Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bashir, or the nearness of the precipice

Once a year, on September 14, members of the Gemayel family and supporters gather in Achrafieh to commemorate the assassination in 1982 of President-elect Bashir Gemayel. Somehow, that event is soaked with pathos, having become a confirmation of Maronite decline through the inevitable contrasts it provides between Bashir’s soaring ambitions and the community’s dismal reality today.

But even for those not taken up by the cult of Bashir, who do not believe the Gemayels (or anyone else) are authorized to forever grace us with their presence in inherited political office, the yearly ceremony yet retains bracing defiance. This year it was Nadim Gemayel accusing the Syrian regime of having murdered virtually all Lebanese politicians from Kamal Jumblatt on, including Bashir, down to Rafik Hariri and subsequent victims from the March 14 coalition.

After all this time since his killing, Bashir’s legacy has gone through multiple transformations, along with the customary deletions and elisions, thanks to a tendency to rewrite his story as a hagiography. That the keepers of the flame should be, primarily, Bashir’s wife and children, and to a much lesser extent a brother who happened to be a bitter political rival, hardly renders the narrative more precise.

Here’s one interpretation, as contestable as any other. Bashir Gemayel was many things, above all a populist Maronite recalcitrant, who combined impatience with Lebanon’s traditional political rules, a sensitivity to growing Maronite weakness, and a confident perception that this could be reversed through his conquest of a Christian society that would curb dissent, which Bashir saw as the main source of communal divisions. The son of a political family, he sought to smash its hierarchy by surpassing his father and brother, both initially more influential than he. The product of a pluralistic order, he defended that order against armed Palestinian groups in the 1970s, before his self-righteousness pushed him to seek to replace it with a form of enforced uniformity under his own self-assured leadership.

There was much hubris in Bashir, best embodied in his statement at the start of his election campaign that the National Pact of 1943 was no longer valid. What he couldn’t stomach in Lebanon’s founding social contract was the weighty compromises, the corruption and sluggishness of a system favoring perennial stalemate, even as Lebanon, Christians in particular, was threatened on all sides. Not surprisingly, Bashir described his project of change as revolutionary.

Here is what he told his closest partisans shortly before his assassination: “We can no longer govern with the men who were in power before 1975, or with the 1943 mentality … A strong state for me is a state that is capable of protecting the Christian identity and guaranteeing the equality of all Lebanese. I am the president of the state and the leader of the nation. That is the real revolution. Without this revolution the war in Lebanon will have been in vain.”

But there was an uneasy tension in Bashir’s wanting to protect Christian identity while also guaranteeing the equality of all Lebanese. What would happen if those two intentions entered into conflict with one another? Which would Bashir favor? Nor was it ever realistic that Muslims would rally to his undebated vision. And since when was Lebanon a place of revolution? If anything, before 1982 and long afterward, the country has suffered at the hands of those seeking to destroy the foundations of the political system while offering no substitute around which a national consensus might coalesce.

Perhaps that is why Bashir continues to be associated in my mind with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Both are men who have regarded themselves as above the system, also as superior to the system, who have sought to reshape Lebanon to better conform with the impositions of their egos. Bashir, like Nasrallah later on, anointed himself the final interpreter of Lebanon’s truths, a stern judge of the legitimacy of its political regulations and traditions. And both men have done more to discredit gradual political reform, while visiting violence on Lebanon, than most other major political figures.

But there is a difference between the two. Nasrallah’s ultimate reference point remains Iran and the organic relationship his party entertains with its regime and supreme religious authority. Bashir’s extensions into the region offered him no strategic depth or political succor. If anything, his alliance with Israel, even if he intended to abandon it once he had installed himself in the presidential palace, was a stain he would not have easily rinsed away both in Lebanon and the Arab world. Just as Elias Hrawi and Emile Lahoud never managed to win significant standing and respect for having been brought into power effectively on a Syrian tank, so too would Bashir have remained a pariah for taking over the presidency on an Israeli one.

The irony is that Bashir played an instrumental role in precipitating the Israeli invasion of 1982, which represented a seminal moment for Hizbullah, Lebanon’s Shiites in general, and Hassan Nasrallah in particular. Here was Bashir Gemayel convinced that he had achieved his historical purpose of being the Christians’ redeemer, unaware that his success and death were only a bridge toward Shiite ascendancy.

But all this tells us is that Lebanon has a propensity to grind down those who think they are better than it. Nasrallah would do well to learn from his Maronite predecessor. As Bashir’s followers discovered to their dismay, the point of highest achievement can lie next to a precipice.

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