On April 8, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah held an iftar dinner, bringing together his two Christian allies, Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil and head of the Marada Movement Sleiman Frangieh.
This was the first meeting between the two men for over six years, their relationship having been strained since the 2016 presidential election that led to Michel Aoun’s ascension to the Presidential Palace at the expense of none other than Frangieh.
The iftar dinner, which took place a few weeks before the May 15 legislative elections, thawed relations between Hezbollah’s two allies. But in reality, the meeting marked the beginning of the presidential race.
The two Maronite rivals did not join hands for the legislative elections, despite Nasrallah’s initiative, which caused both of them to emerge weakened from the vote.
While the FPM leader retained his seat in Batroun, he came in second, far behind Lebanese Forces candidate Ghayath Yazbeck.
Meanwhile, in his undisputed stronghold of Zgharta, Frangieh suffered a defeat by having only one Marada MP elected: his son Tony.
In the eyes of Frangieh’s opponents, these results show that “Zgharta has buried the option [of electing] Frangieh to the presidency,” Michel Moawad, MP for the district, said in an interview on Monday with the Lebanon Debate website.
But in reality, the legislative elections have changed little to nothing on the ground.
Undermined or not, the two Maronite leaders remain serious presidential candidates.
For his part, the Marada leader had set the tone just after the May elections.
“There is no link between the presidential election and the results of the legislative elections,” Frangieh said at a press conference.
As for Bassil, he has always been capable of seeing a silver lining in any situation.
It is true that even though his parliamentary bloc went from 29 MPs to 21 (including Tashnag), Bassil did not lose everything and survived a battle that could have finished him off.
With 18 MPs, joined by the three representatives of Tashnag, Bassil believes that he still has the largest parliamentary bloc ahead of the LF (19 MPs).
But the most despised figure of the Oct. 17 uprising and the only party leader sanctioned by the United States, knows how to regain ground.
For him, the Baabda dream is not completely over. Even the US sanctions are not an obstacle in his eyes.
“You can be president even if you are sanctioned by the world’s greatest power,” Bassil told L’Orient-Le Jour in April — a statement that does not convince many observers.
But officially speaking and with a few weeks before the end of his father-in-law’s mandate, Bassil continues to affirm that he is not running for the presidency.
“We don’t talk about this subject as long as Michel Aoun is in Baabda,” he repeats every time he is asked about it.
But what about behind the scenes?
“Gebran Bassil is the head of the largest Christian parliamentary bloc, which means that any candidate for the presidency has to go through him first,” Ghassan Atallah, FPM MP for Chouf said.
This means that while he still did not lose hope of succeeding Aoun, the FPM leader is determined to play the card of president maker.
A series of contacts have recently been made between Bassil and Frangieh, in a clear indication of Hezbollah’s desire to close ranks within his camps ahead of the presidential elections in the face of a heterogenous opposition.
Almost two weeks ago, Bassil in fact received Farid el-Khazen, MP for Kesrouan and ally of Frangieh, in his home in Laqlouq.
“This meeting was an extension of the April iftar and an opportunity to lay the ground for reconciliation between Farid el-Khazen and Gebran Bassil,” Tony Frangieh told L’Orient-Le Jour, assuring that the presidential election issue was not discussed in depth, especially “since it is still early to talk about candidates.”
Frangieh junior seems to be repeating the Aounist rhetoric on this subject.
“It is still too early to say anything about the presidential election,” a former FPM MP said.
But given its timing, these overtures can only be seen in the perspective of the presidential election. Could this mean that the FPM is getting ready to support Frangieh for the presidency? And if this was the case, under what conditions?
Previous experiences have shown that Bassil does not make free concessions.
The FPM leader would undoubtedly like to preserve his role as strongman under Frangieh’s mandate, taking advantage of the latter’s meager parliamentary and political representation, whose leadership remains limited in Northern Lebanon.
To support Frangieh, Bassil could therefore seek to control appointments to key state positions, especially Christian ones, starting with the commander-in-chief of the army and notably the governor of the central bank.
“He will want to choose people who are loyal to him,” Karim Bitar, a political scientist, told L’Orient-Le Jour, adding that this could be Bassil’s way to preserve his chances of being elected president in the next election in 2028.
A Frangieh mandate appears to be Bassil’s best option today.
Aware of his slim chances of being elected himself, the president’s son-in-law wants to ensure that he preserves this possibility of taking the title in six years’ time.
Moreover, if he endorses Frangieh for the presidency, Bassil will also be able to impose his conditions in the formation of governments, a card that he played perfectly under Aoun’s mandate, to the point of blocking the process several times and pushing former Prime Minister Saad Hariri out.
But the fact remains that Frangieh is not Aoun.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.