Lebanese Christian leader asks Hezbollah to intervene to solve political crisis

Gebran Bassil's appeal to Hassan Nasrallah reveals the shifting alliances between Lebanon’s foreign-backed politicians

FILE PHOTO: Gebran Bassil, a Lebanese politician and head of the Free Patriotic movement, talks during an interview with Reuters in Sin-el-fil, Lebanon July 7, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

An ally of Lebanon's Hezbollah appealed to the Iran-backed group on Sunday for support in a months-long dispute over government formation.

in a televised speech on Sunday, Gebran Bassil, leader of Lebanon's largest Christian Maronite party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), asked Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to directly intervene to solve the country’s political crisis.

Mr Bassil is President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law and is widely seen as the power behind the presidency.

Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government since August after the Hezbollah-backed government resigned in the wake of a deadly blast at Beirut’s port.

“I want to ask for help from a friend, His Eminence Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. I ask him to act as a judge and I trust him with this matter,” Mr Bassil said in reference to the dispute over government formation.

“He knows we are being targeted unfairly,” Mr Bassil said.

Mr Bassil and Mr Aoun have been at loggerheads with prime minister-designate Saad Hariri over ministerial shares in the Cabinet since last October.

His call on Nasrallah is a reminder of Hezbollah’s wide influence over Lebanese politics. The Iran-backed group was the only militia allowed to keep its arms at the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990.

Mr Bassil was the target of sanctions by the US last year for corruption - an accusation he denies.

Earlier this week, Mr Hariri wrote on Twitter that he was willing to step down if it would help solve the political crisis.

Mr Bassil has rejected a mediation attempt by Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, also an ally of Hezbollah, and denied allegations by his political rivals that the FPM has been purposely delaying the formation of the government, saying the group has been “flexible” about its share of ministerial portfolios.

FILE PHOTO: A woman sits near a poster of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, during an event marking Resistance and Liberation Day, in Khiam, near the border with Israel, southern Lebanon, May 25, 2021. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

While Hezbollah holds sway over political life in Lebanon, the group has so far refrained from openly interfering with government formation and is used to conducting politics behind the scenes.

Any Cabinet aligned with the militant group would probably be internationally shunned - making it more difficult for the Lebanese government to access billions of dollars needed to weather the crisis.

Mr Bassil’s plea to Nasrallah is the latest sign of shifting alliances between Lebanon’s foreign-backed politicians.

The pact between Mr Aoun’s FPM and Hezbollah propelled him to the presidency in 2016 - a position Mr Bassil has been vying for ahead of next year’s elections.

The alliance split Lebanon’s Christian community but helped the FPM become the most powerful Christian political player in the country.

Now the Iran-backed Hezbollah is moving closer to Mr Hariri, a traditional ally of western countries and Gulf states, said Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University.

The elections are a unique occasion to present our country with new leaders

He said the FPM is no longer a useful ally to Hezbollah because they lost popular Christian support and may face more western sanctions.

“By far, there are more benefits to having Hariri as a sort of half-ally,” he said. “Bassil is simply burnt out as far as Hezbollah is concerned.”

Although Hezbollah members of parliament did not nominate Mr Hariri for the premiership, their close allies the Amal movement, headed by Mr Berri, voted in his favour.

Lebanon’s political system is divided along sectarian lines with party leaders representing religious communities.

While political leaders bicker over their upcoming ministerial shares, the head of the Maronite church called for Lebanon to vote out the political class in parliamentary elections next year.

Patriarch Bechara Al Rahi said elections must be a moment of “national awakening” to mend the economy after a year and a half of financial crisis.

“The people of Lebanon are called to a national awakening,” the patriarch said in his Sunday sermon.

“The elections are a unique occasion to present our country with new leaders.”