The Rise and Fall of Hezbollah’s Ally

A Long-time Ploy Comes to a Disgraceful End
A man helps a woman burn a poster showing the picture of the then-Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil during a demonstration on the highway that links the capital Beirut to the northern city of Tripoli, in the area of Jal el-Dib in the northeastern outskirts of the capital, on October 26, 2019 on the tenth day of protest against tax increases and official corruption.

Gebran Bassil – a Lebanese deputy, the president of the Free Patriotic Movement, and the son-in-law of the president of the republic, has learnt long time ago that an aspiring Lebanese politician has to choose between the wellbeing of Lebanon and the Lebanese people, or the interests of Iran and Hezbollah. It was clear that Bassil had chosen to sell Lebanon to Hezbollah in return for political clout and riches. Although Hezbollah is still adhering to the deal, the deal itself is proving more challenging, for both parties.

For a long time, Bassil tried to play on everyone. He allied with Hezbollah in Lebanon and benefited immensely, while telling his western interlocutors that this is not a real alliance but a surviving strategy. This ploy lasted for a long time, as the Christian leader managed to play on the Christian vs. Shia contradiction, until western leaders started to see through him, and understood his ploy. Slowly but surely, Bassil’s standing started to waver, and the price became heavier than he imagined.

As a rising politician who has always boasted about his “western” connections and his mission to protect the Lebanese Christians, Gebran Bassil seems to have lost both. His narrative as a westernized Lebanese Christian leader had quickly dissolved in the mud created by his shameless alliance with Hezbollah, and his desperate ambition to succeed his father-in-law as the next president of Lebanon.

But it seems even with these sacrifices that lead to the worsening of his connection to the west and the Lebanese Christian street – his presidential dreams are still much challenged. Bassil’s rise was too quick; his fall will be slow but disgraceful.

Desperate Attempts

After receiving serious messages from Europe and France in particular regarding the possibility of sanctions, Bassil panicked. For a corrupt political figure like him who allied with Iran for financial benefits, he would endure humiliation and political isolation, as long as his bank accounts and assets are untouched. One of the main issues that would push Bassil over the edge is sanctions. When he was sanctioned by the Trump administration in 2020, Bassil did not leave any leaf unturned.

According to the US ambassador in Lebanon Dorothy Shea, Bassil even offered a deal to the US, one where he promised a separation from Hezbollah in return for removal of sanction and personal safety guarantees. However, the US did not trust Bassil and refused the deal. Today, as he smelled some seriousness behind the French threats and messages, Bassil offered to go to Paris where he could explain his position. But Paris could not receive him without PM-designate Saad Hariri, and therefore offered a meeting with both Lebanese politicians where they could talk things over and reach an agreement in Paris, supervised by the French. This time around, Hariri refused, as his distrust in Bassil was made very clear.

Eventually, all the talk about a Bassil-Hariri visit and meeting in Paris, and all new hopes for government formation, were again blown away by yet another political maneuver, and Hariri’s firm stance. It seems Hariri has become more confident and less compromising due to two main developments: A Saudi stance that called for a transition reformist government, and the visit of Egyptian foreign Minister to Beirut this week, where he met with almost all political and public figures involved in the process – except Gebran Bassil.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt, Sameh Shoukry (L) welcomed by Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri (R) during an official visit in Beirut, Lebanon on April 07, 2021. (Getty)

 

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry urged Lebanon’s leaders on Wednesday to seek the quick formation of a so-called government of specialists that can rescue the country from its multiple crises. A statement issued by the Egyptian embassy said Shoukry’s visit is “part of the Egyptian efforts aimed at urging the Lebanese political parties to speed up the formation of a salvation government, in light of the Egyptian political leadership’s great keenness on Lebanon’s stability and on its defeat of the crises it is currently going through.”

As Bassil feels more isolated internationally and regionally, Hariri has been visiting many countries, such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Moscow. He is also due to visit the Vatican later this month to meet the Pope. This last visit is one that Bassil is specifically furious about. Not only he is not welcome in the US and Europe now, Bassil – who considers himself the representative of the Christians in Lebanon - is now excluded by the Vatican, and his deceiving narrative regarding “the protection of the Christians’ rights” no longer fools anyone.

If anything, the Vatican is more interested in the recent initiative made by Patriarch Al-Rai, which gained major support from the Lebanese people, especially the Christian street. The Vatican prefers the Patriarch’s approach to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence – hence protecting all the Lebanese, including Christians, rather than Bassil’s sectarian narrative that only ties the Lebanese Christians to Hezbollah’s agenda and Iran’s regional interests.

With this kind of isolation, Bassil might lose both his assets and the presidency, and he has only himself to blame.

How Did Bassil Fall?

As he rose to power so quickly, Bassil thought that he will be untouched. Protected by his president father-in-law, and his main ally Hezbollah, Bassil realized at one point that if he wants to achieve more power, reach the presidency, and embezzle more money with no accountability, he will have to get closer to Hezbollah and Iran – and he did. For Hezbollah, Bassil became their main ally and protecting him a priority, even when the October 2019 protests targeted him personally, and especially when he got sanctioned by the US.

Power got to his head and his attempts at embezzling the State’s resources and money became shameless, as his attempts at taking over his party’s decisions. This led to much discontent within the leadership of the Free Patriotic Movement, and within the party ranks itself. This also reflected on his popular base as his popularity within the Christian street decreased drastically, and his chances at the next parliamentary elections in May 2022 could therefore be jeopardized.

His only hope left – to protect his political status and assets – is to become president, no matter what that means and what it entails, even if this came at the expanse of Lebanon and all the Lebanese. That’s why he is refusing every attempt – by the French and others – to move ahead with government formation. As long as he doesn’t get the majority that would guarantee him political power and thereby the presidency, Bassil will not accept any other government formula.

But Hezbollah – although they are still protecting Bassil – are facing a dilemma. Bassil has become the symbol of corruption in Lebanon and the main obvious hindrance in the process of government formation. Protecting him is becoming very costly, especially when it comes to Hezbollah’s popular support among the Shia and the Christians. But without Bassil, they will lose a majority in the parliament and the government that they desperately need at this time.

So Far, the advantages of protecting Bassil top the disadvantages. But that might not last too long, mainly after the next parliamentary elections.

 

Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Fellow at The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant.