Lebanon's Gebran Bassil calls for consensus president as governance vacuum looms

Leader of Lebanon's Free Patriotic Movement tells 'The National' he will not put himself forward for the role — for now

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Gebran Bassil, the influential leader of Lebanon's Free Patriotic Movement, has said he will not stand in the way of a consensus future president but urged rival factions to agree on a candidate to prevent a prolonged government vacuum in a country grappling with a severe economic crisis.

The term of incumbent Michel Aoun will end next Monday and many sessions in the 128-seat Lebanese Parliament have failed to elect a successor.

The government is supposed to take on presidential powers in the event of a vacuum but the administration of Prime Minister Najib Mikati has remained in caretaker status for months amid squabbling over the Cabinet’s make up.

Critics of Mr Bassil argue that he and his allies are behind the failure to elect a successor to Mr Aoun because they have cast blank ballots in parliamentary votes. But Mr Bassil said his opponents are failing to propose realistic candidates who can bridge the divide in Lebanon's deeply divided political class.

Mr Bassil, the son-in-law of Mr Aoun, said a government vacuum would have “disastrous consequences on our economy, prosperity and, unfortunately, on security”.

Two thirds of the vote is needed for a presidential candidate to secure a win in the first round of voting. An absolute majority is required in subsequent rounds.

Four sessions have failed to make headway, with Michel Moawad the only person to receive any significant support. But his support — 39 votes in the last session — have consistently been outnumbered by blank ballots, including from the FPM.

Mr Moawad has received support from the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party and a handful of independents. But many believe he is too divisive to beat the vote and quorum threshold, in part because he is a staunch critic of Iran-backed Hezbollah, the powerful armed group and political party with which the FPM is allied.

“Yes, it is not productive to cast a white paper but it's also unproductive to put forward a name where you know that he has zero chance to succeed,” said Mr Bassil.

“It’s the same. It's filling the blank with some ink without being serious about it. What would be serious — and we are working on making it happen — is to reach an agreement, each party. It is counterproductive from one side to say we want to impose a president by challenging others.”

He said he had called for dialogue between Lebanon’s factions in a bid to find a president.

'A vacancy can last'

Electing a president in Lebanon is often a drawn-out affair. In 2016, it took 46 sessions and 29 months to elect Mr Aoun, whose ascendancy came after a series of backdoor deals between key players. In the country's confessional system, the presidency is always held by a Maronite Christian, the speaker a Shiite Muslim and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim.

“A vacancy can last, and this is very dangerous for the country,” Mr Bassil said. “Why wait for the vacancy, then to have a dialogue and then [for] everybody to have [to] present more concessions?”

Mr Bassil has long been seen as harbouring presidential ambitions but said he is not presenting his candidacy. He appeared to suggest that, at the moment, he knew he would not succeed and presented instead the favoured candidate of his party or his allies — whether himself or someone else — would not work.

“If I stand my ground and make the fight, maybe the time will be in my benefit. But I'm not playing this game. Because I believe that the bad situation in the country, mainly economically and socially, doesn't give us the luxury of time to wait. That's the main reason.”

Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, at his home in Mtaileb, Lebanon. Matt Kynaston / The National

Lebanon is embroiled in a severe economic crisis, described by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern history, which has been blamed on rampant corruption and mismanagement by Lebanon’s ruling classes.

Mr Bassil, a former foreign and energy minister, was himself a frequent target during the 2019 protests against Lebanon’s rulers that brought down the government.

He was asked by The National how the average person in Lebanon might see politicians as out of touch as they bicker over the president or government portfolios while the country is gripped by a financial crisis.

“This is a country that is based in its creation on diversity and living together,” he said. “So any community that feels threatened for its existence would react. We're all minorities in this country. So every time that there's somebody that feels threatened in its political rights, its political existence and even in their material existence. So that's why this is not a minor issue.

“If the Christians feel that they are threatened, and they are leaving the country, this wouldn't keep the same Lebanon that we know. The same applies to the Muslims. If they feel threatened from inside or from outside, like they do sometimes, this is not good, this is not healthy for the country.”

A rare bright spot for Lebanon has been a historic maritime deal with Israel, which is due to be signed on Thursday. The agreement demarcates the sea borders between the two countries, which remain technically at war, and allows both to conduct gas exploration in the Mediterranean while easing a potential source of tension.

The dispute had rumbled on for years, but Mr Bassil — who says he was involved in the indirect negotiations — highlighted three important factors as to why the deal has now been agreed upon.

He pointed out the role of US energy envoy Amos Hochstein, who mediated the indirect talks and was described as someone who understood the needs of each party and the situation at the UN-patrolled border.

Mr Bassil highlighted the global energy crisis and the need for gas, particularly in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But he also mentioned the role of Hezbollah, which has been sanctioned by the US and threatened Israel over any exploration of disputed areas before a deal was reached.

“[A] factor that helped, I believe, to speed up the process is when Hezbollah came into the equation and said that, yes, we will protect our rights,” Mr Bassil said, referring to an “equilibrium of force”.

Few in Lebanon garner as much controversy as Mr Bassil, who was sanctioned by the US in 2020 for alleged corruption and material support to Hezbollah — accusations he denies and is seeking to appeal.

But he is nonetheless, as a senior politician, former minister and son-in-law of the president, inextricably linked to a ruling class blamed for the economic collapse, the deadly 2020 Beirut port blast and others crises.

Gebran Bassil speaks to his supporters during an electoral festival in Beirut. He was sanctioned by the US in 2020 for alleged corruption and material support to Hezbollah. EPA

Mr Bassil frequently refers to a “political assassination clearly designed and tailored to get rid of me”.

He said corruption accusations were “baseless” and instead related to his understanding with Hezbollah, which has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation — whether in its entirety or just its military wing — by the US, EU and some Arab states.

“I'm independent, and nobody can influence me or dictate on me what to do politically in my country. That's why wherever I see that the interests of my country coincide with the outside, I can do them like we did in the last agreement on the maritime borders,” Mr Bassil said.

In 2006, the FPM and Hezbollah signed an agreement. Mr Bassil said the reasons behind the agreement remain valid even if it has been the main driver of the sanctions imposed on him.

“I work for the interest of Lebanon,” he said. “I found that the condition put on me not to be sanctioned, which is I have to break with Hezbollah at that time, would have created chaos and lack of unity, and a war in this country. I did not do it.

“And I knew that the cost would be the sanctions, and I accepted it. But I refuse to accept that this is because of corruption. That's why I’m challenging it.”

Updated: November 10, 2022, 12:04 PM
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