Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Lebanon's Phalange Party: Back from the Grave?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Lebanon's Phalange Party: Back from the Grave?

Article excerpt

America's Sept. 11 ordeal, followed by the war in Afghanistan, made world headlines during the last months of 2001. Even in the Middle East press, other events-with the exception of the Israeli atrocities in Palestine-received minor coverage, if any. Grossly under-covered and almost unnoticed was a transformation that took place in Lebanon: the election of the eloquent statesman and Phalange vice president Karim Pakradouni as president of the Phalange Party, the standard-bearer of Lebanon's Christians, and the political defeat of former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel.

The Phalange Party was founded in 1936 by Pierre Gemayel, one of the most influential statesmen of his generation. Unlike other Lebanese political organizations, the Phalange was neither in favor of union with Syria, a common position in Muslim circles, nor was it in favor of collaboration with France. Advocating a distinct identity and political program based on pan-Lebanese solidarity, Gemayel clashed with the pro-French movement of thenPresident Emile Edde and the pro-Syrian movement of Beiruti chief Saeb Salam.

Following independence from France, Gemayel's name became synonymous with that of his party, and he served as a crucial decision-maker, deputy, and minister in all administrations that ensued. When the Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975, Gemayel was vehemently opposed to having the Palestinians control the day-to-day affairs of his country, and launched a massive campaign against Yasser Arafat's forces aimed at expunging the PLO from Lebanon. In fact, the very first shots fired in Lebanon were between Gemayel's bodyguards and armed militias loyal to Chairman Arafat. Leading a delegation of Maronite notables to Damascus in 1976, Pierre Gemayel met with President Hafez al-Assad and secured Syrian intervention to help eradicate the PLO. When Gemayel died in 1984, leadership of the party passed to Elie Karameh, who served briefly until 1986. Real authority, however, lay in the hands of Pierre's eldest son, Amin, who was serving as president of the Republic.

From 1986 until 1988, George Saadah, another Gemayel loyalist, assumed power of the Phalangists. In 1988, Gemayel's tenure as president ended, and he was forced into exile. As a result, Damascus orchestrated the rise of Mounir al-Haj, a weak official with little talent or legitimacy, to become head of the Phalange. From exile, Gemayel could do little but object verbally. In the post-war period, due to weak leadership, the Phalange Party lost any real significance in Lebanon. It ceased to serve as a political outlet for the Maronites, becoming instead a colorless puppet organization loyal to the regime and Syria.

In 2000, Haj nominated himself for parliament-not on a party ticket, but on the pro-- Syrian slate of Interior Minister Michel al-Murr. This outright defiance by Haj infuriated the Maronite community, which launched a vociferous campaign to ensure his defeat. Backed by Maronite elders, Pierre Gemayel, 26, Amin's eldest son, who holds the name of his grandfather, presented his candidacy against Haj and secured victory.

Blaming the Gemayel family for his loss, Haj began to lobby against their comeback to Lebanese politics. In the summer of 2000, former President Amin Gemayel, having made his temporary peace with Damascus, returned to Beirut and declared his intention of restoring the Phalange Party to its rightful owners (see August 2001 Washington Report, p. 29). Matters had changed greatly during his long exile, however, something the former president was slow to realize and who, after so many years abroad, seemed distant from Lebanon's day-to-day intricacies. Other statesmen, having maneuvered extensively in his absence, asserted their right to party leadership. Nobody, apparently, was willing to return to Gemayel's orbit, To his dismay, the party's political bureau voted him off the candidature list for the party's October elections.

On Oct. …

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