The opposition that is “waiting for Gebran” has lost its bet.
While contacts between the Free Patriotic Movement and the anti-Hezbollah camp seemed to be moving towards an imminent agreement on a candidate, Gebran Bassil’s party changed the rules of the game.
The head of the FPM is very well aware that the battle against Marada Movement head Sleiman Frangieh, supported by Hezbollah and Amal, depends on him.
It appears he intends to play the game to the point of changing the rules. Torn between his opposition to the Zgharta zaim and his desire not to cut ties with Hezbollah, the FPM leader wiped the slate clean.
He is now calling on the opposition to agree with him on a candidate from his parliamentary bloc, believing that he is succeeding in his balancing act by offering an alternative to Frangieh without provoking Hezbollah.
It was MP Alain Aoun (FPM/Baabda) who set the tone. Speaking to the media Sunday, he said that contacts between his party and the opposition actors had led nowhere and that the page “had been turned” on Jihad Azour.
Azour, a former finance minister and current director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the International Monetary Fund, was the anti-Hezbollah camp's favorite but had expressed his refusal to be a confrontational candidate against Frangieh, according to Aoun.
Aoun’s remarks came on the heels of media reports that the Lebanese Forces (LF) allegedly decided to endorse the candidacy of Azour, whose name was suggested, along with two others (Salah Honein and Ziad Baroud), as a figure that could be agreed upon within the anti-Frangieh camp, including by the FPM. The Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader Walid Joumblatt was also in favor of Azour’s candidacy.
But the FPM created a surprise by establishing a new equation: “We will only agree with the opposition on a figure from the Strong Lebanon bloc. This is the only way for the Shiite tandem [i.e., Hezbollah and the Amal Movement] not to feel targeted,” Aoun told the local TV channel MTV on Sunday.
“An agreement around an independent candidate requires an agreement with the Hezbollah camp,” he added.
The FPM clearly does not want to take steps that would jeopardize its agreement with Hezbollah while taking advantage of the fact that the latter needs Christian legitimacy to elect its candidate.
“When Hezbollah put the future of the Mar Mikhael agreement on the table, Mr. Bassil retracted, and made us lose an important opportunity to reach an agreement,” said LF spokesman Charles Jabbour.
“Negotiations between the FPM and the opposition components have been ongoing for months. The option of supporting an Aounist MP has never been discussed,” he said.
“Mr. Aoun’s remarks are a way for Gebran Bassil to save face so as to avoid choosing between his alliance with Hezbollah and the convergence with the opposition,” said Jabbour.
‘Gebran only wants Gebran’
In the eyes of several observers, Aoun is one of the FPM MPs with a certain margin of freedom vis-à-vis Bassil. His recent positions may therefore not necessarily represent the party’s official position.
“The FPM’s internal differences are none of our business. Alain Aoun’s remarks have proven that Gebran only wants Gebran as president,” said MP Pierre Bou Assi (LF/Baabda).
“I described reality. No one should believe that he could lead the FPM to a confrontation with Hezbollah. We were engaged in this process in order to have a name endorsed by the opposition and discuss it with the Shiite party,” Alain Aoun told L’Orient-Le Jour.
The FPM “does not want to defy anyone, but rather it wants to find a solution,” he added.
This is also what Bassil said in his remarks in Paris. “We will continue to be flexible. If you refuse a first name, there will be a second and a third. There are an infinite number of names on which we could have a partial or total agreement, Christian or national,” he said to the opposition during a meeting with the Rally for Lebanon (RPL), a group close to the FPM in France.
In an interview with Radio Monte Carlo on Monday, Bassil appeared to reiterate his refusal of Frangieh’s candidacy and insisted on the importance of an understanding. “The solution does not lie in imposing someone on others,” he said, in what many interpreted as a dig at Hezbollah. “We are doomed to an agreement.”
The FPM leader is currently in the French capital, where he is expected to meet with Patrick Durel, adviser to the French president for Near East affairs.
For his part, caretaker Foreign Affairs Minister Abdallah Bou Habib, who is close to Bassil, traveled to the Vatican on Monday.
In a statement issued after meetings with the Holy See Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States Paul Gallagher, Bou Habib said that the Vatican insisted on “the need to hold the presidential election as soon as possible, considering that it is a necessary gateway to solutions and reforms in Lebanon and to the regularization of the institutions’ operation.”
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.