Last week, after having long threatened to do so, the US sanctioned the Lebanese politician Gebran Bassil, son-in-law of Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun and a prominent figure in the country’s Christian political leadership. Mr Bassil was sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act, which targets individuals involved in corruption, and for his ties with the militant group Hezbollah.
In the immediate term, Mr Bassil is likely to weather the storm, but down the road the sanctions will raise major questions related to his political future. When the sanctions came, he was in the midst of negotiations with prime minister-designate Saad Hariri over his stake and that of his party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), in the new government that Mr Hariri is trying to form. Among other things, Mr Bassil insists upon naming the energy minister.
After he was sanctioned, Mr Bassil received a generous endorsement from the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. This was to be expected. The FPM is Hezbollah’s main Christian ally, giving the militant group cross-confessional legitimacy. More importantly, Mr Bassil has influence over Mr Aoun, and Hezbollah regards the President’s approval as valuable official consent for its actions.
However, things may not be so simple for Mr Bassil. Hezbollah has long felt that he is damaged goods, with many Lebanese regarding him as the personification of venality. He is also viewed with distaste internationally, particularly among governments that are encouraging Lebanon to adopt economic reforms and who see Mr Bassil as an obstacle to this.
This context suggests that Hezbollah – while it doesn’t want a complete split with Mr Bassil – may soon have to reassess how far it is willing to go in backing him, particularly in his disputes with Mr Hariri over the structure of the cabinet.
Mr Hariri is trying to put together a government that will implement a French-sponsored plan to reform the economy. His failure to do so would represent a blow to France, which sent an envoy to Beirut last week to urge Lebanon’s politicians to agree.
Hezbollah appears to want to see implementation of the French initiative, particularly when a new administration is about to take office in the US. France could play a role in mediating between Washington and Tehran, so Hezbollah may not want the French to be humiliated in Lebanon.
At the same time, France has promised to help Lebanon secure international financial assistance and even to organise a conference to help the country.
Hezbollah is aware of the severity of the economic crisis and how this is neutralising its ability to fight Israel on Iran’s behalf. It is also wary about the crisis’ damaging impact on domestic stability, which the militant party wants to preserve.
That is why there is a question as to whether Hezbollah can afford to go all the way for Mr Bassil in his demand that he name the energy minister, a demand Mr Hariri adamantly rejects.
The French, too, reportedly oppose such a nomination, as a change in the management of the energy ministry is vital to kick off serious reforms. However, Mr Bassil has pointed out that because Mr Hariri has already agreed to give the finance ministry to Lebanon’s two Shia parties (Hezbollah and Amal) he, too, should be entitled to certain ministries.
While there is some logic to his argument, it ignores the balance of forces. When Mr Hariri announced in an interview that he would be a candidate for prime minister, he did so with the subliminal message that once he and the Shia parties agreed, others would have to go along.
Indeed, Hezbollah obliged Mr Aoun to hold consultations for a new prime minister in order to pave the way for Mr Hariri’s return.
Hezbollah realises that Mr Hariri remains the most credible link with the international community on economic issues. He is also the main Lebanese Sunni representative.
That means that the party gains more by working out an understanding with him than it does with Mr Bassil, who has been weakened by sanctions and a perception that he is now entirely dependent on Hezbollah.
If the incoming US administration of Joe Biden shows openness towards renewed dialogue with Iran, Hezbollah may see a further benefit in having good ties with Mr Hariri, as it would indirectly imply better relations with his regional backers.
This could lower the heat on the party from Washington, facilitating a package deal that includes foreign financial aid to the Lebanese economy.
In other words, in the coming months Mr Bassil could be worth less to Hezbollah than an understanding with Mr Hariri. It seems unlikely that Hezbollah will allow the French plan to facilitate aid to Lebanon to fall apart just so that Mr Bassil can retain the energy ministry.
Therefore, It would not be surprising if Nasrallah encouraged Mr Bassil to make a concession so a government can be formed.
Finally, Mr Bassil’s own political ambitions may have taken a fatal blow, too. Within the FPM there is an increasing number of members displeased with how he has damaged the party’s reputation.
Mr Bassil wants to succeed his father-in-law as president, but the fact that he is facing US sanctions, in addition to opposition among his own, has reduced his chances significantly. Mr Bassil’s dilemma is that he needs the support of Mr Hariri’s bloc and the Shia parties to be elected, and today none of them see a compelling reason to vote for him.
Michael Young is a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut and a columnist for The National