Elias Bou Saab, a Greek Orthodox MP affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement, was elected in the second round of voting as deputy speaker of Parliament with 65 votes of 128 in total, as opposed to 60 votes for his rival, Ghassan Skaff, an independent MP supported by the Lebanese Forces from the western Bekaa.
The former minister of education in the Tammam Salam cabinet and minister of defense in Saad Hariri’s cabinet replaced Damascus henchman, Elie Ferzli, who suffered a crushing defeat in the May 15 parliamentary elections.
After the ousting of several pro-Assad MPs in the polls, the election of Bou Saab, who used to belong to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, is a reminder that Damascus has not lost all its cards in Lebanon.
Being voted deputy speaker of Parliament is above all the result of a Lebanese-style deal. Nabih Berri, Parliament speaker since 1992, made sure he could count on the votes of some of the Aounist MPs in order to obtain an absolute majority in the first round.
In return, the FPM was able to secure Bou Saab’s seat. The two men met in Ain al-Tineh on May 28, a few days before the parliamentary session, after Gebran Bassil announced Bou Saab’s candidacy.
The MP for Metn is not very close to the FPM leader and was not the latter’s first choice.
The president’s son-in-law preferred MP George Atallah, but eventually decided to support Bou Saab.
“There was clearly an agreement under the table between Nabih Berri, Hassan Nasrallah and Gebran Bassil to elect Bou Saab and Alain Aoun (a member of the Parliament bureau),” said Charles Jabbour, spokesman for the LF. “Before his supporters, Bassil is making a propaganda by saying that he is against Berri, while he supports him in reality,” he said.
To keep his throne, the Parliament speaker was ready to do anything and will have to deal with President Michel Aoun’s right-hand men, his sworn enemy. But for Berri, Bou Saab is also a heaven-sent candidate. He is already from the political class, they know each other well, they could be even related, and Bou Saab has spoken about bridging the gapbetween the chiefs of FPM and Amal in recent years.
At 54, Bou Saab is now living his moment of glory by ascending to the highest position traditionally reserved for the Greek Orthodox community. Bou Saab, who hails from the village of Dhour Choueir holds a master’s degree in international relations from Boston University, as well as a degree in marketing from the American College in London.
The businessman made his fortune in Dubai, where he served as executive vice president of the American University of Dubai, a renowned academic institution he helped establish in the 1990s.
Before joining politics, Bou Saab provided the FPM media bodies, OTV, al-Mada news website and Sawt el-Mada radio during their establishment with financial support.
He then invested himself at the local level by being elected head of the Dhour Choueir municipal council from 2009 to 2012.
“I have known him since childhood, he is someone who had to leave the country to make a fortune, but who always wanted to serve his village and district,” said the village’s mukhtar Mikhael Sawaya. “He helped many people in a discreet way, in hospitals or by paying for the young people’s tuition fees in the Gulf,” Sawaya added. In 2014, he was appointed minister of education and higher education and carried out several reforms. On many occasions, he was mocked on social networks for ordering the closure of schools due to severe cold or bad weather.
His successor, Tarek Majzoub, accused him of nepotism for having appointed his maternal cousin Nada Oueijan at the head of the ministry’s Center for Educational Research and Development in 2015.
With strong ties to the entire political class, Bou Saab will serve as mediator between the FPM and the various parties. In 2017, he was appointed advisor for international affairs to Michel Aoun.
“He is a rather flexible, dynamic person. A man of dialogue who has good relations with everyone and even with those who do not vote for him,” said FPM MP Alain Aoun.
Although he never officially joined the party, Bou Saab has remained loyal to the Aounist bloc, while standing out on some issues.
While he supports an appeasement between Berri and Michel Aoun, tensions erupted between him and Jean Aziz, advisor to the head of state, in 2018, which resulted in the latter’s resignation. Back then, he also angered the FPM activists by describing the Syrian occupation in Lebanon a Syrian “presence.”
“He has an independent character, he has his convictions, he is not a blind follower,” said Alain Aoun.
When he became minister of defense in February 2019, Bou Saab, who is married to Lebanese singer Julia Boutros, ignited controversy several times by reiterating the rhetoric of the Hezbollah-Assad camp.
First, in April 2019, he took a position in favor of arming Hezbollah, thus blowing away the possibility of a national defense strategy, a pointalthough raised by President Aoun. He then was seen as a top defender of the Syria-aligned camp, stating that it is necessary for Lebanon to cooperate with Syria in order to combat border smuggling.
Speaking at the annual conference in Munich in February 2019 about the “safe zone” that Ankara wants to set up in northeastern Syria, he said that “the presence of an army in Syria other than the Syrian is not welcome and is considered an occupation.”
In 2015, when British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Lebanon in September, he drew widespread criticism for suggesting that at least two percent of Syrian refugees in Europe could be jihadist infiltrators affiliated with the Islamic State organization.
His positions have earned him the respect of Hezbollah officials with whom he has very good relations, said Faysal Abdel Sater, an analyst close to the Shiite party.
“We hope that the new deputy speaker can play a role in restoring ties between the FPM and Nabih Berri,” the analyst added.
In 2016, Bou Saab was mentioned in the Panama Papers, a large global investigation carried by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
This investigation revealed, based on millions of leaked confidential documents from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm, information on more than 200,000 offshore companies, including their shareholders’ names.
“This is nonsense. He was not a politician at the time of this offshore [company],” Alain Aoun said.
“Moreover, he paid a very heavy price as part of the crisis (economic crisis grappling Lebanon for nearly three years) since all his money is stuck in Lebanese banks,” added MP Aoun.
In 2020, an investigation by Al Jadeed TV investigative journalist Riad Kobaissi pointed at the embezzlement of UN funds allocated for the enrolment of Syrian refugee children in Lebanese public schools, at the time when Bou Saab was minister of education.
His successor, Tarek Majzoub, accused him of corruption on a TV show on the same TV channel (Al Jadeed), squandering public funds, bribery, intimidation and abuse of power.
This article was originally published in French on L'Orient-Le Jour.