The rise of Gebran Bassil

Bassil depends on exploiting Lebanon's sectarian structure to propel his political career.
by Bassem Ajami

25 February 2019 | 15:19

Source: by Annahar

  • by Bassem Ajami
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 25 February 2019 | 15:19

This undated photo shows Gebran Bassil. (AFP Photo)

The mention of Gebran Bassil invites mixed feelings. But regardless of whether one likes or dislikes him, the man is certainly a unique phenomenon. In less than ten years, he managed to place his distinctive mark on Lebanese politics.

Bassil's political career gained momentum as an activist in the Free Patriotic Movement, founded by General Michel Aoun. His climb to power was boosted by his marriage in 1999 to the General's daughter. Aoun insisted that Bassil receive a key post in every government since 2008. In 2009, while Bassil failed to win a parliamentary seat in the general elections, Aoun defiantly delayed the formation of the new government for seven months demanding that his son in law be named a minister. Bassil was appointed the  Minister of Telecommunication.

But Bassil's meteoric climb through the complicated network of Lebanese politics is not entirely related to his kinship to President Aoun. The man obviously possesses political talents. Such talents manifest themselves in his superb negotiating skills.

In 2016, with the office of president vacant for more than two years, Bassil played a key role in reaching a complex deal that brought Aoun to the presidency and Saad Hariri to the premiership. The deal involved tough bargaining with a maze of local and foreign parties. In the process, he convinced Hariri to abandon the March 14 movement, which he had led since 2005.

In the formation of the two governments that followed the presidential deal, Bassil overshadowed the designated prime minister, Hariri. This was most visible in the formation of the recent cabinet, when Bassil insisted, contrary to the constitution, on setting a certain criterion according to which the government ought to be formed.

Still, Bassil depends on exploiting Lebanon's sectarian structure to propel his political career. And while this is not an unusual practice in Lebanese politics, Bassil took it to new heights.

He presents himself to his constituents as a man on a mission. The mission is dedicated to restoring the political rights of the Christians, supposedly denied by the 1990 Taif Accord.

Such image carries immense benefits for Bassil. For one thing, it helps him derail criticism about his performance in the cabinet posts that he occupied. Most notably as minister of Energy and Water, (2009-14), while the electricity supply deteriorated. For another, it shields him from charges of corruption which are made against him by his political rivals.

Yet the most serious mark that Bassil made on Lebanon's political scene is the "Bassil doctrine."

The "Bassil doctrine" states that the most powerful among his sect should occupy the highest post allocated for that sect. Bassil needs such "doctrine" as a vehicle to advance his fortunes to win the presidency. That said, there are many shortcomings in the "Bassil doctrine". For one thing, it is contrary to the constitution. It also lacks a reliable mechanism to gauge the popularity of a candidate among his sect. For another, it carries within it destructive seeds that will only deepen the sectarian divide that plagues Lebanon.

While the "Bassil doctrine" applies to the three top jobs in the country, it is certain that it will seep into all senior government posts as well. And in the absence of a reliable mechanism to measure popularity, each aspirant to a high post will seek to emulate Bassil by enthusiastically offering himself as the "true guardian" of the interests of his sect, thus splitting each sect into several competing fragments.

While several voices have challenged the "Basil doctrine," such objections remain fractured, and unable to prevent it from being embedded into Lebanon's political culture. Even Prime Minister Saad Hariri was sucked into it. His recent declaration "I am the father of the Sunnis in Lebanon" is telling; coming from a politician who claims to lead a party that has crossed the sectarian barrier.

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