Formed in 1936 as a Maronite paramilitary youth organization by Pierre Jumayyil (who modeled it on the fascist organizations he had observed while in Berlin as an Olympic athlete), the Phalange, or Phalanxes (Kataib in Arabic), was authoritarian and very centralized, and its leader was all powerful. It quickly grew into a major political force in Mount Lebanon. After at first allying itself with the French Mandate authorities, the Phalange sided with those calling for independence; as a result, the party was dissolved in 1942 by the French high commissioner (it was restored after The French left Lebanon). Despite this early dispute, over the years the Phalange has been closely associated with France in particular and the West in general. In fact, for many years the party newspaper, Al Amal, was printed in Arabic and French.
Consistent with its authoritarian beginnings, Phalangist ideology has been on the right of the political spectrum. Although it has embraced the need to "modernize," it has always favored the preservation of the sectarian status quo. The Phalange Party motto is "God, the Fatherland, and the Family," and its doctrine emphasizes a free economy and private initiative. Phalangist ideology focuses on the primacy of preserving the Lebanese nation, but with a "Phoenician" identity, distinct from its Arab, Muslim neighbors. Party policies have been uniformly anticommunist and anti-Palestinian and have allowed no place for pan-Arab ideals.
Unlike many zuama who achieved their status by virtue of inheriting wealth, Jumayyil ascended because of his ability to instill discipline in his organization and, by the mid-1950s, through the accumulation of military might. By the outbreak of the 1958 Civil War, the Phalange Party was able to further its growing power by means of its militia. In that year, when President Shamun was unable to convince the army commander, Fuad Shihab, to use the armed forces against Muslim demonstrators, the Phalange militia came to his aid. Encouraged by its efforts during this conflict, later that year, principally through violence and the success of general strikes in Beirut, the Phalange achieved what journalists dubbed the "counterrevolution." By their actions the Phalangists brought down the government of Prime Minister Karami and secured for their leader, Jumayyil, a position in the four-man cabinet that was subsequently formed.
The 1958 Civil War was a turning point for the Phalange Party. Whereas in 1936, the year of its formation, it had a following of around 300, by 1958 its membership had swelled to almost 40,000. Meanwhile, the French newspaper L'Orient estimated that the Phalange Party's nearest rival, the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, had a membership of only 25,000. In addition, although until 1958 it had been able to elect only 31 percent of its candidates to the Chamber of Deputies, from 1959 through 1968 the Phalange placed 61 percent of its candidates in office. Moreover, by the start of the disturbances in 1975, the party's rolls may have included as many as 65,000 members, including a militia approaching 10,000 men.
Throughout the 1975 Civil War, the Phalange Party was the most formidable force within the Christian camp, and its militia shouldered the brunt of the fighting. As part of the Lebanese Front, the mostly Christian, rightist coalition, the power of the Jumayyil family increased considerably. Ironically, as Pierre Jumayyil's son, Bashir, ascended as a national figure, the role of the Phalange Party diminished. This was true primarily because the relevance of political entities declined as the importance of armed power grew. Through a series of violent intrasectarian battles, Bashir seized control of the Lebanese Forces (not to be confused with the Lebanese Front), a conglomeration of the Phalange Party's military wing and some other Christian militias.
During the 1980s, the Phalange lost much of its credibility and political stature. In 1982, under pressure from Israel, which occupied a good deal of Lebanon, Bashir was elected president. Later that year, before talking office, Bashir was assassinated. Subsequently, his brother Amin was elected president, again not so much for his Phalange Party connection as because of his support from Israel. With the death of Pierre Jumayyil in 1984, the role of the party declined further. When the deputy leader of the party, Elie Karamah, a Greek Catholic, was named as its new head, many Maronite members became disaffected. Maronite George Saadah succeeded Karamah in 1987 and strove to resuscitate the flagging Phalange by holding party meetings and by improving ties to the Lebanese Forces. The party, however, was factionalized, and many prominent members had left.
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