Lebanon’s political crisis hits a serious deadlock

Recently the Lebanese President Michel Aoun was quoted saying: “He who is neutral has betrayed the truth without supporting falsehood.” This is a famous saying attributed to Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the fourth righteous caliph and son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

Aoun was using it in discrete reference to his allies in Hezbollah, who are claiming neutrality in the political conflict that is currently underway, between his son-in-law Gibran Basil and Prime Minister-designate Saad Al Hariri.

It was rare criticism from Lebanon’s octogenarian president, who owes his seat of power to Hezbollah.

An open letter to Nasrallah

The thinly veiled message was preceded by an open letter from Nabil Nicola, a member of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) to Hezbollah secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah dated June 15, 2021. Nicola said that Hezbollah was accused of supporting smuggling and watching the state being looted, criticising Nasrallah for supporting a sectarian ally (in reference to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri) over a Lebanese partner (in reference to Aoun) who is supported by the sons of all regions and sects.”

Berri, it must be noted, is supporting Hariri against Gibran Basil, with the full backing of Nasrallah. He was never too happy with the Aoun presidency, having preferred that the job goes to Suleiman Frangieh, leader of the Marada Party, a ranking member of the Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition.

Berri realises that the forthcoming cabinet will probably be the last in the Aoun era, which ends in October 2022, and wants to make sure that it is crafted in a way that prevents Aoun from extending his term or making Basil the next president of Lebanon.

Nicola’s letter to Nasrallah triggered a most unusual response from Hisham Saffiddine, head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, a person who rarely comments on Lebanese domestics and happens to be the cousin of Nasrallah. He fired back at Basil without naming him, accusing him of obstructing cabinet formation and seeking personal gains, rather than national interests, while stressing that Hezbollah stands firmly behind Nabih Berri’s mediation efforts.

Multi-faceted problems

The Aounists are furious with Hezbollah for supporting Hariri’s comeback and ignoring an objection made by Basil’s FPM since November 2020. Since then, Hezbollah leaders have feigned neutrality in the tug-of-war between Hariri and Basil, standing at arms-length from the FPM’s claim to strategic posts in the new government, like foreign affairs, interior, justice, and energy. They have also refused to support Basil’s insistence that gets to name all nine Christian ministers in the new cabinet, when/if it is formed.

Behind closed doors, Hezbollah has even supported Hariri’s bid to name two out of nine Christian ministers, which has endorsed by Berri yet flatly been rejected by Aoun and Basil. Both say that this is unacceptable, firing back — also behind closed doors — that Hezbollah would never allow Hariri to name all Shiite ministers, and nor would his allies in the Amal Movement.

But that’s not the only reason why the FPM is angry with Hezbollah. Another reason is Basil’s attempt at hijacking the maritime talks with Israel, which began last year under UN auspices.

Hezbollah signed off those talks very unwillingly, conditioning that only maritime issues are discussed and that the negotiating team is composed strictly of military personnel, with no civilians. Basil has been trying to replace the current military delegation with one composed of civilians, which includes staffers from the presidency and advisers from the Foreign Ministry, which is controlled by the FPM.

Last December, Basil requested that a special committee is formed to revisit the Mar Mikhail Agreement of 2006, which famously made Michel Aoun president in 2016.

Nasrallah agreed to revisit the agreement, but has since stalled at convening a meeting, not wanting to give an impression that he supported Basil’s bid for president, when his father-in-law’s term ends or if he is incapacitated before then. Nasrallah has also refused Basil’s demand that a new agreement is drafted for his sake, agreeing only to revision of the 2006 document.

Basil’s impossible demands

Hezbollah literarily inherited Gibran Basil from Michel Aoun, to whom it has been allied for the past fifteen years. It never trusted Basil, however, considering him a manipulator, but was forced to deal more diligently with him after US sanctions were slapped on Basil last November, due to his alliance with Hezbollah.

Basil demanded many rewards for being targeted by the Trump Administration, like being given full say on who becomes premier, the lion’s share of cabinet posts, and a promise to be made president.

He also demanded that Hezbollah supports his attempt to extend the mandate of Lebanon’s current parliament, which ends in May 2022. He fears that any early elections would diminish his current share of parliament, a major bloc of 29 MPs.

Basil’s reputation has been severely damaged by the October Revolution of 2019, which angry Lebanese took to the streets, demanding rehaul of the political system.

Much of their anger was unleashed on Basil, who at the time was serving as foreign minister. He was accused, among other things, of nepotism, corruption, and misuse of public office. Much of that was due to his own malpractice, and Basil became a heavy burden for Hezbollah.

A revised French Initiative

French President Emmanuel Macron has silently altered his road map for Lebanon, which was conveyed to Lebanese leaders last September. He had originally called for rotation of cabinet posts, which he has now realised that none of the political parties will accept.

Instead, the French initiative is now focused on upcoming parliamentary elections, making sure that they happen on schedule and lead to real change within the political system. Hezbollah doesn’t mind early elections, nor elections on time next May.

It is confident of its Shiite constituency, and the same applies to Hariri, who stands unchallenged among Lebanese Sunnis. The only party that would lose in any election is the FPM and high on the list of losers would be Gibran Basil himself.

Basil’s U-turn

Aborting the vote — or manipulating it — would be impossible without Hezbollah support, and Basil realises that only too well. He also has a very low chance of becoming president without the support of Nasrallah.

On June 20 he came out with a personal appeal to Nasrallah, trying to fix what his Aoun and Nicola had wrecked, saying: “Sayyed Hasan, I know that you never fail from the truth.” He also delegated Nasrallah officially to negotiate on behalf of the FPM to solve the cabinet crisis.

Whether Hezbollah will respond to Basil’s appeal is yet to be seen. As the Lebanese wait, the country falls from own pitfall to another, sinking into chaos, need, and a chronic gasoline shortage, topped with a deteriorating currency that is holding people by the throat, diminishing what remains of their already razor-thin savings and plunging them, and their country, further into poverty.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad

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