Gemayel faces massive Lebanon Catch-22

To those who support him, he is ''Sheikh'' Amin Gemayel, president of Lebanon. To those who distrust him, he is ''President Travolta,'' after the young American film star - a flip reference to the slick coiffed hair felt to represent the superficial smoothness of a personality with little depth.

To many caught in between, he is known as ''the duke of Beirut'' or the ''baron of Baabda,'' since his power is now limited to the Lebanese capital and centered on the presidential palace in Baabda suburb. And though the Lebanese Army has just spread its control to east Beirut, the rest of Lebanon is under foreign occupation.

The one thing most everyone will agree on is that Amin Gemayel is one of the most troubled leaders in the Middle East, a hard title to earn in a region rife with threatened minority regimes.

It is difficult to fathom that a leader could be in any deeper trouble than Mr. Gemayel after his election last September. Lebanon had been in chaos for eight years. He took over in the aftermath of three major events: the assassination of his brother, President-elect Bashir Gemayel; the Israeli invasion of west Beirut; and the Palestinian massacres.

But diplomats and Middle East observers sadly concede his position is even more precarious now.

Born in the cool, scenic mountains on the outskirts of east Beirut, he was educated in Jesuit schools and St. Joseph's University. His style reflects the more Westernized ways of the Christian Arabs in Lebanon - from the French cut in clothing, to fluency in French, English, and Arabic.

As a speaker he is both simple and eloquent, often quoting from the works of another Westernized Lebanese notable, Khalil Gibran. One of his favorite Gibran passages on Lebanon was interwoven in a speech before the diplomatic corps last month:

''You are my brother and I love you. I love you worshipping in your church, kneeling in your temple, or praying in your mosque. You and I and all our children are of one religion, or for the varied paths of religion are but the fingers of the loving hand of the supreme being, extended to all, offering completeness of spirit to all, anxious to receive it.''

Of all the Arab chiefs of state, Mr. Gemayel would probably be the easiest for a Western leader to talk to. This is because of cultural similarities and frame of reference - as President Reagan was reported to have said after their meeting last fall.

Yet it is for exactly these qualities that the only Christian leader in the Middle East may be on the verge of becoming an endangered species. As a Christian, he must be concerned about not losing the leverage that might cost the Christians their one toehold in the Muslim-dominated region.

Yet as the leader of Lebanon, he must be concerned about leverage with Muslim Arab allies, the main source of aid and the primary foreign relations outlet.

And last but not least, Mr. Gemayel must be concerned about a third party in the Middle East, the Israelis. Though the Israelis have allowed the Christians in Lebanon to maintain their edge through economic and military aid, they are now the main stumbling block to the restoration of sovereignty to Mr. Gemayel's government.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Elie Salam says the Israelis have established a mini-state ''by force of arms'' in southern Lebanon. The comment came after the recent move by the Israeli-backed militia of Maj. Saad Haddad to expand its role in southern Lebanon by setting up a garrison in Sidon, the largest city in the south.

All in all, it is a massive Catch-22.

The logjam over US-directed talks on resolving the Lebanese crisis has added to Mr. Gemayel's dilemma. His situation is so precarious that one high-level Western envoy recently speculated: ''The government can't survive a protracted situation like this . . . Gemayel has it very much on his mind, and realizes this problem could destroy his power base, and make it impossible to govern effectively.''

Diplomats generally feel Mr. Gemayel is totally committed to reunifying the country and pushing for conditions that will help the diverse and disparate religious and political groups live in peace.

At the same time, however, there is concern that he will not ''get around'' to unearthing the seeds of discontent that could trigger renewed internal conflict. At the heart of the issue is the census of 1932 on which positions of power were divided in Lebanon according to religious groups. Another sticking point is the reform necessary to accommodate the dramatic increase in the number of Muslims - who now outnumber the Christians.

At best, high-level diplomatic sources suggest, they do not foresee a new proportioning of power, or changing of the percentages of representatives in everything from parliament to the judiciary and the military to the civil service.

Although international attention is focused primarily on the negotiations for withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon, there are rumblings over other issues.

Economically, the country is deeply in the red (the cost of rebuilding is estimated at $15 billion), and there will be no major reconstruction funds from the oil-rich Gulf states until Israeli forces pull out.

Thousands of people are still homeless or displaced. The widespread destruction of both the civil war and the Israeli invasion still haunts every city and village. Electricity and water are still in short supply during the winter. Meanwhile, local and Western emergency aid has almost dried up.

Politically, relations have crumbled, or are about to, on several fronts. Among Muslims, there is growing distrust due to the fact that they have been disarmed for five months while the Christian Phalangist ''Lebanese Forces'' - allegedly responsible for the Palestinian massacres - have kept their firepower.

This is particularly notable as Mr. Gemayel had maintained good relations with the Muslims, and won favor for his candidacy among many leaders who had vehemently opposed his brother's election.

Among Christians, there is unease particularly among the ''Lebanese Forces'' in part because of fears that Mr. Gemayel is not sufficiently committed to protecting their long-term interests.

The loss of a foothold in the strategic town of Aleih over the weekend underlined this concern. Druze Muslim militiamen forced out the last remaining Christian militias and residents. It marked a turning point, for it was the first setback since the Lebanese Forces won the upper hand in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion.

Despite pledges by Mr. Gemayel that the Lebanese Forces (Phalange) will be disarmed, the Phalange commander has said the militiamen will not lay down their weapons until the Lebanese Army is strong again. That may be three years away.

One encouraging sign has been the stationing this week of 4,000 soldiers of the Lebanese Army in Christian east Beirut to take control of that section of the Lebanese capital away from Christian militiamen for the first time in eight years. Despite this the Christian Phalange remains armed and active in areas east and north of Beirut.

That will not go over well with the Muslims. And, despite the theoretical disarming of Muslim militias, it is widely accepted that small arms and weapons are buried throughout west Beirut. That is not enough to start a new war, but it is enough to create new havoc.

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