Playing Solitaire


Gebran Bassil has just been humiliated by Hezbollah, but that will likely not end his ties with the party.


Earlier this week, something happened in Lebanon’s political theater that, while hardly earth-shattering, still had considerable significance. Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati called for a cabinet session on Monday, which was boycotted by the ministers and allies of Gebran Bassil and his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). When it appeared that there would be no quorum to hold a session, two ministers nominally affiliated with Bassil showed up and ensured there was one, undermining Bassil’s boycott strategy.


What happened? Since the departure of his father in law, Michel Aoun, from the presidency, Bassil has strived to succeed him as president. However, Lebanon’s divided parliament has repeatedly failed to agree on a candidate. Constitutionally, when the presidency is vacant, the cabinet takes on presidential prerogatives. However, Mikati’s cabinet is a caretaker cabinet, because it resigned after parliamentary elections last May. Bassil and Aoun have insisted that such a cabinet cannot replace the president, and Bassil’s efforts to prevent the government from meeting have been a way of increasing his political leverage.

Bassil feels that if he can impose a destructive institutional vacuum on Lebanon by preventing cabinet sessions, this would enhance his bargaining power, so that the only way out of the deadlock would be for the country’s political forces, above all Hezbollah, to elect him. The only problem is that Hezbollah does not support his candidacy, despite its alliance with the FPM, and would probably prefer to bring to office Suleiman Franjieh, who is also close to the party.

The two ministers who defied Bassil were George Bouchikian of the Tashnag Party, which is allied with the FPM, and Hector Hajjar, who was appointed from Aoun’s quota of cabinet ministers last year. Many observers assumed that the reason both men did so was Hezbollah’s intervention. The party had made it clear in recent months that it did not want to leave a void in the state. However, the finger in Bassil’s eye came from the fact not only that the two ministers were supposed to be under his authority, but that Tashnag may have an agenda different from Bassil’s.

Tashnag made a big issue of saying that Bouchikian had acted on his own initiative, and expelled him from its parliamentary bloc. However, to some people this appeared to be play-acting to avoid a clash with the FPM. Yet even if Bouchikian did disobey his party, the message was that Bassil does not control his political alliances, which made him look foolish.

What is the importance of this in the bigger picture? In the aftermath of the cabinet session, Bassil hit back at Hezbollah, saying, “Today we are closer to the Lebanese Forces than to Hezbollah,” referring to the FMP’s main Christian rival, which is also hostile to Hezbollah. The Lebanese Forces opposes cabinet sessions as well, because the presidency is customarily held by a Maronite Christian, while governments are headed by a Sunnis Muslim, and none of the Christian parties wants to see the institution their community heads under the sway of a non-Christian.

Everything really boils down to the presidency. Bassil was less troubled by constitutional niceties back in 2014, when he and Aoun, with Hezbollah’s backing, imposed a two-year vacuum in the presidency so that Aoun would be elected. Much the same holds today, as Bassil is trying to come to grips with the fact that years of planning on his part to take over from Aoun have come to nothing. He finds himself politically isolated and more dependent than ever on Hezbollah, which is bound to cost him down the road in the Christian community.

That said, Hezbollah has a choice to make. All the major Christian parties—the FPM, the Lebanese Forces, and the Kataeb Party—are highly unlikely to vote for Franjieh as president, which means that if he is to be elected, it would be with votes most of which come from parliamentary blocs led by non-Christians. That would damage Franjieh within his own community. He had initially sought to position himself as a consensual figure, between a candidate backed by the Aounists and another by the Lebanese Forces, but today that tactic is in shambles.

Would Hezbollah be willing to ignore this and bring Franjieh in with the votes that it can muster? That’s doubtful for two reasons. First, it would mean ignoring the evident majority of Christians who oppose a Franjieh presidency, creating the impression that Muslim political forces are imposing a Maronite Christian president on a recalcitrant Christian community. Second, even in terms of the mechanics it would probably not work. For parliament to elect a president, it needs a quorum of two-thirds of 128 seats. If the major Christian blocs want to prevent Franjieh’s election, they will easily find enough parliamentarians, both Christian and Muslim, who will refuse to go to parliament, thereby denying a quorum.

Alternatively, Hezbollah can try to seek agreement on a more consensual candidate who is able to overcome the rifts in parliament. The problem is that most such figures, as compromise candidates, would be weak, requiring them to earn support from one of the large Christian blocs to be seen as legitimate. But Hezbollah does not want the Lebanese Forces to be the party bestowing Christian blessings on a candidate, it wants Bassil do so. The problem is that he is reluctant to support anyone other than himself, unless he can so load him or her down with conditions that the next president would be a stand-in for Bassil. If that were to pass, Hezbollah’s allies or partners who despise Bassil would refuse to elect that candidate. So, Bassil is only compounding Hezbollah’s dilemma.

What does this mean for Bassil’s ties with the party? There has been speculation that the relationship between Hezbollah and the FPM is over, but that’s highly improbable. For Aoun and Bassil, the FPM’s partnership with the party was always about the presidency and nothing but the presidency. It worked for Aoun, while Bassil has yet to be satisfied. However, he is lucid enough to know that even if he isn’t elected this time around, there will be a next time, and anyone who wants to be president will invariably have to obtain Hezbollah’s endorsement.

In the meantime, Bassil will have to go through what the French call his “crossing of the desert.” He will have to engage in the trifling gymnastics of Lebanese political life, protecting his position, scoring small points here and there, and setting himself up advantageously for the future. He will also have to calibrate his relationship with Hezbollah to ensure that he is not perceived as the party’s stooge, while also remaining on good terms with it.

But Bassil should have gotten a clear message, namely that his political behavior in the past decade has reached the stage of diminishing returns. By standing against the established political class to portray himself as a reformer, he has alienated almost everyone, while convincing none but the blindest of Aounists that he is less shady than other politicians. In being sanctioned by the Americans, he has paid a heavy price for his ties to a party that has not hesitated to cut him down to size. And by thinking he was as important to Hezbollah as Michel Aoun, Bassil showed that he was suffering from a malignant form of hubris.

Bassil’s only way out of this situation is to break free from the quarrelsome brinkmanship politics that he has practiced for so long. He can no longer hide behind his father in law and Hezbollah to get what he wants. If he fails to build coalitions in pursuit of his goals, reach compromises, and reconcile with his many political enemies, he will make no headway. To be politically valuable, Bassil has to show that he has value. For now, he’s losing that battle.

Carngegie Diwan

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