Why FPM, Hezbollah talks pose a risk for Gebran Bassil's political career

7 min read
15 August, 2023

After Lebanon’s Parliament convened for a 12th time to vote on a president, and failed to do so once more, it became clear that even with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) joining the opposition in backing Jihad Azour for the presidency that there was still a deadlock.

It also proved that Hezbollah, the Shia party that dominates the country’s politics, could not simply be sidelined.

Since the Lebanese Forces (LF), the country’s largest Christian party, and its leader Samir Geagea have continually made it clear that they will not hold talks with Hezbollah, their rival Gebran Bassil and the FPM saw an opportunity to regain the power and influence that was lost in the 15 May elections when the LF overtook the FPM as the largest Christian party.

In holding these talks, Bassil hopes that not only will they be able to make a breakthrough in the presidency, but that a win could help bolster him in the eyes of the Christian community, which has increasingly seen him in an unfavourable light due to his and his party’s close relationship with Hezbollah.

“The idea is that Gebran understood that politically he needs a deal because if the situation is blocked indefinitely on the presidency, probably Hezbollah would make another arrangement on someone else,” Michael Young, a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The New Arab.

“Perhaps someone like the army commander. He probably assumed that his opposition could not be open-ended. It made more sense to talk with Hezbollah.”

"The idea is that Gebran understood that politically he needs a deal because if the situation is blocked indefinitely on the presidency, probably Hezbollah would make another arrangement on someone else"

An alliance of convenience

Until recently, the FPM and Hezbollah maintained close ties after its founder, Michel Aoun, and Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, signed the Mar Mikhael Agreement in 2006 to establish a close working relationship.

For a little over 16 years, this relationship continued until 2022 when cracks started to appear as members of the FPM, in particular Bassil, expressed their dissatisfaction with the nature of the alliance, ultimately leading to a clear break between the two this year when Bassil and the FPM announced that they were backing the opposition candidate for the presidency, Jihad Azour, rather than Hezbollah’s candidate Sleiman Frangieh.

Now, things seem to be getting back on track between the two parties, although it is more likely to be a relationship where they work together on a case-by-case basis rather than the blanket support that they previously enjoyed.

“Even the notion of an alliance like the one that previously existed; no one really expected that anyway,” Young explained.

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“Gebran needed to get out of his isolation and he saw that reviving the relationship with Hezbollah, on a different basis, maybe one in which the parties are more independent, made sense. It’s more of a transactional agreement that would satisfy him and would satisfy Hezbollah.”

Hezbollah also has plenty to gain from these talks as it would mean that a new president could be elected which could give them political cover and it would help them to have more of a solid majority in Parliament, where no one bloc has a clear majority.

According to Kassem Kassir, an analyst close to Hezbollah, the Party of God is taking the talks extremely seriously as they view it as one of the few opportunities available to break through the political deadlock and actually make progress when it comes to electing a president.

“The dialogue is continuing, and Hezbollah is dealing with it seriously and truly. Moreover, Hezbollah is discussing all the details and bets on its success due to its importance at present and because it is the most realistic way to obtain positive results in the presidential file,” Kassir told The New Arab.

A portrait of Fadi Bejjani, who succumbed to his wounds inflicted during clashes that erupted two days earlier between residents of the town Kahale in Mount Lebanon and members of the Lebanese Hezbollah group, hangs on a pole, as gunmen shoot into the air during his funeral procession in the Christian town on 11 August 2023. [Getty]

One major topic being discussed is that of the presidency. Hezbollah is continuing to support Frangieh’s candidacy, something that Bassil has repeatedly rejected, even as reports emerge that Bassil has agreed to back Frangieh’s candidacy.

“Bassil wants to keep all the cards in his hands, as he announces that he will not abandon Jihad Azour, and at the same time he is opening the door for potential candidates because this is the nature of the negotiations,” Kassir explained.

Frangieh’s likelihood of becoming president is also slim as he has little popular Christian support since he is mainly viewed as being a Hezbollah puppet. This means that there is a need for Bassil and Hezbollah to agree on a third candidate who fits into Hezbollah’s criteria as well as someone who has Christian legitimacy that Bassil can publicly back.

However, Bassil himself is under immense pressure to walk away with a win from these talks outside of just a name for the presidency as the recent clashes between Hezbollah and residents of the Christian village Kahaleh on 9 August only helped to deepen Hezbollah’s unpopularity in the Christian community.

"Hezbollah has long had a fraught relationship with the Christian community. But, in recent years, it has significantly worsened"

Changing the game

Hezbollah has long had a fraught relationship with the Christian community. But, in recent years, it has significantly worsened.

Hezbollah has largely been blamed for the 4 August Beirut Port explosion, although the party has not yet been implicated in the explosion, as well as its staunch opposition to the stalled investigation.

On top of that, the fighting in Tayyouneh between supporters of Hezbollah and its Shia ally the Amal Movement with Christian residents of nearby Ain el-Remmaneh only helped to deepen the anger within the Christian community towards Hezbollah.

Now, with the fighting in Kahaleh, things have reached a new low.

“There is a perception that nothing good comes from Hezbollah – particularly when it involves the Christians,” Young stated.

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One of those killed in the fighting, Fadi Bejjani, was also a supporter of the FPM, making Bassil’s job in speaking with Hezbollah that much more sensitive.

“The rank and file [of the FPM] is very angry about what took place and the way that Hezbollah dealt with the incident,” Young said.

The perception that Hezbollah, with its weapons, went into a Christian village and killed a member of the village only added to that anger.

“We are trying to achieve demands that are crucial for the future of the Lebanese in this country and the well-being of Lebanon,” Maya Maalouf, the media and communications coordinator for the FPM, told The New Arab. “MP Bassil has said it many times, we are for the Republic much more than the presidency.”

One major agreement that Bassil is looking to reach with Hezbollah is on greater and broader decentralisation administratively and financially – which would give more authority to the local governates and districts.

Until recently, the FPM and Hezbollah maintained close ties. [Getty]

The problem is that while decentralisation remains popular amongst Lebanon’s Christians, that is not necessarily the case on a national level. To establish more decentralisation – which was one aspect of the Taif Agreement which ended the 15-year Lebanese Civil War in 1990 – there needs to be a broad national consensus which may not exist at the moment.

Maalouf acknowledged that this would be a tough issue and that nothing was guaranteed, but added that the party would keep fighting for it until they are sure that the prospect of further decentralisation is dead.

Unlike the presidency, which would be a clear and short-term win, issues like decentralisation are something that will have to be discussed in the long term with no guarantee of success.

If he is unable to walk away with anything concrete, it could harm Bassil significantly.

“He is dealing with issues that may have resonance in the Christian community. But, if he gets nothing, he comes out looking like an idiot. This is something that can hurt him,” Young stated.

"Even if he pulls it off, something is broken between the Christians and Hezbollah. He will never be able to legitimise Hezbollah in the eyes of most Christians. That's finished"

Because of what is at stake for Bassil, Young believes that the Christian leader is going to slow down the talks and take his time so as to not rush into something that could backfire on him, but Maalouf said that “the sad event that happened should push us to settle things faster”.

Still, even if Bassil is able to come away with a mutually beneficial deal that gives him a tangible win in the Christian community, the events of Kahaleh ensured that while Bassil will likely have to work with Hezbollah in the future given its expansive role in Lebanon, the possibility of a long-term alliance is no longer on the table.

“Even if he pulls it off, something is broken between the Christians and Hezbollah,” Young said. “He will never be able to legitimise Hezbollah in the eyes of most Christians. That’s finished.”

Nicholas Frakes is a journalist and photojournalist based in Lebanon reporting on the Middle East. 

Follow him on Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno