Shortly before the Christmas holidays in 2019, Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) got on the phone with Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah to discuss reviving the Mar Mikhail Agreement of February 2006.
That agreement, signed between Nasrallah and Bassil’s father-in-law, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, forged an alliance between the two parties, promising Shiite support for Aoun’s presidential bid in exchange for Christian backing for Hezbollah’s massive arsenal.
Aoun lived up to his side of the deal, supporting Hezbollah throughout its militias’ 2006 war with Israel. Ten years later, Hezbollah fulfilled its promise by making him president in October 2016. Bassil wishes to revive and amend the agreement to secure Hezbollah’s backing for his own presidential ambition once Aoun’s term ends next October.
In January 2020, Nasrallah promised to convene a meeting for the Mar Mikhail sub-committee. Twelve months have passed and a meeting has yet to happen. Bassil hasn’t lost hope, though, referring to the agreement in his latest New Year address, saying that it could still be “improved.” On January 3, Nasrallah replied that he too, remains committed to the Mar Mikhail Agreement.
Hezbollah members grumble that Bassil was never mentioned in the original 2006 agreement.
Nasrallah, it seems, was bluffing. He has no intention of supporting Bassil for president. In private, Hezbollah members grumble that Bassil was never mentioned in the original 2006 agreement, which applied strictly to Aoun alone. After entering the Presidential Palace, Aoun stretched it to include his son-in-law, parachuting him first as president of the FPM, then as foreign minister, and finally, as leader of the largest bloc in Parliament.
Due to Aoun’s advanced age, Bassil has since become the actual power behind the Lebanese Presidency, controlling domestic affairs and foreign relations. Bassil is also insisting on the right to hire and fire prime ministers and to name all Christian ministers in government.
Hezbollah considers Bassil a burden — a heavy one for that matter — that became attached to the Aoun presidency. Lebanese youth accuse him of corruption, nepotism, and autocracy and in 2019, he was the main target of a nationwide uprising popularly known as the October Revolution.
Nasrallah, it seems, was not serious when he promised to revisit the Mar Mikhail Agreement, a request that came just weeks after the Trump Administration had imposed sanctions on Bassil, due to his relationship with Hezbollah. Niceties aside, however, Hezbollah wants to wiggle out of any commitment to Bassil, for two basic reasons.
1. Strained Relations With Hezbollah’s Allies
Bassil is in a precarious position with two of Hezbollah’s main allies in Lebanon, the Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and the Marada Movement of Maronite leader Suleiman Frangieh. The first is all-Shiite, and the second, all-Maronite.
Bassil famously quarreled with Berri over distribution of posts within the executive branch, and in return, Berri used the Ministry of Finance —which he controls — to obstruct the promotion of Bassil’s appointees.
Since 2016, Berri has never been enthusiastic about making Aoun president, now he is adamant that Bassil should never make it to the presidency. Bassil has tried, unsuccessfully, to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and Amal, prompting Nasrallah’s deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassim, to retort on January 3, 2022, “The relationship between Hezbollah and Amal is strategic, and whoever doesn’t like it can bang his head against the wall.”
Both Frangieh and Bassil are competing for presidential office next October.
For Nasrallah, supporting Bassil means upsetting not only his Shiite allies, but what remains of his Christian supporters, rallied by Suleiman Frangieh. Both Frangieh and Bassil are competing for presidential office next October and Nasrallah seemingly would prefer Frangieh over Bassil.
Frangieh’s alliance with Hezbollah and Syria has stood the test of time, dating back to the 1980s. It was born out of conviction, rather than through any memorandum or agreement like that of Mar Mikhail.
Furthermore, Frangieh had originally been promised the presidency back in 2016, but Nasrallah had to go for Aoun, standing by his commitment to the Mar Mikhail Agreement. Then 51-year-old Frangieh was young compared to Aoun who was at the ripe age of 84. Nasrallah reasoned that Frangieh could wait until 2022 to become president. He cannot ask him to wait six more years, for Bassil’s sake.
2. Bassil’s Conciliatory Stance Toward Israel
Bassil also raised the ire of Hezbollah by attempting to strike an alliance with Saad al-Hariri during the 2018 parliamentary elections behind Nasrallah’s back. He then stirred more controversy by equating Syria’s military presence in Lebanon (1976-2005) with the French occupation of 1920-1946. That ran contradictory to everything Nasrallah has said since the evacuation of Syrian troops in 2005, whom he insisted were never an occupying force.
But more worrying for Nasrallah was Bassil’s clear inclinations towards peace with Israel. When serving as foreign minister in 2017, Bassil said, “Our difference with Israel is not ideological,” adding, “We don’t deny Israel’s right to existence and safety.”
Bassil failed to denounce the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Afterward, Bassil failed to denounce the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates which Nasrallah had done rather aggressively. Then came the maritime talks between Lebanon and Israel, which Hezbollah signed off (very unwillingly) in October 2020. Those talks were expected to alleviate Lebanon’s economic problems once offshore drilling started for what many anticipated would be hefty gas reserves in Lebanon’s territorial waters.
Hezbollah’s conditions were that no civilians — and certainly no politicians — were included on the negotiating committee in order to keep it at a technical and military level. Nasrallah made it clear that in no way does he want to normalize Lebanon’s relationship with Israel. Hezbollah also refused any face-to-face contact between the Lebanese and Israeli negotiators.
Bassil, however, tried pushing for an expanded delegation that included former foreign ministers (which would make him automatically a member) and staffers from the Presidential Palace. He then went a step further, suggesting that Lebanon might be willing to co-share gas reserves with Israel, which struck a particularly raw nerve with Hasan Nasrallah.
For all the above reasons, Nasrallah has yet to revisit the Mar Mikhail Agreement or give the slightest connotation that he supports Bassil for president. That leaves the President’s son-in-law on his own ahead of the upcoming presidential elections, fighting an uphill battle against his Christian opponents with no support from the Muslim community.