Some of his opponents wanted to see him dead and buried. The most despised figure of the Oct. 17 uprising and sanctioned by the United States, he was losing ground in the local Christian arena, and was bound to emerge weakened from the legislative elections that took place in May.
The president’s son-in-law had to kiss his dreams of ascending to presidency goodbye and accept being relegated to the backbenches of the Lebanese political scene.
Yet Gebran Bassil is not a man to be reckoned with.
The FPM leader has never seemed more at ease in the political game, feeding off his opponents’ hatred.
“The more enemies you have, the longer you live,” is his motto and no one has more enemies than him in Lebanon today.
In North Lebanon III, his own constituency, in which all the Christians heavyweights were competing, he was undoubtedly the number one target of the candidates.
He could have lost everything: his seat, his status as leader of the largest party in Parliament, his presidential ambitions.
He did indeed suffer a setback. If an agreement is reached with the Tashnag, his Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc has gone from 29 to 21 MPs, at best.
Bassil also came second in Batroun, his stronghold, and might have lost had his opponents joined forces against him.
Today, the FPM appears to be more dependent than ever on its alliance with Hezbollah, something that allowed it to limit the damage.
For Bassil, the most essential thing is that he has survived the storm and kept up appearances.
“Hezbollah has sacrificed all its allies to protect him. We must admit that he knows how to make himself indispensable,” a Lebanese political veteran told L’Orient-Le Jour.
With 18 MPs, who may be joined by three from Tashnag, Bassil believes — a bit hastily — that he will head the largest parliamentary bloc, overtaking the Lebanese Forces (19 MPs).
“He is obsessed with the idea of having a larger bloc than the LF. He’s gone as far as to convey a message that he would seek to expand his bloc to overtake that of Geagea,” a prominent political leader opposed to the FPM leader said.
The source believes that Bassil has emerged from the elections stronger and is taking the liberty to set his conditions once again.
Gradually, he is regaining full control of the political game, including the details of government formation.
“Bassil is not adopting delaying tactics. But he is entitled to set his conditions given the [election] results,” a source close to the FPM leader told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity.
‘Much smarter than his opponents’
In the wake of legislative elections in May, Bassil ruled out the possibility of forming a government of technocrats. According to him, the next cabinet must be political, [i.e., formed of ministers based on party affiliation rather than based on their technical qualifications for each position] and take into account the balance of power in Parliament.
The FPM leader has been threatening not to participate in the government if it does not suit him.
“He has always been a master of this game. He says he does not seek to participate in the government and thus raises the stakes. He is well aware that any prime minister-designate needs him to succeed in forming a cabinet, as this requires the endorsement of the president — none other than his father-in-law,” a Christian source opposing Bassil said.
Any new government must be also endorsed by the president, an important institutional weapon that the Aounist camp has repeatedly used to undermine former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
While outgoing Prime Minister Najib Mikati appears set to succeed himself, the FPM leader announced on June 13 that he would not nominate him for the post.
“On a personal level, I appreciate Mikati very much, but he is powerless,” Bassil said, adding that he was working hard behind the scenes to find a replacement for him.
He reportedly leaked information about contacts with political figures or experts who are being considered for the premiership post, such as Faisal Nsouli or Abdel Rahman Bizri.
He even hinted at the possibility of appointing Rami Fanj, the MP for Tripoli representing the protest movement groups.
The objective was twofold: to put Mikati on the defensive in his own stronghold, and to divide protest movement MPs.
“Bassil wants at all costs to avoid an alliance between the LF and the representatives of the thawra (revolution),” the aforementioned prominent leader said.
He knows Mikati will probably end up being appointed but he also knows that the government cannot be formed without him.
“Bassil has been very clear: he wants to return to government and wants his party to get of Foreign Affairs and Energy ministries,” the same source added.
The FPM is betting on the absence of the LF and the Kataeb to take, once again, the lion’s share of cabinet spots.
At the same time, he will present himself as its main opponent, arguing that he did not name Mikati.
Unlike Geagea, who struggled to turn his electoral victory into a political victory, Bassil managed, despite the poll results, to capture the position his party coveted in Parliament, namely the post of deputy speaker.
“He is much smarter than his opponents at this game,” the political veteran said.
The president’s son-in-law knows how to take small steps to long-term victories.
He is tenacious. In the case of electricity reform, he continues to demand that any reform plan in the sector should include the construction of a power plant in Selaata.
The question is, what will he do when President Michel Aoun’s term comes to an end in a few months?
If he does not himself become president, the most likely scenario at the moment, what will his next step be?
“Without Aoun, Bassil is nothing,” another Christian politician who is opposed to him said.
According to the source, the FPM will be exposed to many splits, while its parliamentary bloc will shrink.
“The main lesson to be learned from these elections is not to rush in trying to get rid of him,” the senior political leader said. “He has a popular base. No one in the party can oppose him and, above all, he has Hezbollah on his side.”
This story was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub