Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Ghost of Bachir Gemayel

Joseph El-Khoury
This year, August, as opposed to September was the month of Bachir Gemayel.  The change in month is also coupled with a change in image. A new re-looked Bachir, better suited for the 21st century, was unveiled for the celebrations organised by his son Nadim in memory of the former’s 1982 election. The Lebanese Forces, stuck to a more traditional portrait of their historical leader for the annual mass honouring their martyrs.
In times of crisis, and this is certainly one for Lebanese Christianity, the soul searching seems to bring this community back to the ‘golden era’ of Maronite domination ...and Bachir.
Few will argue convincingly against the new reality in effect since the mid 1990s. The balance of power is now unashamedly shared between three population blocks, with Sunnis and Shiaas no longer constituting a single political and social ‘Islamic’ entity. As the heating conflict between Sunni sand Shiaas escalates to boiling point, we hear a deafening silence on the Christian front of the Lebanese confessional arrangement.  The burning tyres in the Southern suburb and the sniper shots in Tripoli seem to have a muffling effect on the figureheads of the Christian camp, all affiliation included.
Nonetheless the delusion of power seems unshakable. For many of these a return to pre-1989 if not 1943 remains a realistic goal.  The nostalgia for better times is certainly deeply engrained in the Christian Lebanese psyche and perpetuated by the affiliated media. Politically, it is fuelled mostly by the posturing of General Michel Aoun, darling of the Christian middle classes and embodiment of their state of denial.  Michel Aoun for his supporters is what they want him to be; father figure, saviour, astute political mover, and visionary. The man himself is less important than the function he fulfils: Michel Aoun is everything they would have expected from an older Bachir Gemayel, had the latter not been brutally assassinated on that fateful day of 14th September 1982.
It is well known that those who die young, at the height of their productivity, are always idealised in the minds of their public.  This applies to Bachir Gemayel (who died age 35), as much as it did to the guerrilla leader Che Guevara (died age 39) or the singer from the doors Jim Morrison (died age 27) with the obvious differences between these characters.  Exploiting their memory is often a cleansing experience to those left behind, who end up being compromised by life and experience.
The grief suffered by the Christian population, at the time hurled in an ever narrowing ghetto, and gripped by the paranoia of a threatening increasingly alien surrounding, lingered for many years. There were no obvious replacements to Gemayel. Neither the mild mannered, always neatly dressed Ameen could fill his brother’s shoes, neither did the second nor third in command in the Lebanese Forces, who had operated under Bachir as loyal sidekicks without much clout.  For the following years, the leadership struggle resembled more a boardroom overhaul rather than a true fight for the soul of the Christians. This is until the final showdown in the mid-1980s between Samir Geagea and Elie Hobeika, resulting in the dominance of the first and the exile of the second.  The Christians of the ‘centre’, effectively those who originated from parts of Mount Lebanon and Beirut did not take to Geagea, son of a northern village.   His humble origins did not fit with their image of themselves as the country’s intellectual and financial elite. The fact he had not completed his medical studies, although for very justifiable reasons, did not sit well with the liberal professionals (doctors, lawyers). Despite his articulate style and his ruthless determination, Geagea in military garb or in a suit could simply not replace Gemayel.
Enters Michel Aoun in 1988. Until then a respected yet not over-influential army general, Michel Aoun became the last minute attempt at avoiding a complete disintegration of state institutions. The man brought in as a stop-gap until better solutions could be found had other plans and a well-rehearsed rhetoric to accompany his ambitions. Words such as ‘state’ army’ ‘order’ security’ have the effect on the Christian Middle Classes you would expect from a 7 year old child presented with a cone of ice cream.  Aoun used them again and again in a litany that mimicked the simple message that had sold Bachir Gemayel (the one of 1982, not 1976) to the hearts of that population: We, the Christians can reverse the effect of the civil war and can bring back order and prosperity to this country, working hand in hand with those from other confessions who choose to be as patriotic as us.
This perverse view of patriotism as more inherent to one sect over others, unfortunately explains why the alliance between Aoun and Hezbollah is viewed so positively by large sections of the Christian population, despite its obvious imbalance in favour of the Shiaa militant organisation, with which they have little in common, culturally, politically and socially. It also explains why March 14th has not succeeded in breaking Aoun’s popularity. By adopting Geagea, maybe by default, as a Christian figure head and allowing the Hariri clan to treat their disparate array of Christian allies with some disdain, they had gone too far in trampling on the pride of the Christian middle classes. This situation persists today.  Despite the shift in his discourse, which should assure him a broader appeal, Geagea, it is doubtful that he will ever be in a position to capture the imagination of the majority of Christians. This handicap is what maintains the hope of the new generation of Gemayels  in regaining a position of leadership they believe is rightfully theirs. But their real challenge is elsewhere. If they ever manage to ever place their differences to one side, it is primarily the Patriotic movement they will need to wrestle for the ghost of Bachir Gemayel.

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