Deadly clashes in Lebanon are indicative of a power struggle

Foreign minister Gebran Bassil's presidential aspirations have sparked growing tensions

People carry the coffin of Rami Salman, one of two aides of Refugee Affairs Minister Saleh al-Gharib who was killed on Sunday, in an incident that Gharib called an assassination attempt, during his funeral in Ramlieh, Lebanon July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
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Last week a deadly encounter took place in the Lebanese mountain village of Qabr Shmoun, where two bodyguards of the Druze minister Saleh Al Gharib were killed in an exchange of gunfire with members of Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party (PSP).

Minister of State for Displaced Affairs Mr Gharib is close to Druze politician Talal Arslan and the incident has been seen as a reflection of Mr Arslan’s long-standing rivalry with Mr Jumblatt, the leader of the main Druze party in Lebanon. However, the role of Maronite Christian politician Gebran Bassil in events leading up to the violence cannot be overstated.

Foreign minister Mr Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and is the son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, is in the midst of a presidential campaign, although he won’t admit it. Mr Aoun is in his mid-80s. For his son-in-law, now is the time to transform himself into a bona fide presidential candidate by pressing the right populist buttons. This he has tried to do by challenging Mr Jumblatt in the mountain areas where he dominates and where Christian civilians were once victims of the PSP during the Lebanese civil war.

In the run-up to the Qabr Shmoun episode, Mr Bassil had planned to visit the village of Kfar Matta with Mr Al Gharib and meet a senior Druze religious figure backed by Mr Arslan. Mr Jumblatt supports a rival religious figure so he viewed this interference in Druze affairs as a red line. Mr Bassil also recently used language referring to Druze-Christian tensions during the war years in a way that ignored Druze sensitivities.

And most disturbing to Mr Jumblatt, both Mr Bassil and prime minister Saad Hariri have cut him out of state patronage networks. This has prevented him from having access to state institutions and distributing the spoils to his followers. Not surprisingly, Mr Jumblatt has seen this as an effort to undermine him politically.

It is unlikely that Mr Jumblatt sought an armed confrontation with Mr Arslan. He has long sought to avoid inter-Druze clashes, largely because he has major influence over the community and this would only weaken his position

All this encouraged Mr Jumblatt to raise the stakes with Mr Bassil. With Jumblatt supporters gathered on the streets to protest the foreign minister’s visit to Kfar Matta, Mr Bassil got as far as Shemlan but called off the visit en route. Mr Al Mr Gharib’s convoy reportedly tried to drive through the blocked roads, leading to the armed altercation with PSP supporters, one of whom was killed in the clashes. Mr Al Gharib said it was an assassination attempt; Mr Jumblatt’s representatives have said the minister’s bodyguards fired at civilians first.

It is unlikely that Mr Jumblatt sought an armed confrontation with Mr Arslan. He has long sought to avoid inter-Druze clashes, largely because he has major influence over the community and this would only weaken his position. More probably, however, by putting his people on the streets, Mr Jumblatt sought to send a message to Mr Bassil that he could not humiliate him in his own region while also showing Mr Arslan who was the boss among the Druze.

The tensions with Mr Bassil are bound to grow. Mr Jumblatt has long had a complicated relationship with Maronite Christian politicians, who project themselves as strong communal leaders. Not only have they tended to influence Maronite voters in the Aley and Shouf regions where Mr Jumblatt is dominant and jealously guards his power but by virtue of their holding the presidency, such individuals have also been able to use the power of the state against the Jumblatts.

There are many who oppose Mr Bassil’s hunger to be president. The foreign minister’s perceived rapacity has alienated a bevy of politicians. Mr Jumblatt, as well as Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker, and Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party that rivals the FPM, all oppose Mr Bassil. However, if the foreign minister can create the impression that he speaks for many Christians, he might be able to impose himself as a successor to his father-in-law.

A question mark hangs over Mr Hariri. When he returned to power in 2016, the prime minister did so on the basis of an understanding with Mr Aoun: Mr Hariri would support an Aoun presidency if he, in turn, were named prime minister by the new president. His political and financial fortunes had been in sharp decline since 2011 and Mr Hariri needed to return to office to reverse this situation. For a time, the quid pro quo worked.

However, before long Mr Bassil realised that he held the strong cards in the relationship and started to bully Mr Hariri into accepting his conditions for the formation of the new government. He set conditions on the number of Christian rivals in the cabinet and hindered its progress to get his way. This cost Mr Hariri politically but he could not alienate Mr Bassil as his aim was to implement his plan to revive the ailing economy.

However, in recent weeks, Mr Hariri has suggested he might be willing to reconsider his options. Last week, Mr Berri hosted him and Mr Jumblatt for a reconciliation dinner, suggesting that Mr Hariri might have had enough of Mr Bassil’s provocations. The situation might not soon change but amid the politicking, it seems the fact that people have lost their lives is easily forgotten, with those in Lebanon’s political arena indifferent to the havoc they wreak.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut