Gemayel, Pierre

views updated

Pierre Gemayel

Born on November 6, 1905 (Bifkayya, Lebanon)
Died on August 29, 1984 (Bifkayya, Lebanon)

Lebanese politician

Pierre Gemayel gave Christians within Lebanon a forceful political voice in a country dominated by Muslims. His efforts to secure his people's place in Lebanon inspired his followers to call him "the rock on which Lebanon is to be built," according to the New York Times. He helped to found the Phalange Party (also known as the Lebanese Kataeb) in 1936, with a goal of uniting Maronite Christians in order to protect them from domination by foreign or religious rivals. Under Gemayel's charismatic leadership, the Phalange Party played a significant role in winning Lebanon its independence from France. It also protected Christians during the extended Lebanese civil war of the 1970s, and dominated Lebanese politics into the 1980s.

"The Christian psychosis of fear is internalized, visceral, and tenacious. We can do nothing about it. It is the Moslems' task to reassure us."

A family of political influence

The Gemayel family had long been committed to Lebanon and was active in Lebanese politics. Since the sixteenth century, the Gemayel family had lived in the area around the Lebanese village of Bifkayya, about fifteen miles northeast of Beirut.

Pierre Gemayel grew up surrounded by strong, outspoken men. For their opposition to the Ottoman Empire's rule over their land, both Gemayel's father and uncle were sentenced to death. To escape their fate, the two fled with their families in 1914 to Mansourah, Egypt. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, and the United States, and their allies defeated the Ottoman Empire, Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies), the Gemayels returned to their Lebanese home and resumed their prominent place in the area. As a sign of his family's esteem in their community, Gemayel would later be referred to as Sheikh Gemayel. In the 2000s the Gemayel family continued to live in the house on Mount Lebanon built for their family in 1540.

The Gemayels were leaders among Lebanese Maronites, a sect of Christians. Lebanon has more than a dozen different religious communities, but the largest differences in faith are between Muslims and Christians. When World War I ended, France grouped the various populations living in Beirut and other towns along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the Bekaa Valley, and the mountainous area including Mount Lebanon into a French protectorate called Greater Lebanon. Gemayel's uncle Antoine Gemayel served as a representative of the Maronite community at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. In 1926 France created a constitution that divided political power among the various religious factions in Lebanon, declaring that the Lebanese president must be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the chamber a Shiite Muslim. Although the government shared power between these groups, it was not equal. France was a mostly Catholic country, and the Maronites in Lebanon were a sect of Catholicism, friendly toward France. Therefore the Maronites enjoyed the protection of France and the most powerful positions in the government. The division of power in the Lebanese government would become the source of much struggle during Pierre Gemayel's political career.

Gemayel was educated by Jesuits at St. Joseph University and at the French School of Medicine in Beirut, where he earned a degree in pharmacy. He worked at a hospital and at a Gemayel family-owned drug store in Beirut. Although Gemayel had concentrated on his studies and become a professional, he never lost his youthful joy in playing soccer (called football in Lebanon), and started the Lebanese Football Federation. In 1936 Gemayel represented Lebanon as an observer at the Olympics, which were held in Berlin.

Lebanese nationalism

While in Berlin, Gemayel was impressed by the nationalistic attitudes of the Germans and by the discipline of the Nazi Youth paramilitary movement and the Czech Sokol athletic movements. (Nationalism is the feeling and display of pride for one's nation.) "I was struck with admiration," Gemayel remembered of his visit, as quoted in the New York Times. "We Orientals are, by nature, an unruly and individualistic people. In Germany, I witnessed the perfect conduct of a whole unified nation." Gemayel may have been especially struck by German nationalism because nationalistic sentiment was growing in Lebanon at the time. In 1936 Lebanon negotiated a three-year period of transition, after which time France would grant it independence. Although Lebanon would not actually obtain its independence until 1943, such prospects kindled the emergence of nationalistic feelings in Lebanon.

With four friends, Gemayel founded the Lebanese Phalange Party in 1936, with the goal of developing a Lebanese nationalistic attitude, physical discipline, military expertise, and a democratic ideology among its members. The party adopted the motto "God, Family, Nation." Gemayel and his friends shaped the goals of the Phalange in an attempt to guard the freedoms of Lebanese Christians in a Middle East dominated by Muslims. Indeed, the threat seemed very real because in Beirut that year Muslims convened in a conference in Beirut and, according to Helena Cobban in The Making of Modern Lebanon, "Almost unanimously demanded the re-integration of Lebanon's Muslim districts with Syria," its neighbor to the east.

Gemayel took leadership of the Lebanese Phalange Party in 1937. For demonstrating against French rule that year he spent a brief time in prison. But his group continued to grow, and it increased its membership to thirty-five thousand by 1942. The Phalangists maintained a disciplined, tight-knit group, with regular military training near Mount Lebanon. Although the group presented its ideas as non-sectarian, the vast majority of its members were Maronites. Gemayel drew support for the party in the 1940s by championing Lebanese independence, but the Lebanese Phalange Party would remain pro-Western even as it rejected French rule. The Phalangists considered Western countries, such as Britain, France, and the United States, a source of support for defense against Pan-Arabism, or the unification of all Arab nations.

Lebanon kept the power-sharing model of government it had used under French rule when it gained its independence in 1943. The government was structured so that no one party could dominate Lebanese politics. Members of Lebanon's various religions all won seats in the government and had to form coalitions with each other in order to rule effectively. Gemayel realized that the balance of power in Lebanese government could only be tipped by a stronger party, and he worked to increase his party's membership and develop relationships with other parties. In 1951 he joined with other Maronites and Druzes (members of a Muslim sect) to form the Socialist Front. The Socialist Front suspected Lebanon's first president of corruption and called for his resignation.

By the 1950s the Phalange Party had become the largest and most powerful political party in Lebanon, with nearly forty thousand members and a trained private army. Its members were called Phalangists. The strength of the Phalange Party was rewarded in 1958. That year Egypt and Syria, having united as the United Arab Republic under President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970; see entry), encouraged a Muslim revolt in Lebanon. The Phalangists feared that the Pan-Arabism promoted by Nasser would swallow up the Christian communities in Lebanon. A civil war broke out in Lebanon, and the Phalange army fought against Muslim demonstrators and held general strikes in Beirut. To quell fears of Arab domination, the newly appointed Lebanese prime minister Rashid Karami (1921–1987) chose to lead the government with a coalition of four men of varying religious backgrounds. Two of the members, including Karami, were Sunni Muslims, while the other two members, Emil Eddé and Gemayel, were Christians. Similar to Gemayel, Eddé was well known for advocating for Christian supremacy in Lebanese governance, and much like Gemayel, he held various positions in the government including premier in 1926. Gemayel remained in the upper echelons of Lebanese government for more than two decades, and other Phalange Party members also won seats in the government. By the 1970s the Phalange Party had nearly sixty-five thousand members and an army of ten thousand men.

Palestinians provoke the Phalangists

In the 1960s about 10 percent of the Lebanese population were Palestinian refugees who had fled Israel following its independence in 1948 or after the Six-Day War in 1967. When Jordan expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1970, Lebanon became the group's headquarters. Palestinians flooded into Lebanon, overwhelming refugee camps and setting up shantytowns. The PLO irritated the Lebanese population and provoked Israel to invade Lebanon in retaliation against PLO attacks along the Lebanon-Israeli border in 1973. The private armies of various political parties, including the Phalange Party, recruited men and increased their weapons supplies in preparation for a battle to rid Lebanon of the PLO. Israel allied itself with the Phalange Party and pledged its support against the PLO and against the intervention of Syria, which had dispatched military forces to provide security during the 1967 Lebanese presidential elections.

Gemayel played a leading role in these developments in the Phalange Party, which he continued to lead. Gemayel was elected to parliament in 1960 and held cabinet positions throughout the decade. He ran for the presidency in 1964 and 1970, but never won the post. As a member of the Lebanese government, Gemayel advocated for the Lebanese army to move against the PLO, but when his pleas were rejected Gemayel prepared his party's private army to fight.

In January 1976, Gemayel and other Maronites, including former president Camille Chamoun, formed the Lebanese Front, a military arm of the Phalange Party. As civil strife continued in Lebanon, this military arm grew in strength. Gemayel's son Bashir proved himself to be a strong, charismatic leader of the Front and rose to a position of some notoriety in Lebanon. He separated the Lebanese Front from the Phalange Party and was elected to the presidency in 1982. His assassination nine days before his inauguration revealed how divided the communities in Lebanon had become. In addition to the tensions between Christian and Muslim factions in Lebanon, the leading Christian families had long feuded with each other for power. These feuds turned very bloody by the late 1970s. In 1978 the army led by Gemayel killed the head of the Franjieh family; Bashir Gemayel was targeted for retaliation, but in a bungled attempt on his life, Gemayel's two-year-old daughter was killed in 1982, and private armies of the various Christian factions battled with each other.

Gemayel's Political Legacy: His Sons

"There were always some in the Maronite community who thought that the Gemayyels [an alternative spelling of Gemayels] really aimed at replacing the many 'big families' with the rule of just one 'big family'—their own," according to Cobban. Indeed, Pierre Gemayel's two sons followed his example and rose to positions of leadership in Lebanon. Bashir Gemayel (1947–1982) was a skilled fighter and an adored leader of his men in the Phalange army. Although, in keeping with Lebanese tradition, Bashir was not groomed for public office because he was the second son, he nevertheless came to prominence in Lebanese politics as the leader of the Lebanese Front in 1976. He was considered a hero to his followers but a lunatic to his opponents. Bashir used bloody force against his enemies, and even against rival factions of his own party. He masterminded attacks against other Maronites, which drove a wedge between them in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Bashir was elected to the Lebanese presidency on August 23, 1982, but was assassinated by a pro-Syrian Maronite on September 14 before taking office.

The eldest son of Pierre Gemayel, Amin, was born on January 22, 1942, and prepared to follow in his father's footsteps. Educated as a lawyer, Amin proved himself a skillful debater and a savvy businessman. Amin won election to parliament in 1970 and developed diplomatic relations between his party and others in the government. Although a polished and sophisticated man, Amin did not possess the charisma of his younger brother. He stood in his brother's shadow as Bashir rose to power in the early 1980s. Elected to the presidency following his brother's assassination, Amin did not succeed in unifying the different parties in his government to support national projects, and he left office in 1988. After spending years in the United States and France, Amin Gemayel resumed his participation in Lebanese politics in 2000.

Though never the only "big" political family in Lebanon, the Gemayels have continued to play a significant role in Lebanese political life. Like their fathers, both the sons of Amin and Bashir Gemayel have risen to political prominence in Lebanon.

Two days after Bashir's death, the Phalangist Party nominated his older brother Amin to run for the presidency. The Los Angeles Times noted that Pierre Gemayel was the man responsible for uniting the Phalange Party and the army in support of Amin's candidacy through the "force of his personality." While his sons would eclipse his power in government, Gemayel remained a prominent figure in Lebanese politics until his death. He died of heart failure just hours after attending a cabinet meeting on August 29, 1984.

For More Information


Cobban, Helena. The Making of Modern Lebanon. London: Hutchinson, 1985.


Kempe, Frederick. "Mideast Losers? Lebanon's Christians Are Bitter at the U.S., Fearful About the Future—Discord Among Top Leaders and Rise in Population of Moslems Worry Them—But Some Vow to Fight On." Wall Street Journal (February 28, 1984): p. 1.

Kifner, John. "Lebanese Christians Bury Chief in Mountain Town." The New York Times (August 30, 1984): p. A4.

Page, Eric. "Pierre Gemayel, a Courtly Chieftain of Christians." The NewYork Times (August 30, 1984): p. A10.

Wallace, Charles P. "Lebanon's Gemayel: A Leader Looks Around, Sees No One Following." Los Angeles Times (September 22, 1985): p. 24.

Web Sites

The Lebanese Kataeb. (accessed on January 21, 2005).

Maroun, Pierre. "Dossier: Amine Gemayel." Middle East IntelligenceBulletin (February/March 2003). (accessed on January 24, 2005).

Moubayed, Sami. "Letter from Levant: Amin Gemayel Says His Family's History 'Runs Parallel to Lebanon's."' Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. (accessed on January 24, 2005).