There are several ongoing obstacles to Lebanon’s cabinet formation process, but among the more significant ones is the presidential ambition of Gebran Bassil, the head of the largest Maronite Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement. Mr Bassil believes that if he fails to have enough ministers in the government and allows his political rivals to dominate it, he may never see the presidency.
The question is whether Mr Bassil can realistically expect to become president at all in the next election, which is in October 2022. There are really only two ways that he can hope to succeed the current president, his father in law, Michel Aoun. He either has to win a majority of votes in Parliament, or will need Hezbollah to impose him on the political class, as they did Mr Aoun in 2016.
Neither alternative seems realistic at present. Mr Bassil is far from enjoying majority support in parliament, so effective has he been in alienating a wide cross-section of the political class. As for Hezbollah, while the party may have been willing to block political life for two years to force Mr Aoun into office, Mr Bassil does not seem to enjoy the same backing. Moreover, with Lebanon collapsing financially, Hezbollah would be taking a major risk in trying that again.
Mr Bassil’s situation has not been helped by the fact that the US sanctioned him in November for his alleged corruption. Last week, the impact of this was made clear to him when a senior US official, undersecretary of state David Hale, visited Beirut and saw virtually everyone except Mr Bassil.
Just before that, the president’s son in law had received another blow, when an invitation to France to help resolve the government deadlock was cancelled because the prime minister designate, Saad Hariri, refused to see him there. Mr Bassil had hoped that a meeting with President Emmanuel Macron would win him French assistance to help resolve his sanctions problem. Instead, with a cabinet nowhere in sight, France may soon sanction him, too, for his obstructionism.
A Mr Bassil under international sanctions may not bother Hezbollah, as it would only make him more dependent on the party, but it also makes him far less acceptable as a presidential candidate domestically and internationally. Mr Bassil knows very well that without US, Arab and international approval, his chances of getting anything done were he to take office would be nil.
So what are his calculations as he continues to hold up a new government? Mr Bassil believes, perhaps rightly, that unless he has the latitude to block government decisions and even bring the government down, the majority will try to marginalise his cabinet appointees. Yet it is also clear that his efforts and those of Mr Aoun to control over a third of ministers, which would give him such leverage, are rejected by all the other political forces expected to name ministers.
Most interestingly, Mr Bassil’s staunchest rival, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, appears to have gained some leverage over Hezbollah lately. After Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, advised Mr Hariri a few weeks ago to form a government of “specialists” and political figures, Mr Berri and his Amal Movement put out a statement saying the contrary: that the government should be made up solely of specialists, in line with Mr Hariri’s initial intentions.
There was an interesting message in that public disagreement. Mr Berri’s supporters in the Shiite community have been hard hit by the economic crisis, as many work in the public sector. Tensions have grown between them and Hezbollah, many of whose partisans either earn in US dollars or have relatives who do. To avoid conflict, Hezbollah has given Mr Berri some leeway, which he has used to undermine Mr Bassil, who also prefers a more political cabinet.
With the influential Mr Berri on the ascendant, Mr Bassil is exposed. Moreover, his presidential prospects are tied also to Syria’s calculations. It is likely that president Bashar Al Assad would much prefer Suleiman Franjieh, a Member of Parliament, to succeed Mr Aoun rather than Mr Bassil. The reason is that, at a time when Arab states seem keen to normalise relations with Damascus, Mr Al Assad would welcome a close ally in Beirut who can help consolidate his position, particularly on the economic front.
Neither Hezbollah nor Iran can ignore Mr Al Assad’s wishes, all the more so as they both have an interest in strengthening his unsteady regime. That makes Mr Bassil’s approach of exasperating everyone and holding up a government at a time of national emergency short-sighted. He is no more corrupt than his counterparts, perhaps, but unless he engages in a major tactical reversal to try and build favourable coalitions for himself, he will likely remain unelectable.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese are nearing the point where subsidies will be lifted to save dwindling foreign currency reserves. That means they may no longer be able to feed themselves adequately in the comings months as prices explode. That Mr Bassil and other politicians are bickering at such a time is not only disgraceful, but criminal. Mr Bassil is holding the country up for a hope that may remain unfulfilled.
Michael Young is a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut and a Lebanon columnist for The National