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Old Rivalries Drag Lebanon into New Political Storm

Berri-Bassil Dispute Threatens to Inflame Sectarian Tension Before Elections

Protesters burn tires, used as a road block during a protest to condemn libelous video about Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut, Lebanon on January 29, 2018. (Getty)

by Hanin Ghaddar*

Lebanese Speaker of the House, Nabih Berri, who is also the head of Amal Movement, got distraught last Monday. The Foreign Minister, Gebran Bassil, who is also the President’s son-in-law, offended him. He called him a “thug!” And when Berri feels distraught, hell breaks. And that’s exactly what happened.

As a leaked video where Bassil badmouthed Berri went viral on social media, Berri’s supporters decided that a red line was crossed and that it’s time to create mayhem and expose the fragile security in Lebanon. They protested by setting tires ablaze in Beirut, closed off roads and threatened with an escalation. Gunfire was heard as Berri supporters gathered near offices of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) in a Christian area east of Beirut.

The tension between Amal and FPM started earlier in December, when Aoun signed a decree promoting dozens of army officers without the signature of Shi‘ite Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, a member of Amal. Berri has then accused Aoun of exceeding his powers at the expense of other sects. Ever since then, the two sides have been exchanging accusations, until now.

Berri demands that Bassil apologizes. Bassil insists he won’t. For the latter, it’s about the Christian community and its dignity, a “cause” that Bassil usually remembers ahead of elections or important crossroads in his political career. But it seems that even if he does apologize, the crisis will not be over, and it will carry its consequences into the elections and the formation of the next government. Some expect that this is going to even Bassil’s presidential ambitions.

Sources close to Berri have told Lebanese media that Berri is no longer willing to accept Bassil to be part of the next government, and this could also create problems with Prime Minister Saad Hariri in case he won’t break his alliance with Bassil. According to these sources, Hariri is going to pay for Bassil’s mistakes as long as he maintains his alliance. The tension does not seem to be contained between the two parties as Berri seems determined to go after Bassil’s party members and allies.
To spare Bassil the apology, Aoun responded. On Tuesday, he blamed the unrest on both parties, saying “what happened on the ground is a huge mistake that was built on a mistake.” In a statement released by his office, Aoun said he forgives all those who verbally assaulted him and his family, urging all parties to “follow suit and forgive one another.”

A few hours later, Berri’s supporters once again took to the streets, staging protests and burning tires across Lebanon. Also, MP Anwar Al-Khalil, a member of Berri’s parliamentary bloc, demanded more than just an apology, calling on Bassil to resign from the Cabinet.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil speaks during a joint press conference with his German counterpart (unseen) on November 16, 2017 in Berlin. (Getty)
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri gestures during a press conference that followed the Lebanese round table talks 14 March 2006. (Getty)

BUT WHAT DOES HEZBOLLAH THINK?

Hezbollah, an ally of both Aoun and Berri, had condemned Bassil’s remarks and expressed solidarity with the parliament speaker, signaling a tendency to support Berri in his endeavor against Bassil, now and in the future. In any case, Berri wouldn’t dare take such an escalatory path if Hezbollah hadn’t approved it in the first place. In fact, an increased tension with Bassil, and having him exposed to such a campaign, would help Hezbollah abandon their promises to Bassil, for the next government or presidency. Hezbollah-backed newspaper Al-Akhabr covered the issue extensively, with a clear support to Berri and criticism against Bassil, a sign of how Hezbollah would potentially react or take sides.

This incident might look like just another dispute between two politicians in Lebanon and that it will eventually be resolved when the big guys interfere; i.e., Hezbollah or Iran. However, it doesn’t seem that a resolution is on the horizon. This incident has exposed the fragility of the Lebanese system and the very vulnerable stability that everyone seems to be prioritizing. It has also shown that alliances in Lebanon can be easily broken, and political agreements are only temporary, and can really fall apart when personal agendas clash.

It seems that the current government – until the elections or further notice – is going to act as a caretaker government, which will only handle the tension and the statements coming from opposing parties. And if the tension escalates, fear for the May elections will also arise. How can Lebanon hold elections when Berri’s “thugs” feel free to burn tires and block roads any time they please? Additionally, how can the elections be held when two of Hezbollah’s main allies are today’s worst enemies?
The Memorandum of Understanding that was signed in year 2006 between Hezbollah and FPM seems to have served its purpose. Back then, Hezbollah and Amal Movement needed a Christian ally to take over the country and state institutions after the Assad army withdrew from Lebanon. Today, as Lebanon approaches the elections with an electoral law that will guarantee Hezbollah the majority in the Parliament, this alliance is no longer an asset. And as Aoun got his presidency – being part of the deal – he also doesn’t feel the same obligations.

For Hezbollah, the Lebanese have lost their ability to resist Iran’s hegemony. Without a proper coalition to stand against Hezbollah, they won’t have to compromise anymore. Both Berri and Bassil know what this means. That’s why Berri will insist on the apology, knowing that Hezbollah will always be behind his Shia ally, and Bassil will not apologize, fearing for how he looks within the Christian community.

At the end of the day, Lebanon is back to the worst forms of sectarian divisions, similar to those that burnt the country during the civil war. The spirit of unity and cohesiveness that the Cedar Revolution brought to Lebanon is no longer there. March 14 political camp is long gone, and Hezbollah has managed to promote itself to the position of the king. They will take Lebanon wherever they need, use its institutions for their wars in the region, and steer the Lebanese to darkness and wars.

Hezbollah will keep dragging the Lebanese banks to a financial crisis with the US, will isolate the Shia community from the rest of the world, and will start a devastating war with Israel any time Iran feels like it. The Berri-Bassil crisis is only the beginning of a much longer one.

*Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.

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Hanin Ghaddar
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. She tweets @haningdr [https://twitter.com/haningdr]

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