Bashir Gemayel will have to move swiftly to allay fears generated by his election as the new President of Lebanon. The question is: Will this youthful Maronite Christian warlord allow his religious and political persuasions to turn Lebanon into a right-wing sectarian state? Or will he reach out fairly, even magnanimously, to the nation's Muslims in the interests of forging a popularly supported central government and a strong Lebanese national identity? Whatever the past, Mr. Gemayel faces a historic opportunity to rise to the stature of political statesmanship that can save a nation from disintegration.
This would mean pursuing a policy not necessarily unfriendly to but certainly independent of his Israeli patrons. Israel has long dreamed of establishing a sympathetic Christian state in Lebanon and, toward this end, has supplied Mr. Gemayel's Phalangist militia with huge quantities of arms. It is not yet clear how far Israel's political aims go, but the long time desire of some Zionist leaders to set up a Christian state in the north and annex southern Lebanon is well known. Some analysts charge that Mr. Gemayel's election (he was the only declared candidate) was in effect an Israeli-engineered coup d'etat. Certainly Israel is prepared to help the President consolidate his hold and to drive out the remaining Syrian and Palestinian forces.
In his pursuit of the presidency, Mr. Gemayel cleverly distanced himself from the Israelis and persuaded enough Muslim members of parliament that he was genuinely prepared to preserve Lebanon's delicate confessional balance and its territorial integrity. Even so, most of the Muslim deputies boycotted the election, indicating the depth of opposition to him and the difficulty he faces in winning the Muslims' confidence. Yet reconciliation is indispensible.
The truth is, the Maronite dominance which Israel seeks to preserve began falling apart long before the Palestinians entered the picture. The current political system (under which the president is always a Maronite) is based on the last census in 1932, when Christians were in the majority. Muslims now are thought to outnumber Christians and, caught up in the nationalist and Islamic fervor sweeping the Arab countries, they seek a bigger share of political power. Conflict would have grown even without the provocative presence of the PLO, and it could erupt in civil war again once the PLO and Syrians are out of the country. It is not only religious strife which tears at the fabric of Lebanese unity but the economic struggle between the better-educated, Westernized Maronites and the poorer, more rural Muslims.
How to weld a unified, democratic nation out of the disparate, feuding sectarian and political forces in Lebanon - and to begin that task with PLO, Syrians, and Israelis ensconced on Lebanese soil - is problematic. It seems doubly so when Lebanon is led by a man who is renowned for his brutal, gun-slinging ways and leads a political movement that has its roots in right-wing fascism. But balancing this bleak picture is a proven capacity for political toughness and shrewdness that will also be needed to cope with daunting problems. It is perhaps significant that Lebanese of various ethnic and religious backgrounds endorsed Mr. Gemayel because they felt he could bring discipline to Lebanon.
Discipline does not mean high-handedness, however, nor does Christianity mean suppressing those of Muslim faith or settling scores with other Christians. Mr. Gemayel will succeed only if he puts away the Maronite gun and governs by the Christian principles of charity and justice he purportedly espouses. If he does not, Lebanon can only look forward to more turbulence.