faced ruthless warlord,” as recorded in The Cold War, 1945–1991. The colorful description indicated the harsh tactics Gemayel deployed in his rise to power: he sometimes dispatched opposition by having his rivals killed. In this way, he became the top Maronite figure. Attacks on his enemies could be particularly vicious. In June of 1978, when Gemayel attacked the home of Tony Frangieh, a Christian leader and son of former Lebanese president Suleiman Frangieh, he reportedly slaughtered the rival along with his family and servants.
During the period, Gemayel also worked on strengthening his relationships with the United States and Israel. Both countries considered him an “asset” in the Middle East, as he was a Christian leader in a Muslim part of the world. Further, they supported his aim to modernize Lebanon, no matter the cost. “We have not spilled the blood of thousands of young men in order to move backward,” Gemayel told Israeli and U.S. leaders, from The Cold War, 1945–1991.
In 1978, the Syrian army arrested Gemayel in Sassine Square, but only held him for a short period. That same year, he launched the “100 days war” against Syrian forces that had attacked Ashrafieh and Ain el–Remaneh. Also in 1978, Gemayel's first daughter, Maya, was born (he had married Solange Toutoungi the previous year).
At the time, Gemayel continued strengthening his relationship with Israel. This relationship was a covert one, and Gemayel's primary objective was to use it to rid his country of Syrian militia and PLO guerillas. In turn, Israel supported Gemayel in his efforts to reorganize and build up the Phalange militia. The militia was Gemayel's power base, and it bolstered his political position within Lebanon.
Daughter Killed in Assassination Attempt
In 1980, Gemayel's daughter Maya was killed by a car bomb that had been intended for him (he and his wife later had another daughter, Youmna, and a son, Nadim).
In July of that year, Gemayel struck against another rival. His militia initiated a surprise attack on the Tigers of Dany Chamoun, an oppositional Christian militia faction. Chamoun was the son of a former Lebanese president Camille Chamoun. During the attack, eighty soldiers were killed, along with Chamoun. Gemayel then offered Camille Chamoun $1 million in reparations, a move critics described as a buy–off.
Also in 1980, Gemayel unified military forces in his country's Eastern sector, which put a stop to the military strife in that region. He also became a member of the Lebanese Front, an organization that enjoyed the greatest political power in the sector.
Communicated the Lebanese Cause
Gemayel returned to the United States in 1981, to visit with President Reagan and to define the Lebanese cause, which Gemayel had already been advancing through Radio Free Lebanon, a media outlet he established in 1978. He later established another radio station, Radio 102, a commercial enterprise designed to help ease the financial burdens of war.
The following year, he organized the first international conference of solidarity with Lebanon. Also, he joined the National Salvation Front, an organization that included both Lebanese Christian and Muslim leaders. He also visited Saudi Arabia to meet with foreign ministers of the Arab countries.
Assassinated after Presidential Election
In an interview with ABC television on July 9, 1982, Gemayel explained his vision and purpose as leader. “We are looking for the liberation of our country. We are looking that all the foreigners get out—Syrians, Palestinians and Israelis and even UNIFIL—we don't need any foreign, armed presence in this country. As Lebanese, as a strong central government, as a strong central army, as once again the nation reunited, we will take care of the security of our own country. We don't need anybody in this country, and [PLO leader Yassir] Arafat should understand that.”
His statement was in part contradictory, as it essentially denied the covert relationship he had established with Israel. A month earlier, on June 6, 1982, Israel had finally responded to Gemayel's previously expressed wish: It invaded Lebanon to wage war against the PLO within his country. The invasion virtually secured Gemayel's chances of becoming president of the Lebanese Republic. Indeed, on August 23, 1982, the Lebanese parliament elected him president.
However, only eight days before he would assume office, Gemayel was assassinated in a bomb blast on September 14, 1982. The explosion occurred as he was making a speech at the Phalange party headquarters in Ashrafieh. Now the president–elect of his country, Gemayel would have to resign his party post, and he wanted to express his thanks to the organization as well as offer an official farewell.
The bomb, an electronic device, was detonated from outside the building, in an East Beirut neighborhood called Nasrah, located almost a mile from Ashrafieh. It was later determined that the assassination was accomplished by Syrian agents who objected to Gemayel's aim to force Syrian troops out of Lebanon.
The bomb, which was comprised of 450 pounds of dynamite, was planted and detonated by Habib Tanous Chartouni, a twenty–six–year–old Lebanese who was a member of the National Syrian Socialist party and an operative for Syrian intelligence. He had planted the bomb the night before Gemayel's speech, in a room on the building's second floor, right above the central meeting hall.
Chartouni had little problem planting the bomb, as he used to live in an apartment in the building. Further, his family, who still resided there, had close ties with the Gemayel family. Chartouni's uncle served as a bodyguard for Gemayel's father. As such, Chartouni was a familiar figure in the area. Reportedly, the blast, which could be heard for miles, destroyed the three–story building. Twenty–six people were killed and more than a hundred were wounded. Gemayel's body was so badly disfigured that it took hours before his death could be officially announced.
Following Gemayel's assassination, his brother Amin Gemayel became president of Lebanon. He was elected the same month that his brother was killed and served until September 1988. During his tenure, Amin Gemayel downgraded the relationships his brother had established with Israel and the United States. For the most part, his administration was an ineffective one and, when his tenure as president ended, he left the government with a significant internal division.
While Bashir Gemayel was a ruthless leader and ambitious politician, his presidency did achieve certain advances for his nation, particularly in the area of civil infrastructure. He employed the Lebanese Forces to establish and maintain public services in the areas of water, electricity, highways, garbage collection and social relief. Along with establishing two radio stations, Bashir Gemayel set up a non–commercial television station in 1980 (LBC) that served as a national, educational and cultural media outlet. He also created Help Lebanon, a group focused on helping children and alleviating the consequences of war, and the Gamma Group, designed to help build a modern state in all national sectors. In 1982, he helped create the Lebanese Cultural Association, which focused on intellectual and artistic matters; the Ashrafieh Merchants Committee, to help revive economy and trade; and the Ashrafieh Festival Committee, which organized fairs and exhibitions and encouraged artistic activities.
Bashir Gemayel was survived by his wife and two children.
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