A fragile unity in Lebanon after Bashir Gemayel
Beirut — The shadow of Bashir Gemayel still hangs over Lebanon.
Photographs of the former president-elect, slain Sept. 16, are everywhere in east Beirut and nearby villages. Young Christian Lebanese girls make pilgrimages to weep at his grave site. And even many Muslims and some Palestinians - who once feared and despised him - now idolize him.
This posthumous idolizing is testimony to Lebanese desperation for a new direction. Hard and uncompromising, Bashir in memory has become the symbol of the Lebanese yearning for order.
After eight horrifying years of anarchy, civil strife, and Israeli invasion which left this once beautiful city painfully battered in every neighborhood, many Lebanese, both Christians and Muslims, are hungry for stability at almost any price. Five days after a bomb killed Bashir, his elder brother Amin was elected president in a rare display of unity between the country's Christians and its Muslims.
But the Lebanese are torn between desire for a strongman to save them from past anarchic tendencies and the fear that such a leader would cramp traditional Lebanese freedom.
''With Bashir, the people were afraid for democracy but sure that he could deliver order,'' explains one source who knew both brothers. ''With Amin they are more relaxed, but fearful that he can't deliver.''
And after the early days of Amin Gemayel's government some Lebanese Muslims express concern that they may lose their freedoms and still not get order.
(The most recent threat to Lebanon's fragile political unity is Israel's demand on Oct. 10 for a security accord ensuring no Palestinian bases in southern Lebanon as a main condition before its troops withdraw from the country.)
The Lebanese desire for ridding the nation of foreign troops is not new. Bashir and Amin Gemayel were raised in a xenophobic political atmoshphere aimed at removing Lebanon from Arab - and later Palestinian - influence. Their father Pierre founded the paramilitary Phalangist Party in 1936 that stressed the unique non-Arab character of Lebanon. Amin - a businessman and lawyer - followed his father into party leadership. But Bashir built his power on the Phalange militia, consolidating its grip over other rival Christian groups by brutally cutting them down to size.
Bashir Gemayel was elected president after the Israeli eviction of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Beirut, in a parliamentary election marked by threats and intimidation. Muslims and remaining Palestinian civilians were horrified and fearful of Christian persecution. Many still breathe a sign of relief that he is gone, but a startling number express deep regret.
The reasons are several. After his election Bashir made overtures to Muslim leaders, stressed national unity, and made clear he would not recognize the state of Israel without a Lebanese consensus. Many Lebanese Muslims came to believe that only Bashir, leader of the Christan militias, could disarm his followers, whom they feared, and meld them into the Lebanese Army.
For many Muslims, Bashir - while still feared - represented a total break with Lebanon's past.
''I was afraid of him but I decided that maybe he was a necessary evil,'' says one Palestinian worker. ''If he put 10,000 poeple in jail and I was one, it would have been worth it if he could have put the country together.''
Adds sociology Prof. Samir Khallaf of the American University of Beirut: ''People were not certain where Lebanon was going, but it was going to be different.''
Traditionally, Lebanon was noted for political compromise and economic laissez faire. It was governed according to a 1943 national pact that apportioned political offices and bureaucratic slots according to religion, with Christians guaranteed a permanent edge despite a growing Muslim majority. The country was further divided by geographic areas roughly coinciding with religious groupings and by semifeudal family fiefdoms within Muslim and Christian lines.
For years the Lebanese art of political compromise overcame periodic clashes. But in the end, the openness to the Arab world that was the Lebanese genius helped to do it in. Arab regimes funneled in arms, money, and men to Lebanese Muslim, Palestinian, and even Christian surrogates whose battles tore the Lebanese state apart.
After his brother's death, Amin Gemayel, a far less controversial figure, was elected unamimously as president. A member of parliament since 1970, ''Amin knows the politics of Lebanese compromise,'' says a staffer at the House of the Future, a think tank Amin set up several years ago. ''He knows how to deal with Lebanese leaders. He favors dialogue. He knows the necessity of good relations with Syria. He is a businessman.''
Ironically, these very qualities of commerce and compromise, traditionally admired on the Lebanese scene and reassuring to Muslims, make many Lebanese fear Amin will not be strong enough to restore order.
One of President Gemayel's first moves to assert central authority was to assign the Lebanese Army to root out illegal foreigners, hidden arms caches, and illegal buildings in west Beirut. The Army, 28,000 strong, disintegrated during the 1975-76 Lebanese civil war and remained virtually inactive thereafter. It is the linchpin of Amin Gemayel's hopes for a strong united Lebanon.
In moves astonishing to west Beirutis, whole sections of the Muslim half of the city have been cordoned off by the Army. Makeshift tin waterfront shops, set up by merchants whose downtown stalls were destroyed by the civil war, have been bulldozed with their goods inside. Some 500 homes of mostly poor Muslim Shiite squatters near Beirut airport were demolished last week in a sweep halted temporarily after complaints by Shiite leaders. Also, officially, 500 suspected illegal residents (Palestinian sources say 1,000) have been summarily trucked off so far in continuing house-to-house searches.
''Amin had to move fast to take advantage of the people's desire for order,'' says one Muslim supporter of the President. But many Muslim leaders are worried by the one-sided nature of the searches in Muslim areas, a fear exacerbated by last-minute postponement of a previously announced extension of the arms searches into Christan east Beirut by Oct. 10.
Amin Gemayel's capacity to ''deliver'' order will be judged most severely on his ability to control the private Lebanese Forces based in east Beirut.
At 12,000 strong the Lebanese Forces are still the strongest domestic military force in Lebanon. While publicly supporting Phalangist Amin's presidency, they are still deeply loyal to the spirit of their departed leader Bashir Gemayel.
''You can kill a body but not the spirit,'' says one senior Lebanese forces military leader solemnly, standing in a room filled with photographs of Bashir as a youth, Bashir and his men, Bashir alone. For the Lebanese forces, Bashir's testament demands the removal of all Syrians and Palestinian foces from Lebanon before they will disband.
''There is no question of our dismemberment while these groups are still in eastern Lebanon,'' says one Lebanese Forces spokesman, standing in front of a colored portrait labeled, ''Bashir, hope of a generation.''
But some Lebanese analysts fear that even should all foreign forces be withdrawn from Lebanon, the average Christian fighter will find if difficult to go home.
''The Lebanese forces are mostly Christians from very poor areas,'' says one well-placed Lebanese. ''They joined for a cause. If you have been an important person in the forces for seven to eight years, can you be expected to return back to being a hotel waiter?'' he asks.
Economists too are worried about businessman Amin Gemayel's willingness to alienate Lebanese merchants, accustomed to total laissez faire, who may chafe against establishment of order in the economy. Lebanon has always been notorious for lack of tax collection, a drag on central government revenue but an attraction to foreign entrepreneurs. Since the closure of Beirut port during the 1975-6 civil war, a series of illegal ports have sprung up, cutting off the government's most important source of revenue. Palestinians in south Lebanon collected revenues in Sidon, while Phalangists still collect discount duties in part of Beirut port and at the Christian ports of Juniye and Jubeil. Lebanese sources say this is the mainstay of Phalangist party financing.
Both Bashir and now Amin promised to close the illegal ports. This is a must if the government is to expand social services to offset glaring economic disparities exacerbated by war.
Lebanese, gratified at the end of battles in the streets, are still hoping President Amin can impose order on Lebanon. But, as one former opponent of Bashir noted half in relief, half wistfully, ''Bashir's election was a change of the old order, Amin's election is the changing of a Lebanese president.''