Pierre Gemayel

Lebanese leader Pierre Gemayel (1905-1984) founded the Lebanese Phalanges, a political and military force which he led for almost 50 years. The Phalangist Party, geared toward Lebanese Christians, focused on the need for a strong Lebanese state. Gemayel's sons both served as president of Lebanon.

Pierre Gemayel was born in 1905, in Bikfaya, a small town in the Northern Matn region of Mount Lebanon. He was a descendant of a family of local notables which in the first half of the 19th century had acquired the hereditary title of shaykh. He studied at the Jesuit St. Joseph University in Beirut, where he graduated with a degree in pharmacy from the French Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy.

During his studies and while practicing his profession he was strongly involved in athletics and especially football (soccer), for which he founded the Lebanese Football Federation. As a representative of this sport he was sent to the Olympic games in Berlin in 1936. He expressed some admiration for the discipline and the strong national identity exhibited by the Germans. During his stay in Europe he studied the Czech athletic society the Sokol (Falcon), which inspired him to establish a similar organization in Lebanon. In November 1936 Pierre Gemayel and four other prominent Lebanese—two members of each of the major political parties then, the Constitutional Bloc and the National Bloc—founded the Lebanese Phalanges.

Although the Lebanese Phalanges emphasized discipline, insisted on a strong attachment to the nation, and wore a distinctive attire, its ideology was totally opposed to fascism and totalitarianism. In fact, the Lebanese Phalanges was formed as a reaction to the emergence of a fascist party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), founded by Antun Sa'adah, which had a Pan-Syrian ideology that had some appeal to the secularly-minded Christians. The ideology of the Lebanese Phalanges, which was primarily geared toward the Lebanese Christians, centered on Lebanon as a separate national identity imbued with the values of freedom and democracy as the best guarantee for the survival of the Christian community in a predominantly Arab and Muslim Middle East.

The Lebanese Phalanges under the charismatic leadership of Pierre Gemayel became by 1942 a major political force, claiming 35,000 members among the Maronite Christian community. Gemayel's cooperation, based on a common understanding about the nature of Lebanon, with the prominent Sunni politician (and a founding father of Lebanon), Riyad al-Sulh was crucial to Gemayel's ability to convince and mobilize the Maronite youth in support of the independence of Lebanon rather than retaining the French mandate. Gemayel was arrested by the French as an instigator of demonstrations and was released when the struggle for independence succeeded on November 22, 1943.

Gemayel and his party began in 1943 to follow a policy of consistently supporting the Lebanese political system and the Lebanese presidency in particular as essential for the survival of Lebanon. When opposition to the first Lebanese president after independence, Bishara al-Khoury, rose by leaps and bounds and eventually forced him to resign in 1952, Gemayel was the last to abandon him. Similarly, when the next president, Camille Chamoun, was faced with a revolt in 1958 led by major Muslim leaders and backed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of the United Arab Republic (Egypt and Syria), Gemayel sided with Chamoun, fearing that the independence of Lebanon would be compromised if dominated by Nasser. The civil war of May to October 1958 was instrumental in making Gemayel and his Phalangist Party an indispensable part of the Lebanese political establishment. Gemayel himself served frequently in the Cabinet throughout the period 1958-1975. After the expansion of the Chamber of Deputies into 99 members in 1960, Gemayel and several members of his party were elected in each of the four Chambers of Deputies of 1960, 1964, 1968, and 1972.

In the turbulent period that followed the Arab-Israeli (Six-Day) War of 1967, Gemayel feared that the rising tide of Palestinian guerrilla operations across the Lebanese-Israeli border (especially after the expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO] from Jordan in 1970) would again undermine Lebanese independence and sovereignty. The PLO's military presence in Lebanon was depicted by Gemayel as a state within a state. There is no doubt that this issue triggered the conflict in Lebanon which began in April 1975 and which in turn transformed Gemayel's Phalangist Party and particularly its militia, the Lebanese Forces, into the most formidable indigenous military force in Lebanon.

In the first phase of the conflict, Gemayel was at loggerheads with the PLO and its Muslim-Leftist allies. In January 1976 Gemayel formed, with former president Chamoun and other Christian politicians, the Lebanese Front, which basically represented the vast majority of the Christians in Lebanon. After the disintegration of the Lebanese Army in early 1976, Syrian President Hafiz Assad sent his troops to Lebanon and managed to convince Gemayel and the Lebanese president at the time, Suleiman Frangie, that the sole purpose of the Syrian troops was to make the PLO abide by its agreements with the Lebanese Government. By early 1978, however, the commander of the militia of the Phalangist Party, the Lebanese Forces, Pierre Gemayel's younger son Bashir Gemayel, had realized that Assad was interested in neither curbing the PLO in Lebanon nor withdrawing his troops. Consequently, Bashir fought the Syrians, sought an alliance with the Israelis, and consolidated his power within the Christian community by either eliminating or undermining his rivals. By 1981 Bashir upstaged both his father and his elder brother, Amin Gemayel, within the Phalangist Party and Lebanese Forces as well as within the Christian community at large. When the Israelis waged their war against the PLO in Lebanon in 1982, Bashir Gemayel became the only possible candidate for the presidency. The ambition that had eluded Pierre Gemayel was achieved by his son Bashir, who was elected president of Lebanon in August 1982. As Bashir's chief program was to force the Syrian troops out of Lebanon, he was duly assassinated on orders from Assad himself. Subsequently, the elder son of Pierre Gemayel, Amin Gemayel, was elected president in September 1982. Pierre Gemayel was able in the last two years of his life to keep the Phalangist Party and the Lebanese Forces under control. He tried to assist his son Amin by serving in the so-called National Unity Cabinet formed in April 1984 after the abrogation, due to Syrian military pressure, of the U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Lebanese Accord of May 1983. He died on August 29, 1984, while he was serving in the Cabinet. His legacy, comprised of many elements— namely, his heir, former President Amin Gemayel, the Lebanese Forces, and the Phalangist Party itself—will most probably remain an integral part of the Lebanese polity.

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Further Reading on Pierre Gemayel

For additional information on Pierre Gemayel see John P. Entelis, Pluralism and Party Transformation in Lebanonal Kata'ib, 1936-1970 (Leiden: 1974), a scholarly work on the ideology and organization of Gemayel's Phalangist Party prior to the conflict in Lebanon; Marius Deeb, The Lebanese Civil War (1980), an authoritative scholarly work which covers the prominent role of the Phalangist Party during the civil war phase of the conflict in Lebanon; and Thomas L. Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem (1989), an honor-winning journalist's account of 10 years in the Middle East. Jacques Nantet, Pierre Gemayel (Paris: 1986) is a comprehensive biography of Pierre Gemayel. In Arabic, there is an indispensable two-volume history of Gemayel's Phalangist Party during its formative years which is based on the party's archives: Tarikh Hizb al-Kata'ib al-Lubnaniya (History of the Lebanese Phalangist Party) Vol. I: 1936-1940 (Beirut: 1979) and Vol. II: 1941-1946 (Beirut: 1981).