In 15 months, Michel Aoun’s term will expire, ending the long and tumultuous career of Lebanon’s octogenarian President. The past five years have been especially painful for the general-turned politician, once self-described as “Bay al-Kull” (Father of All). From his office at Baabda Palace, overlooking the city of Beirut, Aoun has been watching his country sink into a lawless, chaotic, and crippling economic crisis that is holding people by the throat.
A popular revolution broke out against his rule back in October 2019, where young people chanted “Irhal” (go away), echoing a catchy phrase from the Arab Spring. It was suppressed by the security services and unexpectedly, by the COVID-19 lockdown that came into effect in mid-2020. Then came the massive explosion at the port of Beirut in August 2020, further damaging the legacy of the Aoun era. Since then, not a single official has been held fully accountable, although accusations of criminal negligence have been formally filed against Aoun’s Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, and three of his ministers.
Instead of trying to figure out how to solve the mess, Michel Aoun seems more focused on who will replace him at the Presidential Palace once his term ends in October 2022. He already has a successor in mind, that being his son-in-law and political heir Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).
Gebran Bassil has gone from facing one pitfall to another, greatly diminishing his chances at becoming president.
Over the past two years, however, Bassil has gone from facing one pitfall to another, greatly diminishing his chances at becoming president. Many of the demonstrators who took to the streets cussed at Bassil in particular — he was then serving as Foreign Minister— accusing him of corruption, nepotism, and misuse of public office. In November 2020, Bassil was sanctioned by the Trump administration for his links to Hezbollah, making him a burden for the Maronite Christian community that he represents.
Throughout it all, Gebran Bassil did not even blink, certain that if the right strings were pulled with Hezbollah, he would still make it to the Presidential Palace, given that due to their military might and demographic dominance, the all-Shiite party still holds the upper hand in Lebanese politics.
Bassil’s Presidential Bid
In late December 2020, Bassil got on the phone with Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah, asking him to revisit the Mar Mikhail Agreement of 2006, which famously brought his father-in-law to the presidency in 2016. The agreement stipulated that in exchange for Aoun’s support for Hezbollah’s massive arsenal, they would secure the presidency for him, fulfilling an ambition that he has harbored since the 1980s. Aoun lived up to his part of the agreement, supporting Hezbollah through thick and thin, even during their heavy involvement in the Syrian Civil War.
Nasrallah unwillingly agreed to revisit the agreement with Bassil, setting up a joint committee with the “Aounists” which ought to have convened last January. Yet every time Bassil tried to convene a meeting, Hezbollah came up with an excuse to postpone—obviously not wanting to commit itself to his presidential bid.
It is an open secret in Beirut that Hezbollah doesn’t trust Bassil but has been forced to deal with him—very unwillingly—in order to please the Lebanese President. Behind closed doors, its leaders claim that the Mar Mikhail Agreement applied to Aoun only, saying nothing about his son-in-law. They were further forced to cuddle up to him after US sanctions were imposed on Bassil last winter, but there were limits as to how far Hezbollah would go, seemingly with good reason.
The Hezbollah-Bassil Feud
For starters, Bassil has proven a very unreliable ally for Hezbollah. During the parliamentary elections of 2018, he tried reaching a deal with Saad al-Hariri – who abruptly resigned as Prime Minister designate in mid-July – behind their backs. And then, he infuriated Hezbollah by equating the Syrian Army with French colonialism of the 1920s and 1930s.
Bassil went on to welcome the UAE’s normalization agreement with Israel in mid-2020, hinting that he would not mind a similar deal with Lebanon. Bassil even took a step further, trying to parachute himself into the maritime talks with Israel, aimed at solving a disputed area believed to be rich with gas in Lebanon’s Executive Economic Zone (EEZ).
That suggestion was made despite clear instructions from Hasan Nasrallah that no civilians were to join the talks which are restricted to military personnel and technical experts only. Bassil challenged him by insinuating that the current delegation should be replaced with another one. His proposed delegation would include former ministers, like himself, as well as employees from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which he controls, and the Presidential Palace, which is controlled by his father-in-law.
But, the biggest blow to Bassil’s relations with Hezbollah came last April, when Bassil welcomed joint sovereignty over Lebanon’s territorial waters with Israel.
Hezbollah has been steadily distancing itself from Bassil, preferring his arch-rival within the Maronite community, Suleiman Frangieh Jr.
For all of the abovementioned reasons, Hezbollah has been steadily distancing itself from Bassil, preferring his arch-rival within the Maronite community, Suleiman Frangieh Jr., as Lebanon’s next president. Hailing from a hereditary political family in Mount Lebanon, Frangieh Jr. is a good friend of Iran, the Syrians, and Nasrallah.
His grandfather, Suleiman Frangieh, had been President in 1975, at the start of Lebanon’s Civil War, and it was during his era that the Syrian Army had been invited to enter the Lebanese battlefield in 1976. Frangieh Jr. leads a Hezbollah-affiliated party called Marada – named after the legendary Marada warriors popular in the city of Zghorta, in north Lebanon.
Franjieh Jr. had been promised the presidency back in 2016, but Nasrallah reasoned that it would be wiser for him to wait until Michel Aoun was accommodated first. Frangieh Jr. was relatively young (aged 51 in 2016) while Aoun was 81. Hezbollah now claims that it cannot skip Frangieh Jr. again, infuriating Gebran Bassil.
In addition to Nasrallah’s support, Bassil needs two things to achieve his ambition. One is parliamentary support and second is approval of the Lebanese Prime Minister. Bassil currently controls an impressive bloc of 29 MPs—the largest in Lebanon’s Chamber of Deputies—but that can easily change when Lebanon’s next elections happen in May 2022.
It is highly doubtful that Bassil can win the same number of seats for his party, due to the character slaughter that he has been subjected to, explaining why he is aggressively trying to postpone those elections and calling for an extension of Lebanon’s current Parliament. None of the rival Christian parties would agree to that, however, with all eying the next elections to increase their parliamentary representation at the expense of Bassil’s FPM.
Another dilemma, that has shifted slightly, was the approval of the former Prime Minister-designate. Saad al-Hariri was Bassil’s rival within the Lebanese Muslim community. In a potentially favorable development for Bassil, Hariri recently stepped down as Prime Minister-designate on July 15. If he had formed his cabinet while in office, it would have probably been the last in the Aoun era, as Hariri would have moved heaven and earth to obstruct Bassil’s bid for president. That is why Bassil refused to endorse Hariri’s return to the premiership last November, asking Hezbollah to support his boycott.
To his utter dismay, Hezbollah stood by Hariri, despite their major ideological differences with the pro-West, Saudi-backed premier. Unable to obstruct the nomination, Bassil had been focused on delaying the cabinet formation by all possible means, setting forth a list of impossible conditions, like getting to name all Christian ministers, in complete disregard to other Christian parties, and making claim to all powerful portfolios like defense, interior, foreign affairs, and justice.
If the security situation deteriorates any further, Bassil can try to postpone next May’s election.
For now, there is no cabinet in sight in Lebanon, which is music to the ears of Gebran Bassil. If the security situation deteriorates any further, Bassil can try to postpone next May’s election, or even, call for the extension of Michel Aoun’s term by 6-12 months—an idea that is already making the rounds within pro-Aoun circles. That would require approval of two-thirds of Lebanon’s parliament, and if it happens, it would be Aoun’s way of saying: its either me, Gebran Bassil, or a presidential vacuum.
Other Christian parties would never accept such terms. And for that matter, nor would Hezbollah, which has often said that its promise to Aoun has been completely fulfilled. Thus, the powerful bloc believes they are under no obligation whatsoever to extend his term or to make his son-in-law Lebanon’s next president.