Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 26 August 2019

Gebran Bassil denies any interest in Lebanon’s presidency, but no one is buying his act

A recent row with Prime Minister Saad Hariri was the latest in a series of carefully planned manoeuvres by the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil appears to want to be Lebanon's next president. Bill Kotsatos for The National
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil appears to want to be Lebanon's next president. Bill Kotsatos for The National

Lebanon’s government had barely been formed before a row broke out between Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Some worried it might lead to a collapse of the government, but this week the two men showed signs of calming the atmosphere. What we’re seeing is the latest example of manoeuvring by Mr Bassil, who one day intends to become Lebanon’s president, a post reserved for the Maronite Christian community.

How do we know? A good indicator came from Mr Bassil himself. On Sunday, Mr Bassil, who is also leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), declared that those saying he was preparing to be president once his father-in-law, Michel Aoun, left the post or passed away were wrong. He denied having any personal ambitions, saying that talk about the presidential race was aimed at harming him. “This is a topic no one is allowed to bring up with me,” he insisted.

In Lebanon when politicians protest a claim too much, it’s a good sign that it happens to be true. In picking a fight recently with Mr Hariri and his Future Movement, Mr Bassil seemed to have one goal in mind: to portray himself as the pre-eminent Christian representative, who could bring back to his co-religionists the power they had lost, to the advantage of the Sunni prime minister, in the Taif Accord of 1989. By doing so, Mr Bassil believes that he will emerge as the most legitimate Christian for the presidency.

There was some irony here. Since Mr Hariri returned to Lebanon in 2016 to support Mr Aoun’s presidency, he had made a rapprochement with the Aounists a cornerstone of his political strategy, to the extent of alienating many of his political allies. However, it appears that in wanting to be flexible, the prime minister merely looked weak, and Mr Bassil sought to take advantage of this.

The official reasons for the discord between the two men are both more significant and less so. In the less significant category, last week Mr Bassil criticised an international conference in Brussels on Syrian refugees, which Mr Hariri was attending. The foreign minister portrayed himself as a defender of Lebanon by saying, without proof, that the international community wanted to resettle displaced people in the country. This is a sore point for many Christians, who fear that the settlement of the mainly Sunni Syrian refugees in Lebanon will turn Christians into an even smaller minority.

In Lebanon when politicians protest against a claim too much, it’s a pretty good sign that it happens to be true

More seriously, Mr Bassil and Mr Hariri have disagreements over senior civil service and military appointments, with Mr Bassil demanding a lion’s share for the FPM, at the expense of other Christian parties. For Mr Bassil, such demands are not only aimed at marginalising his rivals, but also at obtaining more patronage power, which can help him to expand his political base. Doing so would give him a serious leg up for the presidency.

In another dogwhistle familiar to Christians, the Aounists also opened fire on the former prime minister, Fouad Siniora, accusing him of illegal budgetary spending. Mr Siniora is regarded as a stand-in for the policies of the late prime minister Rafik Hariri, whom he served. Many Christians view Rafik Hariri as the Sunni leader who accelerated the Christians' political decline brought about by the Taif Accord.

Mr Bassil’s gamesmanship comes at a bad time. With Lebanon facing a severe economic crisis, the government cannot afford to bicker over petty matters. But that is precisely Mr Bassil’s calculation. He believes that Mr Hariri is so desperate to pass urgent economic reforms and ensure harmony in his government that concessions can be forced from him.

Mr Hariri’s problem is that he has already lost a great deal of power since returning as prime minister in 2016. He has been so willing to compromise in order to remain in his position that, were he to go any further, he would risk losing his base of support among Sunnis. Already, there is a perception that the prime minister is the patsy of Mr Bassil and Hezbollah, and it is true that he invariably seems to be the one who bends when political deadlock needs to be broken.

Watching the quarrel between Mr Bassil and Mr Hariri with satisfaction was Hezbollah. The party gains when the prime minister’s power is diminished, while Mr Bassil’s presidential ambitions mean he will have to secure its approval to be elected. Hezbollah also benefits politically whenever the government is divided, so it is likely to encourage Mr Bassil to keep the pressure up on Mr Hariri. In that way, it can gain leverage whenever it intervenes to broker deals that allow the government to move forward.

It is often said that the most destructive moments in Lebanese politics are those when Maronite Christians are vying for the presidency. That has been true on many occasions around election time. But Mr Aoun is 84 years old now, so his health and succession are ongoing issues. Mr Bassil may claim not to be thinking of what happens after his father-in-law is gone, but no one seriously believes him.

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

Updated: March 20, 2019 04:41 PM

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