Asharq Al-Awsat releases excerpts from the former Lebanese president’s memoirs
Amin Gemayel (R) seen at the Baabda presidential palace after Michel Aoun was named head of a military government. (Getty Images)
London – Asharq Al-Awsat
In the second part of his memoirs, excerpts of which are exclusively being published by Asharq Al-Awsat, former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel recalls the final day of his term in office on September 22, 1988. With Lebanon in the throes of its 1975-90 civil war, he spoke of the difficulties he encountered in forming a transitional government that would be tasked with preparing for the election of a new president after parliament had failed to do so.
Gemayel recounted how he saw in the military council, headed by then-army commander Michel Aoun, as the best choice in leading the country. He even received the approval of all six of its members for the task before later receiving a shock from Syrian media that reported the resignation of its three Muslim officers. He was not even informed of their decision beforehand. Below is part two of three of Gemayel’s memoirs:
After a tumultuous night, dawn finally broke on September 22, 1988, my final day in office in what has been a difficult term. I had breakfast alone in my office as I wrestled with my concerns and bitterness. I was left to tackle my final constitutional duty: the formation of a transitional government. Hussein al-Husseini was strongly pressing for parliament to elect Mikhael al-Daher. It seemed unlikely that he would garner the necessary quorum. At noon, the issue resolved itself: only ten MPs showed up at Nijmeh Square and the session was adjourned to 10:30 am the next day.
Salim al-Hoss had informed me that he was going back from his resignation from a government he was not even heading. He was serving as acting prime minister after the assassination of outgoing Premier Rashid Karami. He had assumed an official role in violation of the constitution. I could not accept this, which therefore demanded that I form a new government in line with the constitution and Lebanese traditions.
I thought of naming president Charles Helou as prime minister of a draft government lineup I had prepared in case such a day would come when we would be confronted with potential vacuum. I contacted him and explained my reasoning for naming him. I told him he alone could run the transitional period until my successor could be elected. He agreed.
He was a wise and moderate man, who knew to the core the sensitivity of the national equation. He had experienced its importance firsthand during two very critical times in our nation’s history. He was above conflicts and could hold dialogue with all sides. He was widely respected and can bring together all Lebanese. I could find no one else with these qualities.
I did not want to reach such a crossroads of issuing a decree for the formation of a transitional government that would replace the president. I had followed the example of President Bechara al-Khoury, who on September 18, 1952 had resigned from his position and tasked a Maronite to head a transitional government to succeed a president whose term had ended without the election of a successor. During such cases of vacuum, the jurisdiction of the president is transferred, according to the constitution, to an interim government. Since the vacant position is that of a Maronite official, I had to keep such jurisdiction in the hands of that sect and appoint a Maronite head of government, which would play the role of president. The cabinet would then act as a guarantor of our national norms. That is why I first thought of Charles Helou for the task.
At 9 am on September 22, I summoned him to the Baabda palace for consultations. He apologized, saying he could not accept the task, citing his and his wife’s poor health. Taking care of her at all times would prevent him from taking on the “massive responsibility,” he told me. I believed that he knew that he would have been forced to strike agreements that would have been uneasy for him. He suggested to me an alternative, who enjoys the suitable qualities: a Maronite, open-minded and enjoys good relations with all Muslim and Christian parties.
“He is also a Helou,” he added.
He named Pierre Helou.
I thought about it and did not make up my mind. Pierre Helou had been an MP from Aley since 1972. He was a former minister and a patriot to the core. He was also an old friend of both Kamal Jumblatt and Imam Moussa al-Sadr. A moderate, he would not have provoked any of the parties.
I summoned him to the presidential palace at 11:30 am, just after meeting with the army commander. He agreed without hesitation to form a government, expressing his understandable fears over the extreme difficulty of the task.
He kicked off his consultations to form a new government from the Baabda presidential palace. He wanted it to include main effective parties – Muslim and Christian alike – and therefore summoned them to discuss their participation.
He was met with one veto after another. Some Sunni figures, including some of the most moderate, refused to take part in a transitional government that includes Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea. For one reason or another, they held them responsible for the assassination of Sunni PM Rashid Karami.
Parties on the other end believed that forming a cabinet without Aoun and Geagea would render it unbalanced. Such a government would seem biased and representative of some parties without others. It would not be able to rule or last long.
I had received from Aoun and Geagea their serious insistence on being part of the transitional government, rejecting any solution that would keep them out. They warned that not being part of cabinet would force them to take firm stances. Even the grand mufti, who has rarely ever been accused of taking a hardline, had informed Pierre Helou that none of the Sunnis would take part in a “flawed government that includes those two men.”
By the afternoon, Pierre Helou had failed in forming a government team that would support his new task. He finally chose to apologize from accepting his naming as premier, taking in the advice of his friends, Michel Edde and Khalil Abou Hamad.
With Pierre Helou hitting a dead end, as I challenged fate by going against traditions, I tasked Dany Chamoun with inquiring with Salim al-Hoss, his friend since their college days at the American University of Beirut, about forming a transitional government that would include all political powers, including the Lebanese Forces. He insisted instead that the current outgoing cabinet lineup be preserved. He relented to some amendments: appointing Dany Chamoun as minister to succeed his father Camille, Omar Karami to succeed his brother Rashid, and expanding it to include four more ministers. He proposed George Saadeh and Joseph Skaff as potential candidates. He accepted the appointment of two deputy prime ministers: Abdullah al-Rassi, an Orthodox Christian, and Dany Chamoun, a Maronite. Hoss adamantly rejected however, Aoun and Geagea’s inclusion in cabinet even though it did include other political leaders and militia chiefs, most notably Damascus allies Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri. He also insisted that the government keep holding its meetings at its West Beirut headquarters in Sanayeh.
Hoss’ proposal would have been in line with that of [Syrian Vice President] Abdul Halim Khaddam to [US Assistant Secretary of State] Richard Murphy on September 3, 1988. This meant Hoss would retain his government team and would keep cabinet meetings being held in strict Syrian areas of influence.
If I had accepted Hoss’ proposal to Chamoun, I would have handed Lebanon to Syria on a silver platter. I refused. There was no way I would sign a decree that I viewed as unbalanced. There was no way I would accept the formation of a government of Damascus allies, who, for whatever reason, have no room to maneuver except under Syria’s influence. In Christian majority East Beirut, political and military forces would not have recognized the authority of an unbalanced government that would have been formed under direct Syrian influence. This would have inevitably led to the country’s division.
Since September 21 after my return from Damascus to Bkirki and then to the Baabda presidential palace, I held a series of consultations with my aides and MPs. The meetings stretched long passed midnight. We received an unencouraging cable from Archbishop of New York John O’Connor, addressed to Lebanon’s Christians, urging them to “save the republic”. Our options were narrowing and we had to make difficult choices: we could either hold elections, but without any serious signs that a president would be elected, or contend with chaos, which Murphy had warned us of.
Rene Mouawad told me: “If elections are not held, then we will be held responsible by the United States, Vatican and Europe. Instead of helping us, the Americans have reiterated the Syrian demand.”
Pierre Helou and Salim al-Hoss were now out of the picture. I had no choice but to reveal my last card. I had failed in my attempt to form an expanded and balanced political government that includes all effective players. I had to resort to another option: forming a non-political government that would at the same time represent Lebanon’s national fabric and assume its responsibilities.
The only options were handing power to a state institution: either the higher judicial council or the military council. The judicial council was headed by Maronite Sheikh Amin Nassar, an open-minded and dutiful official who had contacts with all sides. The military council was headed by another Maronite, army commander Michel Aoun. Both officials were dedicated to the unity the country, but I ultimately leaned more towards the military council. It alone could protect itself and institutions. It could protect the country’s security and confront any unrest and defuse tensions. A government of judges would not have withstood such challenges.
I relied in my reasoning on Bechara al-Khoury, who prior to the end of his term in 1952 had asked army commander Fuad Chehab, a Maronite, to head a transitional government. I therefore, turned to the army and military council, which was formed according to the balance of power that emerged in 1984. It reflected the diversity of Lebanon’s various sects whereby six of its members represented the six main sects. They were named by the government and were not opponents of Syria or any other side.
In order to avoid any criticism and doubts, I kept the council as it was with no amendments. I also overcame all of my reservations against its chief, Michel Aoun, because the country’s interest demanded it. Some of my aides suggested that I include civilian ministers to the council, such as a foreign minister who would be affiliated to me and maintain international contacts, but I refused to create any hole in the new government. The cabinet would be bound with one duty stipulated by the constitution and that is to elect a new president, nothing more. It had no other responsibilities because it was an interim transitional government chosen to carry out an urgent task that is not preceded by any other. Article 62 of the constitution stipulates that the jurisdiction of the president would be transferred to the transitional council and that its members would all rule collectively. This way I would have appointed a military council government, not a Michel Aoun government.
That day, parliament was supposed to convene at the Nejmeh Square to elect a president at the invitation of Hussein al-Husseini and under mounting Syrian pressure. Only 13 lawmakers showed up. He issued another invitation for September 23, a day after my term ends.
Transforming the military council into a government was the least damaging solution. I was left with the task of personally contacting all six of its members to ensure that they would not step down soon after their appointment. Before issuing my final presidential decree, I contacted them all and none of them refused the mission. They thanked me for entrusting them with the duty. However, we were all surprised when just after midnight on September 22 with the announcement that the three Muslim officers had resigned. Syria was the first to make the announcement through its radio, while none of the officers – Mahmoud Tay Abou Dargham, Nabil Qoreitem and Lotfi Jaber – had submitted their written resignation, which ultimately never came.
I had sought to consult spiritual and political leaders ahead of making my announcement. Just before midnight on September 22, I contacted [Maronite] Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. He was asleep and I asked that he be awakened so that I could inform him of my final choice.
“We have held today a long marathon meeting with all brothers, lawmakers, Lebanese Forces and the army. We proposed all possible solutions to avoid constitutional vacuum. We had three choices: A government headed by Hoss with a majority that is allied to him, but ultimately in an unbalanced cabinet that cannot rule. The second was an expanded government that would include all parties, but in the end would be left with its Christian members because its Muslims, even the moderates, would walk away from it.”
Sfeir said: “I heard the news. It appears that the mufti and Shamseddine had warned against it.”
“The third choice is the military council, headed by General Aoun, that boasts all sects and parties,” I added. “We have opted for the third solution. General Aoun is next to me and we are discussing the issue. The problem is very dangerous. At least we wouldn’t be handing over affairs without knowing where the situation is headed? … I was forced to take this decision.”
“It may be the best. God willing. It’s imperative that the situation does not deteriorate,” he said.
“At any rate, we must remain vigilant. We are headed towards unpredictable political developments,” I remarked.
“It seems that the Americans have not changed their position,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Unfortunately,” he added.
I should inform Geagea of the new decision. He arrived at the presidential palace and showed great disappointment when he found out that he was not part of the new proposal. He requested some time to think it over. He held talks alone with General Aoun, who was at the palace. He then came back to inform me of his approval before quickly leaving my office. He informed the media that he supports the new cabinet and its head, describing it as an “independence” government.
I later learned that during their brief talks at the palace, Aoun had asked for Geagea’s conditional support in return for allowing the Lebanese Forces free reign in Christian areas where Syrian troops were not deployed. He also received a pledge that the army would not intervene in disputes within the LF.
Minutes before midnight on September 22, 1988, the moment my term end, I signed – with great bitterness and yet an easy conscience – my last presidential decree (number 5,387), which calls for the formation of a transitional government headed by General Aoun. The majority of Arab and foreign governments immediately announced their support. [French President] Francois Mitterrand telephoned George Bush, who was recently elected US president. Bush declared his support for the Lebanese government and said he would ask the Russians to do the same.
My desk seemed empty that night. It used to be loaded with files. I felt burdened by exhaustion and tribulations, but proud that I had completed my duties to the end.
Part three continues on Sunday.