With Lebanon in chaos, how far is Gebran Bassil willing to go to take the presidency?

The former president's son in law is not very good at reconciliation

Gebran Bassil is head of Lebanon's Free Patriotic Movement. EPA
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Two Fridays ago, in an interview with Lebanon’s An Nahar daily, Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement and son-in-law of former Lebanese president Michel Aoun, put Hezbollah in a difficult position. He told the newspaper that Hezbollah could not force him to vote for Suleiman Franjieh as president, nor did he believe that Mr Franjieh “could guide the country out of the situation it is in today".

What made the statement significant is that it took place after Mr Bassil had met Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, who reportedly asked him to support Mr Franjieh’s candidacy. Reports indicate the meeting was tense after Mr Bassil refused to comply with Nasrallah’s request and followed this by asking the Hezbollah leader to endorse Mr Bassil’s own candidacy instead.

Despite the power imbalance between Hezbollah and its Christian allies, the party is being very careful not to take steps that could alienate either Mr Bassil or Mr Franjieh. In the treacherous Lebanese sectarian game, Hezbollah knows that only its cross-sectarian alliances, particularly with Mr Aoun in 2006, allowed it to regain the initiative against its political adversaries who had emerged strengthened from the uprising in 2005 against Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon.

Moreover, Mr Bassil has paid a price for his ties with Hezbollah. While he was sanctioned for corruption by the US in November 2020 under the so-called Magnitsky Act, no one doubts there was a political dimension to the American decision. US officials had long voiced their displeasure about the FPM’s alliance with Hezbollah.

That is why he appears to believe that Hezbollah owes him, and the way to show this is for the party to help make him president. Deep down, Mr Bassil would like Hezbollah to do for him what it did for Mr Aoun, namely impose a vacuum until all other political groups are forced to vote him into office. His victory, he feels, would have the added benefit of leading to a rapid lifting of US sanctions, an idea that Mr Aoun first expressed in one of his final interviews before going home.

The post of Lebanon's president is currently empty, after Michel Aoun's tenure ended without a successor in place. EPA
Bassil has paid a price for his ties with Hezbollah

Yet, things are not so simple. Hezbollah’s primary ally is parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a fellow Shiite and Mr Aoun’s and Mr Bassil’s perpetual political foe. Hezbollah has gone far in backing the Aounists, but it has always made clear that it draws the line at its relationship with Mr Berri, primarily to preserve Shiite political unity.

Hezbollah’s discomfort with the situation has been palpable. It has issued no public statement in response to Mr Bassil’s interview. The reality is that the party has no ready solutions for its problem. Mr Bassil feels he has Hezbollah over a barrel, but he should also be careful not to overestimate his leverage.

Hezbollah does need a representative Christian ally. But it is not willing to sacrifice other key objectives – maintaining its ties with Mr Berri and preserving tranquil relations with the Sunni and other sectarian communities – on behalf of Mr Bassil’s personal desires. Trying to impose him as president would jeopardise both those aims, and the party won't go down that path.

Mr Bassil is fearful that now that Mr Aoun has left office, his own political survival is under threat. He’s right to be, largely because he has antagonised just about everyone in recent years, for which he finds himself politically isolated. Many people have their proverbial knives out for Mr Bassil and would welcome his marginalisation.

That’s why Mr Bassil’s only way out of his predicament is to take his time on the presidency, be patient, and start rebuilding relations across the political spectrum, by reconciling with his enemies, in order to stabilise himself in the post-Aoun system. The problem is that he is impetuous and had it easy during his political rise, riding on Mr Aoun’s coattails. He now has to set out and constitute a political base on his own.

That effort will have to begin inside the FPM. Over the years, major figures in the organisation have either been made to leave or have been expelled by Mr Bassil, who sought to shape the FPM around his own priorities. Mr Aoun implicitly assented, which gave Mr Bassil great latitude to pursue his purges. However, a major question today is whether the FPM can remain unified beyond Mr Aoun’s lifetime.

The problem is that Mr Bassil does not do reconciliation well. He’s a naturally contentious and supercilious figure, and his risky decision to put Hezbollah on the spot exposed his temperament. Indeed, Mr Bassil has continued to attack many of Lebanon’s leading political figures, amid reports that this would now be the FPM’s strategy, in order to mobilise the organisation behind its leader.

If that’s the game plan, Mr Bassil is miscalculating. He might retain support among his own, but he’ll struggle to preserve his place in the political system. For now, ties with Hezbollah are the only thing he has going for him. But at some point, soon, he has to think beyond that if he wants to avoid remaining entirely dependent on the party.

Published: November 08, 2022, 2:00 PM