Lebanese Christians Unhappy With Gemayel as Power Erodes

Times Staff Writer

At the first press conference organized last week by Lebanon's rebellious Christian militia leaders, a young spokesman for the group apologized to foreign journalists for the hours of delay and confusion.

"There is chaos," said the young man, whose name is Fadi, "because we are trying to make a revolution here."

Nearly a week after the militia leaders, headed by Samir Geagea, 32, a right-wing radical, seized a large portion of the Christian areas north of Beirut, there are few external signs of the revolution that the group has threatened in its political declarations.

Shops, Schools Reopened

Shops and restaurants, which were closed for most of last week, have reopened, as have most of the area's schools.

The only signs of unrest are the unusual number of roadblocks manned by armed men wearing second-hand Israeli fatigues in areas under rebel control, as well as walls of sandbags around installations maintained by militia, as if they were expecting fighting.

Few doubt that the revolt by the militia--which is known as the Lebanese Forces--has struck a chord of sympathy among Lebanon's 1.3 million Christians, who have held most of the political and economic cards in Lebanon since 1946 and now see their power and influence being steadily eroded.

The militia leaders, who have styled themselves "the Movement for the Christian Decision," became disenchanted with President Amin Gemayel, a Maronite Catholic, for becoming increasingly close to Syria.

Under pressure from Damascus, Gemayel has been attempting for the last 10 months to negotiate a political compromise with Lebanon's Muslim factions that would end a decade of factional fighting in the country.

While Gemayel is regarded as inflexible and unyielding by much of the Muslim opposition, he is increasingly viewed as a tool of Syria by a growing number of Christians.

In fact, he is frequently called Mohammed Amin Gemayel by disgruntled Christians, a disparaging reference to a typical Muslim name. His portrait has been defaced with spray-painted dollar signs throughout much of Christian East Beirut--an apparent suggestion that he has sold out.

The rebel militia leaders maintain that Gemayel cannot fairly serve as the president of Lebanon and act as the spokesman for Christians at the same time.

They are proposing the creation of a "Christian council," which many regard as a thinly disguised state legislature, to represent the Christian community and elect an executive committee that would formulate policy.

However, the leader of the Greek Orthodox community, Patriarch Agnatius Hazim, Sunday refused to take part in the proposed council, which would appear to have set back the rebels' efforts to create a legislature that reflects Christian public opinion.

While the militia leaders have called for a dialogue with Muslim leaders, they are essentially laying the groundwork for the formal "cantonization" of Lebanon, a pro cess that has been under way for several years.

Under this "federal" plan, Lebanon would break up into separate, self-governing states, each representing a religious group. The states would form a federal government to carry out national and international tasks.

The notion of cantonizing Lebanon is supported by the Christians--who have already created a de facto state north of Beirut--and to a certain extent by the smaller Druze community, whose members are an offshoot sect of Islam.

The idea is vehemently opposed by the Muslim groups and by Syria.

As Premier Rashid Karami, a Sunni Muslim politician, remarked Monday, such plans threaten "to undermine Lebanon and terminate its existence."

The revolt also is an attack on the Gemayel family dynasty. Amin's father, Pierre, founded the Falangist Party, a right-wing political group that became the voice of Maronite Christians for four decades.

Gemayel's younger brother, Bashir, managed to gather a ragtag array of Christian militia units into the Lebanese Forces, which usurped the Falangists' dominance in Christian life.

Bashir was elected president of Lebanon shortly before he was assassinated in 1982. He was replaced by his brother, who was a political rival, and Amin set about reducing the strength of the Lebanese Forces.

Geagea, the Lebanese Forces commander in the north, appears to have won the support of 90% of the militia's soldiers and a sizable portion of the Falangist Party membership for the uprising.

Whether the revolt is intended to result in the creation of a new Christian party or a reformed Falangist Party is still unclear.

"The end result will be the renaissance of the Christian community," said Fadi Frem, a former commander of the Lebanese Forces. "There was a conflict of generation" within the Falangists, he added.

Support Certainly Lost

Regardless of how the uprising turns out, Gemayel has unarguably lost the support of the Lebanese Forces command. It is taken as an article of faith in Lebanon that a leader without a fighting force to support him cannot long survive the swift-moving currents of Lebanese politics.

Dany Chamoun, a leading Christian figure and son of a former Lebanese president, said that no matter what happens now, Gemayel has lost face in the Christian community.

"Amin was not very popular to begin with," Chamoun said. "He's never been able to win the hearts and minds of the people."

Gemayel's choices appear grim: He will either have to compromise with the rebels, which will cause him to lose favor with Syria and the Muslims, or he will have to remain in confrontation with the militia leaders.

Leaders of the revolt are fond of calling this a "white revolution," by which they mean no blood has been spilled. But only the most optimistic expect it to remain that way for long.

In the last week, the Syrians have moved about 2,000 troops and a brigade of tanks to their forward lines about 30 miles north of Beirut.

Lt. Gen. Mustafa Talas, the Syrian defense minister, charged that the rebellion "is a clear attempt at sabotaging the process of national reconciliation in Lebanon," adding that Syria will not "remain indifferent."

Nearly everyone sees the Syrian moves as a warning to the rebels not to obstruct the negotiations that the Damascus regime has carefully nourished.

But any military intervention on the ground by the Syrians would have the effect of uniting the Christian community to fight the invader, which would only strengthen the rebellion.

Some Christian leaders expect the Syrians to begin shelling of Christian areas as a way of conveying their displeasure without provoking an unmanageable backlash.

Perhaps as a result, such figures as Karim Pakradouni, a former aide to Bashir Gemayel who is part of the rebel leadership in the Lebanese Forces, and Fuad abu Nader, the Lebanese Forces commander, have gone to great lengths to reassure the Syrians that the rebellion is directed neither against Damascus nor against Gemayel in his capacity as national leader rather than party figure.

"It's purely a Christian internal movement," said one aide to Geagea. "It's not a putsch. We're not trying to take over the government."

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