“We will not take a vacation [for the end-of-year holidays],” Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil said from Bkirki, the seat of the Maronite Church, on Sunday.
“We will work [to make a breakthrough in the presidential election],” he added.
Bassil has been working to impose himself as a decisive element in the selection of the next president, despite his strained relations with the majority of the political stakeholders—including his only ally, Hezbollah.
The FPM leader's political future has been at stake since the term of former president Michel Aoun — Bassil's father-in-law — ended Oct. 31. Breaking his isolation becomes Bassil's priority.
It is in this context that one must interpret his efforts in a bid to present himself as a key player, capable of dialogue with everyone from the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader Walid Joumblatt to caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and other Sunni figures, up to his main opponent for the presidency, MP Sleiman Frangieh.
His choices are far from trivial.
Behind these attempts at overtures, Bassil is trying to convey a message to Hezbollah that, despite their lukewarm relations, he remains at the heart of the game.
This explains his initiative — to be launched in early 2023 — to focus on the election of a consensus presidential figure, whose name has not yet been announced yet.
According to information obtained by L'Orient-Le Jour, the name could be that of Jihad Azour, the director of the Middle East and Central Asia at the International Monetary Fund.
Bassil's announcement comes at a time when the presidential election seems to be at the center of ongoing contacts between several countries involved in the Lebanese issue, as Mikati had announced last week.
“Gebran Bassil is aware that these contacts could lead to a breakthrough in the crisis [of electing a new head of state,” a former Aounist MP, who requested anonymity, told L'Orient-Le Jour. “It is, therefore, necessary to have a [similar] political dynamic at home.”
The source said that Bassil is expected to make a speech in the second week of the new year to call for the election of a president who is the subject of a broad agreement — someone who is “far from the names that are currently being mentioned.”
Bassil is therefore sticking to his guns: He is adamantly opposed to the election of Michel Moawad, the MP for Zghorta and the preferential candidate of a large segment of the pro-opposition parties, including the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb, the PSP and independent MPs.
He also opposes the election of army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun, who is seen — especially by foreign powers — as a potential consensus candidate.
Bassil is especially hostile to the election of Frangieh, the Marada Movement leader and a favorite of Hezbollah. Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc, once said that [electing Frangieh as president] would be the “shortest way out of the crisis.”
Nevertheless, to everyone's surprise, Bassil has recently met with the Zgharta MP.
This was the first meeting between the two men since last April when they met over an iftar hosted by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. Both Marada and FPM circles refused to comment on the meeting, let alone reveal its content.
What is certain for the moment is that this rapprochement does not indicate an Aounist endorsement of Frangieh. Bassil is trying to convince his rival to give way to a new name.
Rai blames Berri
The possibility of a new candidate was also part of the discussions between Bassil and Jumblatt during their meeting on Friday.
“Gebran Bassil informed the Druze leader that he met with Sleiman Frangieh and pleaded for a broader agreement on the presidential election,” said a PSP source, who requested anonymity, noting that both parties agreed on the need to elect a head of state as soon as possible.
Does this mean that Joumblatt would be willing to drop Moawad in favor of a consensus candidate?
“No name was mentioned during the meeting. But we mentioned that we [already] have our candidate, unlike the opposing camp,” the PSP source said, in a clear jab at the March 8 MPs who have been opting for blank votes.
Joumblatt also met with Moawad at his home in Clemenceau last Thursday and assured him that the PSP will not make any decision regarding the presidential election without consulting him.
The Lebanese Forces (LF) appear to have the same stance.
“We will be able to endorse a broader consensus after consultations with Michel Moawad, provided that the chosen figure is a sovereigntist and capable of initiating the reforms required to turn the country around,” party spokesman Charles Jabbour told L’Orient-Le Jour.
But this does not mean that the LF is ready to join hands with Bassil.
“We are not going to take part in inappropriate inter-Christian dialogues when the priority is the presidential election,” Jabbour said, adding that Bassil has not yet asked for an appointment with LF leader Samir Geagea.
Similarly, the Kataeb central headquarters has not received any invitation for a meeting between Bassil and party leader Samy Gemayel.
“When he asks for an appointment, we will give our input,” said a party official on condition of anonymity, before adding, “We will support Michel Moawad as long as there is no better alternative.”
Bassil's efforts have been endorsed by the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, according to the aforementioned former FPM deputy.
“What matters to the patriarch is the rapid election of a successor to Michel Aoun,” the former MP said.
The prelate blamed Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri for this delay, during a Christmas telephone conversation between the two men. Berri reportedly responded by recalling that it was the LF and the FPM who killed his call for a broader dialogue.
Sources close to Berri, however, say he is also likely to make a big push after the holidays to make a breakthrough in the political paralysis.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.