Gebran Bassil: Lebanon’s controversial power broker and potential next president
Before nationwide protests erupted across Lebanon last month, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil had been widely touted as Lebanon’s next president in waiting, handpicked by his father-in-law, the current President Michel Aoun. A month later, he has become a hate figure for many protesters, who have called into question his future – and that of the whole political establishment.
But who is Bassil, and is he still a viable candidate for presidency?
Early years and the Free Patriotic Movement
Gebran Bassil was born June 21, 1970 in Lebanon.
Raised as a Maronite Christian, he graduated from the American University of Beirut (AUB) with a degree in civil engineering in 1992 and a Master’s in Communications in 1993.
In 1999, he married Chantal Michel Aoun, the daughter of former army general and disputed Prime Minister Michel Aoun, who was then in exile having fought a “war of liberation” against Syrian forces at the end of the Lebanese Civil War.
Bassil’s political career began in the late 1990s, when he worked as a political activist for Aoun’s movement to oppose Syrian forces occupying Lebanon.
Aoun established the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which Bassil now leads, in 2005 after protests led to the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon. That year the FPM won 21 seats in parliament, becoming the second biggest parliamentary bloc.
Bassil contested a seat for the FPM in his hometown of Batroun, but failed to win. Nevertheless, he played a prominent role in the FPM under Aoun, which signed a memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah in 2006.
This move created the “March 8” political alliance, in opposition to the “March 14” alliance led by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, and Bassil remains allied to Hezbollah today, despite the FPM being a largely Christian and previously anti-Syrian party.
Minister and FPM leader
Bassil was appointed Minister of Communications after the FPM entered government in 2008, despite not being an MP. The following year he became Minister of Energy and Water.
As Energy Minister, Bassil was accused of corruption relating to $33 million revenues reportedly linked to the sale of data for Lebanon’s offshore reserves.
Bassil became leader of the FPM in September, 2015, following Aoun’s ascendancy to the Presidency.
The FPM membership reportedly favored Alain Aoun, the president’s nephew, but President Michel Aoun himself favored Bassil - allegedly the reason Alain stood aside and Bassil was elected.
In the 2018 parliamentary elections, the FPM won 29 MPs – making it the largest bloc in parliament. Bassil won a seat in a district including his hometown Batroun.
Two years before, Bassil had been appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs and Emigrants in 2016.
Under his tenure, key issues have included President Saad Hariri’s resignation in 2017 and the ongoing developments in the war in Syria – where Bassil’s Iran-backed Hezbollah allies are fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, Bassil has gained notoriety for his anti-migrant rhetoric, for example when he said that Syrian refugees should return home despite the ongoing war and that Lebanon should put Lebanese workers first.
Bassil has repeatedly appealed to the large Lebanese diaspora to support the country, including by keeping up remittances which are a crucial part of the Lebanese economy.
Bassil and the FPM’s alliance with Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist organization by countries including the US, UK, and Saudi Arabia, has strained relations with members of the international community. Hezbollah-affiliated politicians and banks have been the target of US sanctions, with the US recently threatening to extend sanctions to the organization’s allies.
‘Public enemy number one’
While demonstrators have called for the fall of the entire government, Bassil has emerged as the target of a popular profane chant and is seen by many as the embodiment of the political establishment.
“For the revolution, public enemy number one is Bassil, as he is the face of corruption and his antagonistic and condescending attitude has alienated and ostracized the majority of the Lebanese,” explained Makram Rabah, a lecturer at AUB.
For many, Bassil’s unpopularity has ruined his chances of succeeding Aoun as president.
“Bassil chances of becoming the next president seem nonexistent,” said Sami Zoughaib, Public Policy Researcher at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. “The streets have been quite vocal in their opinion in him: He’s seen as a manifestation of all that is wrong with our current political system.”
But others warn not to rule out Bassil. “Just because he is no longer the favorite for the presidency, it does not mean that his allies Hezbollah – and Bassil himself – won’t push for it,” said Rabah.