In a Sunday ceremony marking the beginning of his third term as the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Gebran Bassil directed his attention toward the newly appointed FPM vice president for foreign affairs, Nagi Hayek.
"We used to distance ourselves from your personal viewpoints, which were distinct from our party’s stance," Bassil said during the ceremony, which party founder and former President Michel Aoun also attended. "However, moving forward, your statements would reflect the FPM official positions," he added, addressing Hayek.
Bassil, MP for Batroun, described Hayek as "the man of delicate situations, with sometimes shocking positions, albeit always sincere."
In fact, the newly appointed FPM vice president is known for his views, which certain observers deem "radical," especially concerning the status and rights of Christians in Lebanon.
Hayek does not hold back when criticizing Hezbollah, a long-standing ally of the FPM.
Looking beyond the partisan aspect, Bassil’s choice of Hayek and the timing of the appointment raise questions given the fact that the FPM is in the midst of negotiations with Hezbollah over the presidential election.
Could this be an effort to convey a message to Hezbollah or to other Christian parties that share common ground with Hayek on various fronts?
Alternatively, might it represent an attempt to limit Hayek’s margin of freedom and soften his discourse?
For the FPM, this is likely not the case, especially since Hayek, a plastic surgeon from the town of Bejjeh in Jbeil, had been an early activist within the party.
"He has been a member of the FPM since 1989," said Edy Maalouf, a former FPM MP and one of Bassil’s close associates.
Hayek — nephew of Bishop Michel Hayek, one of the theologians of the Maronite Church — began his career in the FPM, after having left the National Liberal Party, then led by Dany Chamoun. He also served as a volunteer in the Lebanese Army alongside Michel Aoun in the late 1980s.
"Bassil chooses his deputies according to their partisan background and political requirements," said FPM vice president for political affairs Martine Najem Kteily. "That’s why he appointed Hayek to the post of vice president for foreign affairs, i.e., in charge of communication with political parties abroad."
"Hayek won’t have to deal with local players," she added, in a bid to respond to the controversy and talk among Hezbollah circles that this appointment was to spite Hezbollah, which Hayek has criticized previously.
During an interview with Al-Jadeed back in June 2021, Hayek said that Hezbollah "is aware that the national pact is being undermined [in terms of government formation] and is acting like a silent devil."
"The FPM has come under harsh criticism from the Christian community because of its relations to Hezbollah," he added in the same interview.
'He wasn't thinking about Hezbollah'
Today, Hayek seems to be more open toward the party.
"I’m in favor of dialogue with Hezbollah, but also with everyone else, because it’s the only way to break the deadlock," Hayek told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Hezbollah spokesperson Mohammad Afif Naboulsi declined to comment to L’Orient-Le Jour "on an affair that does not concern it."
The FPM leadership is aware that Hayek’s new appointment is likely to reassure a large section of the Aounist base, especially those who no longer see eye to eye on the agreement between the FPM and Hezbollah.
"There are some [FPM] supporters who share the same ideas" as Hayek, said an FPM executive on condition of anonymity — an observation shared by Antoine Constantine, a political advisor to Bassil.
"The party leader has chosen to let a particular faction within the FPM express itself," he explained.
"However, Bassil’s decision regarding new appointments had nothing to do with Hezbollah," Constantine added.
For Hayek, "Gebran Bassil appointed me to carry out a mission, not to stifle my voice."
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.