Bachir Gemayel was President of Lebanon for 21 days, until he was assassinated almost exactly 40 years ago.
He was, however, Lebanon’s most important president - because, for large groups of the Lebanese, he was a dream, was the embodiment of the promise of the modern state of Lebanon that was established a century ago, in 1920. For other large groups of the Lebanese, Bachir was a nightmare, was the manifestation of an unsolvable problem at the core of that modern state.
The division of the groups is largely sectarian. The vast majority of those who see Bachir as a dream are Christian Maronites (the closest Eastern Christians to the Roman Catholic Church). And the vast majority of the people who regard him as a nightmare are Muslims. Yet, lines blur, and there are those of opposite religions, and without any religion, who cross to the other camp, and who see him as a president who could have moved Lebanon beyond the decay and blood of the past forty years of the country’s history.
Blood featured heavily in Bachir’s story. Bachir was a leader of a militia accused of a number of the Lebanese Civil War’s most horrendous massacres.
For his admirers, however, Bachir was not merely a warrior; he was a saviour.
In the early 1970s, large groups of Palestinian fighters were expelled from Jordan - following the 1970 “Black September” war between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Jordanian armed forces - and came to Lebanon. The fighters joined tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees who had been in the country since the 1948 war.
For many in Lebanon - especially Christians - this influx threatened Lebanon’s delicate demographic and social balance.
The threat seemed particularly grave because the Palestinian leadership found an ally in Kamal Jumblatt, the preeminent Druze leader of the time (and one of Lebanon’s most sophisticated minds in the twentieth century). The meeting between the Palestinians and Jumblatt (and behind him an array of socialist forces) was, for most Christians, a tsunami that could wipe out their special positioning in Lebanon.
The Maronites felt compelled to act. The Maronites - the followers of Mar Maron, one of the most intriguing monks in the entire history of Eastern Christianity - had, for centuries, been largely farmers in Mount Lebanon, most of them under the authority of Druze clans. The situation changed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when demographic trends and successive revolts altered power dynamics in Mount Lebanon in favour of the Maronites. The greatest momentum for Maronite power, however, came from Ibrahim Pasha. Ibrahim, the son of Mohamed Ali Pasha (the founder of modern Egypt) took control of the entire Levant in the 1830s, and throughout that decade he rendered a Maronite leader - Bachir al-Shihabi - as his viceroy in Mount Lebanon.
Maronite power remained contested. Mount Lebanon witnessed acute violence in the second half of the nineteenth century. But by the end of World War I (1914-1918) it became clear that France - which had come to control the entire Levant - was keen to establish order by creating sectarian-based statelets in the region.
It was the Maronite Church, however, along with a select of Sunni families from Beirut, that lobbied France for the creation of a national state. Modern Lebanon came to existence in 1920.
The state’s key positions were distributed between the Maronites and Sunni and Shii Muslims, with a special positioning ensured for the Druze.
However, from its beginning, modern Lebanon was a Maronite project. This gave rise to Lebanon’s golden age, during the 1950s and 1960s - especially after liberal, cosmopolitan Egypt was coming to an end, after the fall of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. This was the time in which Lebanon emerged as the centre of free Arab media, the financial hub of the region, the birthplace of the most daring art and culture in the entire Arab Mashreq, and the destination in the region for fun of all sorts.
For the vast majority of the Maronites, that Lebanon – an idea, a project that encompasses diversity but that is anchored on the Maronite view of Lebanon being the core of Eastern Christianity - was under threat with the influx of tens of thousands of Palestinians. The threat was aggravated as Yaser Arafat (then the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation) was establishing himself as de-facto ruler of wide parts of the country, and because Kamal Jumblatt was determined to utterly transform Lebanese politics through ending the supremacy of the Maronites (and of the “Christian Right” as it was then called).
This was the moment at which Bachir rose. He organised his bases, attracted thousands of young Christian Lebanese round him, sourced funds and arms from near and far, and fought tenaciously and brutally. The spilled blood included that of many other Christian Maronites, particularly from rival political dynasties. He was, in a slight distortion of Nietzsche’s original meaning, a perfect example of an “extreme will to power”.
But, for many, his most memorable decision was to ally himself with Israel. Perhaps Bachir - and the Christian Maronite leaders of the time who supported him - had no other option. They felt they were facing an existentialist threat. And indeed, at a moment in 1976/1977, Kamal Jumblatt, supported by Palestinian forces, was on the verge of dealing the Maronites and the Christian Right a devastating defeat. It was only the categorical refusal of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to allow such a defeat to take place that gave the Christian Right another chance to fight.
Bachir seized the opportunity that Syria had provided, but his calculus was that it was Israel that could help him. Bachir became a darling of then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and a close friend of future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. And it was Bachir’s alliance with Israel that spearheaded Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 - which ended the presence of the PLO in the country, and secured for Bachir the Lebanese presidency.
Many who worked closely with him say that were he to rule, he was going to enforce a withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian forces from Lebanon, was going to strengthen the institutions of the state (eliminating all militias including the one he had set up), and that he was determined to forge a new governing structure for the country, one that would reconcile all Lebanese to the notion of a unified state. Perhaps, but he did not rule.
Interestingly, outside Lebanon, Bachir was quickly dispatched to the margins of history. Even in Israel, although Ariel Sharon continued to consider him a dear friend, Lebanon-focused-analysts at the Mossad (Israel’s external intelligence agency) held derogatory views of him, especially of his character.
Inside Lebanon, however, Bachir lives on as a symbol. For some, he is an icon of Maronite presence, power, and determination to sustain their understanding of the idea of modern Lebanon. For others, he symbolises a quintessentially narrow identity that could never be reconciled with the identities of the other major communities living in the country.
Symbols matter, because they shape peoples’ collective psyche and thought. But symbols distort history. This is particularly problematic in Lebanon because the inherent sectarian tension and the opposing views about the essence of the Lebanese project, the Lebanese idea, remain there, not far beneath the decay of the state in the past few decades.
Liberating Bachir’s legacy from the symbols and legends surrounding him - and subjecting this legacy to a serious assessment - could be the beginning of forging a new understanding shared by all Lebanese about their history in the past forty years.
Blurring emotions into false historicity will propagate the confinement of the Lebanese psyche into conflicting narratives of imagined versions of the past. The result would be clashing identities that could ultimately seek diverging futures.