Opinions vary on whether Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, crossed a line by labeling the alliance between the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Hezbollah as such.
Some argue that Geagea went too far, while others contend that he hit the mark. A Belgian proverb comes to mind: “Angels only believe in the devil when they’ve been kicked in the horns.”
Geagea appeared to have experienced this firsthand on Tuesday, when Bassil announced a “framework agreement” with Hezbollah on the presidential election.
It was not that Geagea felt betrayed, for betrayal implies trust, which didn’t exist between them in the first place. It was more about the fact that his “enemy brother" had once again reshuffled the deck.
With this latest maneuver, Bassil tilted the advantage back to the Hezbollah camp, at the expense of the opposition camp he had briefly aligned with.
During a press conference seemingly aimed at placating his popular base — which has been less seduced by his charisma of late — the FPM leader appeared less confident than usual and struggled to articulate his thoughts. To be fair, the task he was to deliver was far from simple.
He needed to announce the termination of the “convergence” with the opposition regarding the candidacy of former minister Jihad Azour, without completely severing ties. Simultaneously, Bassil had to announce that he had once again fallen back into Hezbollah’s arms, all while maintaining his air of self-assuredness.
'The greatest sacrifice’
During his speech, Bassil tried to explain his actions.
The FPM leader then made sure to detail the conditions he set forth for the success of such an agreement. Evidently, Bassil made sure not to commit himself to anything.
He was careful to employ words that could mean both one thing and its opposite, leaving those who listened to his speech in a state of uncertainty.
In summary, Bassil revealed “a preliminary agreement or framework of understanding with Hezbollah regarding a consensus presidential name, and the potential to facilitate this designation in exchange for national demands.”
With an air reminiscent of a long-awaited savior, Bassil added that in exchange for this proposed “name [candidate],” he would like to see broader administrative and financial decentralization, along with the establishment of a trust fund.” He intends to make this offer “available to all Lebanese, not exclusively to the FPM.”
It must be acknowledged that Bassil’s announcement on that particular day hardly came as a surprise. Especially considering that his press conference followed a series of confirmed meetings with Hezbollah official, Wafic Safa.
A few days earlier, Bassil sent a message to Hezbollah.
“There will be a quid pro quo for any support you ask of us, which will be no less than expanded decentralization and a trust fund approved in advance [of the election] through legislation as well as a roadmap for state-building,” he said. “Give us that in advance and take the greatest sacrifice for the next six years.”
The initial factor to consider when dissecting Bassil’s strategic shift is the timing he chose. It is worth emphasizing that the young Christian leader has a formidable rival: Army Chief Joseph Aoun.
Bassil’s repositioning became evident when after the Doha meeting in July, the strategy adopted by the Group of Five (comprising the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt) would inadvertently enhance Aoun’s chance of becoming president.
Whether it was a bluff or not, the overture extended by Hezbollah’s spokespeople toward the option of Aoun ultimately pushed Bassil to take action.
While Sleiman Frangieh, Hezbollah’s preferred presidential candidate, could potentially challenge Bassil’s leadership in Northern Lebanon, army commander Aoun not only looms as a national overshadowing figure but also harbors the potential to unsettle the already delicate cohesion within the FPM.
Asking the impossible
In this game of chess, it appears that Bassil is the only player moving his pawns. Credit must be attributed to him for this strategic upper hand, particularly at a time when other contenders remain noticeably stagnant.
He played a substantial role in neutralizing the French proposition, which pivoted on an exchange:Franigeh as president, in return for a prime minister aligned with the opposition. Bassil accomplished this by amplifying the Christian resistance against Frangieh candidacy, thus bolstering the alternative, represented by Azour. Having achieved this, the FPM leader has now transitioned to his plan B, which entails using the same tactics he employed against Frangieh to undermine Aoun’s position.
For Bassil, Azour was just another maneuver. Everyone already suspected this, but time has proved it.
His “national” demands, currently under negotiation, also fall within these tactics.
Indeed, any informed observer knows that the conditions Bassil set are almost impossible to achieve, both politically and institutionally.
The long and bumpy road ahead would have to pass through Parliament for an amendment to the constitution, and Bassil is well aware who controls it.
What is his objective? To buy time and kill two birds with one stone: wait until the end of Aoun’s term of office (end of January), who will then be deprived of the status that makes him the default compromise figure; and to exhaust Frangieh’s candidacy without completely ruling out the risk of having to endorse him at one point, if need be.
For now, Bassil is holding onto his trump card, until the opportune moment appears.
By offering the Christian community the gift of decentralization and the trust fund, he could restore his image.
Bassil is using this card as leverage, to re-impose himself. He seeks to maintain a lever of control over parliament and to be the shadow president behind the new head of state — a move that he is currently negotiating under the table.
All these calculations, however, were in place before Kahaleh’s incident, when a Hezbollah vehicle transporting weapons overturned in the predominantly Christian area, causing uproar.
For Christian political leaders, coexisting with Hezbollah and its arsenal is becoming increasingly difficult.
As things stand now, Bassil is the weak link of an alliance that is on the verge of collapsing.
Caught in the crossfire and visibly embarrassed, the FPM leader is going to have to rethink his calculations.
Can he still convince his MPs — who were visibly upset, judging by their critical stance toward Hezbollah after this incident — and his supporters of the benefits of bailing out on the Mar Mikhael agreement?
And how will he cut Geagea, who regained the upper hand in the aftermath of the Kahaleh incident, down to size? The answer is through manipulation — a skill he has mastered.
In a meticulously crafted statement issued following the clashes in Kehaleh, Bassil asserted that “what happened is proof of how important it is for the resistance to be supported and protected by the people, and not by a single person.” His statement was aimed at Frangieh. Notably, he also reintroduced the threat — to be employed once again if necessary — of rekindling the debate surrounding the national defense strategy.
Learning from the past
Bassil, however, seems to have forgotten that Hezbollah and the Amal Movement also know how to bluff and play the card of time. By committing itself to dialogue with its Christian ally, and even agreeing to the latter’s written document, setting out its demands to maintain their alliance, Hezbollah seems to be seeking above all to strengthen its position before the return of French envoy Jean-Yves Le Drian in September.
This is when Hezbollah would, once again, present Frangieh as the most “realistic” option.
Everyone, including Bassil himself, knows that the “laws” he is advocating for remain untouched within the halls of Parliament since the Taif Agreement.
Equally understood is that both Hezbollah and Amal, headed by Parliament Speaker and Amal leader Nabih Berri, would never let the “financial independence” card pass.
When former President Michel Aoun left the Baabda palace on Oct. 31, 2022, he openly blamed Hezbollah for having let him down and making his mandate a total failure.
Bassil is likely to fall into the same trap.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.