Little has changed in Lebanon since the departure of Michel Aoun from the presidency at the end of October. There is still no agreement among the country’s political forces over a successor. This situation has been particularly damaging for the relationship between Mr Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), and Hezbollah.
By most accounts, Hezbollah would like to see another Maronite Christian ally, Suleiman Frangieh, elected, but for that to happen he needs the support of a major Christian parliamentary bloc (parliament elects presidents in Lebanon) to secure communal legitimacy. But the FPM, which is led by Mr Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, refuses to endorse him, because Mr Bassil has presidential ambitions of his own.
Mr Bassil has long sought to succeed Mr Aoun, and for years was the power behind the presidency, even setting up an office at the presidential palace. However, as the likelihood of his election has waned, he may be thinking of an alternative plan: bringing someone weak to power, upon whom he can impose conditions in exchange for his backing, allowing Mr Bassil to retain influence over the presidency.
Mr Bassil is also likely worried that without his father-in-law to protect him, he will be swept away by the established post-1990 political class that controls much of the country, and which always regarded him and Mr Aoun as interlopers. Mr Frangieh is one of the main representatives of this group, along with parliament speaker Nabih Berri, the Druze leader Walid Joumblatt, and to a lesser extent the former prime minister Saad Hariri, who resides outside Lebanon, as well as their appointees in the political system.
It is in this context that the alliance with Hezbollah has been so important. Formalised in what is known as the Mar Mikhail Agreement of 2006, the alliance for a long time served both sides well. It won Mr Aoun Hezbollah’s support for his presidency in 2016; and it allowed Hezbollah to break its isolation after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, which was followed by the electoral victory of the March 14 forces opposed to Syria.
But for Mr Aoun, like Mr Bassil, the ties with Hezbollah have always been primarily about the presidency. Mr Aoun judged, correctly as it turned out, that he would only be elected if he had the party behind him, and Mr Bassil hoped for the same. Yet when Hezbollah failed to back his candidacy this year, the relationship turned sour.
Today, Hezbollah has yet to formally endorse Mr Frangieh, as it does not want its ties with the FMP to deteriorate. But at some point the party will have to take a decision. Mr Frangieh’s position is increasingly precarious because Hezbollah has not declared its intentions officially, while none of the two major Christian blocs, the Aounists or the rival Lebanese Forces, will support Mr Frangieh.
Mr Bassil and Hezbollah have said many times that they want to preserve their relationship. But this won’t mean much if Mr Bassil continues to block Mr Frangieh and Hezbollah sees Mr Bassil as too dependent on the party for it to accept his conditions.
In fact, the six years of Mr Aoun’s mandate were a disaster for Hezbollah, explaining why they don’t want to replicate this with Mr Bassil. The party was regarded as the defender of a discredited president amid an economic collapse. Moreover, Mr Bassil would routinely attack Hezbollah’s allies, especially Mr Berri. Mr Bassil became a headache, clashing regularly with Mr Hariri and the current Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, to pave his way to the presidency, so that government was invariably blocked.
This had negative repercussions for Hezbollah, but today the party sees things differently. It no longer needs a Christian ally as vitally as it did in 2006, because it has developed relations with the Sunni and Druze communities. If Mr Bassil wants to go his own way, Hezbollah will not pay a heavy price for this, even if it prefers to avoid it.
Mr Bassil is well aware that he is at a disadvantage. His latitude to break with Hezbollah is limited if he wants to preserve political influence. He has alienated everyone, and within his own community, even within the FPM, he has steadily lost ground, so that a break with the party could lead to his political irrelevance.
But nor can Mr Bassil bring in a presidential candidate who is under his thumb, as he desires. His political enemies will never accept that he control the presidency by stealth, and will not vote for his candidate. Mr Bassil needs to completely change his strategy and start making new allies, otherwise he will only dig his hole deeper. He may yet shift tack, but it’s too late to make a difference on the presidency this year.