Letter from the Levant: Amin Gemayel Says His Family's History "Runs Parallel to Lebanon's"

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LETTER FROM THE LEVANT: Amin Gemayel Says His Family's History "Runs Parallel To Lebanon's"

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

Amin Gemayel was elected president of Lebanon on Sept. 23, 1982, thus coming to power in the midst of the Israeli siege of Beirut and the height of Lebanon's bloody civil war. A Maronite notable from the village of Bikfayya, Gemayel was born in 1942 and earned a law degree from St. Joseph University in Beirut in 1965. Five years later he became the youngest deputy in the Lebanese parliament. Unlike other members of his immediate family, however, he was not associated with the early years of the civil war.

Amin's father, Pierre Gemayel, was the most prominent Maronite leader of his generation. The elder Gemayel, or Sheikh Pierre as he was customarily called in Lebanon, established in 1936 a left-wing pan-Maronite political party called al-Kataeb al-Lubnaniyya (the Lebanese Phalange). He served as a government deputy and minister almost continuously from the time of the French Mandate until his passing in 1984.

Two years prior to Sheikh Pierre's death, leadership of the party and of the Maronite community had passed to his son Bashir. The young man spearheaded the anti-Palestinian movement in Lebanon during the early war years, led an armed battle against the Syrians and, in 1982, collaborated with Ariel Sharon's invading forces, in the hope that Israel would put an end to the Syrian-PLO presence. With Israeli endorsement and overwhelming Maronite support, Bashir was elected president of Lebanon in August 1982. On Sept. 14, however, shortly before he was to assume his duties, Bashir was assassinated at Kataeb Party headquarters in Beirut's Ashrafieh district. His brother, Amin, considered by many to be a moderate, was elected to succeed him.

Amin Gemayel ruled Lebanon from 1982 to 1988, battling the traditional enemies of the Maronite community. On May 17, 1983, he signed a peace treaty with Israel that never was implemented. Coming to blows with Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad over the proposed peace with Israel, Gemayel declared in September 1983 that Syrian forces, invited in by an earlier Maronite leadership in 1976 as the main component of an Arab peacekeeping force, no longer were welcome in Lebanon. His request, however, fell on deaf ears in Damascus.

In March 1984, Gemayel dissolved the Arab League mandate for security troops in Lebanon, and had all Arab forces--except for the Syrians--evacuated. Fifteen minutes before his term as president ended, Gemayel appointed as prime minister Gen. Michel Aoun, the Maronite chief of staff and archenemy of Syria. Aoun clashed with the Syrian-backed civilian cabinet of Lebanon's new president, Salim al-Hoss, and Gemayel went off into exile.

In 1989, the former Lebanese leader joined Harvard University's Center for International Affairs and began to write books and lecture about his years as president. Among his books on Lebanon the most well-known are Meditations d'Espoir (1990) and Rebuilding Lebanon's Future (1992). Gemayel spent the 1990s coordinating, sometimes unwillingly, the anti-Syrian movement with fellow exile General Aoun. Following the death of Hafez Al-Assad in June 2000, he was invited to return home after 12 years of banishment.

In an Aug. 2 interview in his ancestral Mt. Lebanon village of Bikfayya during which he discussed his past and hopes for the future, President Amin Gemayel recounted the civil war's most complex moments. "The last meeting I had with President Assad," he said, "took place on Sept. 21, 1988, 48 hours before the end of my tenure as president. I visited Damascus to deal with the presidential crisis."

According to the National Pact, a 1943 gentleman's agreement regarding the division of power in Lebanon, the prime minister always would be a Sunni Muslim, and the president of the Republic a Maronite. In 1988, that rule, in place for nearly 50 years, was at risk of being broken. …