Supporters of Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun have succeeded in positioning his political ally as the favourite for the highly political job of UN envoy in New York, diplomats told The National on Monday.
Hadi Hashem, 46, is tipped for the job traditionally allocated to a Sunni Muslim.
He was chief of staff of Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law and head of Christian Maronite Mr Aoun’s political party, during his 2014-2020 tenure as foreign affairs minister.
Mr Bassil is widely seen as Mr Aoun's political heir.
The development is a major setback for the leadership of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim community, whose fortunes have already been hit hard by the withdrawal from politics of its de facto leader Saad Hariri in January, four months before hotly contested parliamentary elections.
Political analyst Imad Salamey told The National that he expected a decline of Sunni power across state posts in the coming years "as the shift favouring Shiites and allies is expected to grow".
Lebanon’s council of ministers is expected to renew the tenures of about half the country’s overseas ambassadors on Wednesday, including the influential posts of permanent representative to the UN, and US ambassador said two sources at the Foreign Affairs Ministry who requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject.
It remains uncertain whether the appointments will go ahead this week because the government needs to "have the final package" said one of the sources. "They need to have names for each vacancy," which reach in total about 30, they said.
But candidates are keen for the appointments to go ahead because they might be put on hold for several years if they are not done before parliamentary elections scheduled for May 15. There is an additional incentive to be stationed abroad: salaries are paid in dollars whereas diplomats in Beirut are paid in the largely devalued local currency.
An ally of Iran-backed Hezbollah, Mr Bassil was included under US sanctions in 2020, over accusations of corruption. Mr Hashem stayed in his role of chief of staff under two of Mr Bassil’s successors, Nassif Hitti and Charbel Wehbe, who resigned in May after angering Gulf allies with disparaging comments.
Mr Hashem’s probable appointment to New York has been described in the media as an indication of the influence of Hezbollah, which the US has labelled a terrorist group.
But a source from the Foreign Affairs Ministry rejected such claims despite Mr Hashem’s proximity to Mr Bassil. “These are internal competitors trying to bring him down,” they said. “He’s a career diplomat with 20 years’ experience.”
Mr Hashem would replace the first Lebanese woman to represent Lebanon at the UN, Amal Mudallali, who was nominated in 2017 and has openly talked about her proximity to the Hariri family in local media.
If confirmed, Mr Hashem's nomination would not be the first time that Mr Bassil acts to ensure influence within Lebanese embassies, said political scientist Karim El Mufti.
"He already managed to secure another close adviser, Rami Adwan, to be appointed Lebanese ambassador in France some years ago," said Mr El Mufti.
Lebanon’s ambassador to Germany Mustapha Adib, 50, will likely become the country’s next ambassador to the US in Washington, sources said. In August 2020, Mr Adib was chosen to be Lebanon’s prime minister after a devastating blast at Beirut’s port, but he stepped down less than a month later amid political infighting.
A university professor, Mr Adib is a former adviser to Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who is a Sunni Muslim as per Lebanon’s sectarian political system. He would replace a close adviser to Mr Aoun in Washington, Gaby Issa.
These choices signal a “swap” between Maronites and Sunnites in the favour of the former, a reflection of power struggles between sectarian Lebanese political parties, said a second source at the Foreign Affairs Ministry. “New York is more interesting diplomatically than Washington because it gives access to international networks,” they told The National.
The switch would constitute a serious attempt on the part of Mr Bassil "to regain control of the diplomatic wheel, and foreign policy narrative, at the heart of the UN multilateral fora," said Mr El Mufti.
Ambassador to Washington is also a prestigious post. The US is a key ally of Lebanon, which is the fifth-biggest recipient of American military assistance.
“Irrespective of the personal qualities of the nominees, it is yet another egregious example of the politicisation of the Lebanese diplomatic corps,” said Karim Bitar, professor at Saint-Joseph University.
“Every Lebanese leader is trying to place a person directly loyal to him in the most sensitive embassies to maximise their international network in the context of upcoming strategic elections.”
Despite overall better working conditions for diplomats abroad, difficulties are piling up. They have not been paid for two months and they are expecting Mr Aoun to greenlight a salary cut of about 30 per cent.
For those living in expensive cities in the US and Europe, the situation is becoming “critical,” said the second source. “Diplomats have to pay their own health insurance, rent and children’s education,” they said. “Europe won’t be attractive anymore, except for those who are already well-off.”