Politics is an ever-changing game and seemingly, Gebran Bassil is a skillful player.
Swift and dynamic in his actions, Bassil often leaves others scrambling to keep pace. His abrupt shifts make fully trusting him difficult, especially for those who once believed they were his allies.
Yet, in this race, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader consistently manages to carve out a place on the podium, regardless of the risks and potential consequences. Winning remains his paramount objective.
Time and time again, he has perilously veered off course. Just last December, he openly accused Hezbollah of disloyalty, and thus placed himself in a precarious position. On numerous occasions, it seemed as though he was on the brink of being sidelined from the game, especially in the aftermath of the October 2019 popular uprising, which hinted at a decimation of his political bloc in the upcoming legislative elections.
Yet, against all odds, Bassil manages somehow to cling to power. While some attribute this to his unscrupulous nature, others commend his political acumen.
Machiavelli once wrote, “In war, cunning deserves praise,” and it is indeed a battle for survival that Bassil has been fighting ever since his father-in-law's departure from the Baabda palace left him deprived of his primary source of strength: power.
The six-year power euphoria came to an end on Oct. 31, 2022. During Aoun’s presidential term Bassil turned against those who had been instrumental in his rise to power. Starting with his archenemy, Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea, who took his revenge by securing more parliamentary seats than Bassil, stripping the FPM leader of “the strongest Christian leader” title.
If Bassil managed to avert a more severe blow, it was due, in part, to the support he received (albeit meager) from the sole remaining ally in his corner: Hezbollah.
However, in the realm of politics, no favors are granted without an underlying motive. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had much to gain by assisting Bassil.
First, Nasrallah’s party needed to preserve its valuable Christian cover. Second, it needed to maintain the delicate balance of power against Geagea, Hezbollah’s sworn enemy.
Finally, by investing efforts in securing FPM parliamentary seats, Hezbollah was sowing strategic seeds. The party believed that when the day for the battle of Michel Aoun’s succession arrived, its Christian partner would be compelled to repay his debts.
But little did Hezbollah know that things would not go according to plan.
Bassil is known for his tenacity, fighting unceasingly until the very last moment. He utilizes whatever resources are available, even if it means turning his allies into adversaries and vice versa.
It was during the famous iftar dinner, a few months before the end of Aoun’s term, where Nasrallah hosted Marada leader Sleiman Frangieh as the guest of honor, that Bassil made a pivotal decision. He resolved to prepare himself for a new and perilous challenge.
At that time, his trusted coach/father-in-law was still seated in Baabda, where he provided him with instructions and valuable advice. Soon enough, with the end of Aoun’s termBassil was left to navigate the track all alone.
On Nov. 1, 2022, the time to go into offense mode had arrived.
The FPM head’s rivals were well known: Geagea and Frangieh. Both were Christian leaders, and both from the North — Bassil’s self-proclaimed stronghold.
For him, it was imperative to neutralize the first and eliminate the latter.
With Hezbollah’s conspicuous penchant for Frangieh , Bassil had to step up his game.
As a preliminary move, Bassil met with Hezbollah’s Wafic Safa, to whom he reiterated his refusal to endorse Frangieh’s run for presidency.
Confronted with Hezbollah’s unwavering support for the Marada leader, Bassil found himself compelled to take more extreme measures. He went to the extent of publicly exposing the internal divisions between the two parties and even issued a threat to sever their alliance.
This sudden and forceful change in strategy deeply unsettled Nasrallah. The two parties reached a breaking point, it seemed.
Backed by his fairly large parliamentary bloc, the FPM head did not back down. He pushed the envelope too far. But Hezbollah needed its “Christian cover” to install Frangieh in the presidential seat, especially with Geagea’s obstinate refusal of Frangieh’s candidacy.
Bassil was adamant about engaging on all fronts.
Geagea, who situated himself as a leader of the opposition — a position coveted by Kataeb head Sami Gemayel — would support the candidacy of MP Michel Moawad through to the end.
Bassil was well aware that this battle was doomed from the start. Without the backing of the FPM leader’s bloc, Geagea’s plan to have Moawad elected would inevitably crumble.
Although it was difficult to admit it, Geagea also needed Bassil.
The home stretch
Today, having become a master in the art of bargaining, Bassil finds himself on his favorite playground.
“The keys to Baabda are now in the hands of the FPM leader,” an LF spokesperson said in a press statement a few days ago.
But the wounds inflicted by the Maarab Agreement on the LF remain gaping andGeagea has vowed never to repeat such a grave “mistake.” How could the LF grant its trust to the man who failed to keep his commitment as soon as he rose to the top of power?
Does the LF deem it worthwhile to bail Bassil out and share the Christian leadership with him again, while he is at his worst on the political scene?
Meanwhile, Hezbollah is betting on regional developments to play out in favor of the resistance axis, in the hope of tempting Bassil back in.
Faced with a test of sincerity from the Christian parties and a test of loyalty from Hezbollah and Amal, the FPM leader is confronted with a critical decision— one that requires him to choose a definitive path.
Having come to terms with the fact that he will not be the king himself, Bassil appears adamant to be the kingmaker — a pursuit that is placing him in a delicate position.
To compound his challenges, the FPM head is now faced with additional pressure from the French. Invited to speak with Patrick Durel, Emmanuel Macron’s advisor on the Lebanese issue, Bassil is expected to visit Paris soon and expects that the French will urge him to endorse Frangieh’s candidacy.
Bassil cannot sever ties with Hezbollah, whose influence is growing stronger in the regional arena. Neither can he trust the parties that did everything they could to undercut him during his father-in-law’s term.
Regardless of the decision he makes, Bassil is fully aware that there will be a heavy price to pay. The primary concern at stake is his popularity, or what remains of it, within the Christian community.
Bassil finds himself standing at a critical turning point in his political journey.
In light of this, he decided to temporarily halt his discussions with the opposition despite their positive progress, to leverage the potential threat of an agreement and engage in more favorable negotiations with Hezbollah.
Recognizing that both rival factions depend on his support, Bassil capitalizes on his newfound centrism, biding his time until the situation becomes clear and favorable for decisive moves.
Another challenge awaiting the FPM leader is how to navigate his way out of American sanctions.
Will Qatar, known for its open support of the candidacy of army chief Joseph Aoun, provide him with an opportunity to achieve this goal? Only time will tell.
As Machiavelli once wrote, “In politics, the choice is rarely between good and evil, but between the lesser of two evils.”
With his glaringly Machiavellian approach, Bassil will likely align himself with the party that offers the most advantageous terms.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.