Why Gebran Bassil is the most reviled politician in Lebanon today

Why Gebran Bassil is the most reviled politician in Lebanon today
Comment: Overambitious Gebran Bassil represents everything wrong with Lebanon's political system. For this reason, he has become the butt of jokes at demonstrations, writes Dalal al-Bizri.
6 min read
12 Nov, 2019
Gebran Bassil has been the target of the protesters' ire [Getty]
People in Lebanon took to the street chanting slogans, singing, and using obscene swear words against politicians. Some of the slogans were adapted from folk songs. But one slogan in particular swept the country: It goes - "hela hela ho Gebran Bassil… k*** emmo", the second part being the crudest swear word possible in local dialect.

It sounds like there has been pent-up anger and frustration against Bassil, Lebanon's Minister of Foreign Affairs and the president's son-in-law, believed to be desperately seeking to succeed him.

Why Gebran Bassil was singled out is a question one needs to stop and think about. The most popular slogan which united the protestors so far is "All of them means all of them". For the first time, the Lebanese people united in protest against all politicians undivided by parties or a favourite politician.

According to an opinion poll conducted by the independent media outlet Raseef22, the majority of protesters thought Bassil is "sa'eel", which translates to "obnoxious". He may be indeed so, but he certainly isn't the only arrogant and obnoxious politician in Lebanon. There's in fact more to the story.

Without connections

Firstly, Gebran Bassil is not an influential person. His authority is dependent on both Hezbollah and his father-in-law - the president allied to Hezbollah. He twice lost in the general elections as a candidate for Batroun, his home town, even though the law was manipulated to suit him. He was supported and rewarded by Hezbollah more than any other politician.

However, Bassil does not have his own 'lineage' in the context of Lebanon's political dynasties. Compared to other Lebanese political leaders, he is an interloper. People in Lebanon were used to politicians of "pedigree"; Walid Jumblatt, Saad Hariri and his competitor Tony Frangieh, to name a few, although the price of accession to power in their case was catastrophic. Their predecessors were all assassinated.

People believe that his marriage to Aoun's youngest daughter is one of an 'opportunist'. He had met Aoun in France where he started selling his "expertise" to him, grew close to his youngest daughter, and this is what opened the door to him, or so the story goes.

Bassil has failed to run the state affairs and continued to make promises that he then failed to fulfil.

Secondly, there has been a kind of forced daily media coverage of Bassil. No politician in Lebanon seems to have appeared on media as he has done. People are given daily promises, statements, a speech or an announcement by Bassilala, often using a language that is overtly racist or sectarian.

Countless times he has failed to to deliver yet continued to make promises that failed to fulfil, including his most famous promise of providing "electricity 24/24 hours" - a promise that he has been repeating for over 15 years.

His endless failures combined with his frequent media appearances have made him readily available for the angry and frustrated masses. By appearing daily on TV he has become a daily reminder of his own failures, and the "powerful" media presence has backfired against him.

Thirdly, Gebran Bassil does not have "loyalists". Unlike Hezbollah, whose black-clad thugs attacked protesters at the Riad Al-Solh Square in Beirut at the start of the protests, Bassil has no followers to back him.

Hezbollah's loyalists could impose silence on protestors in order to listen to the speech of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah for an hour-and-a-half, in which he accused the protesters of treachery, bribery and strife. Nasrallah's followers are utterly devoted to him, whereas Bassil's presumed "supporters" in his hometown, Batroun, have unanimously protested against him.

Protesters, at the same time, know very well that any attempt to use a slogan which undermines Nasrallah will ruin their uprising. They also know that their "All of them means all of them" slogan - which includes Hassan Nasrallah - was the reason why they were attacked by the latter's followers in Beirut.

Fourthly, Bassil is authoritarian. Upholding the motto of Camille Chamoun, the Lebanese president in the 1960s, Bassil often repeated "what I own is mine, what you own is shared between you and me".

Bassil's situation is, however, different. Saad Hariri, for example, is well-settled in the longstanding legacy of corruption inherited from his father. Walid Jumblatt, on the other hand, is desperately trying to maintain his leadership at any cost, while Nabih Berri is betting on his "magic cards" whenever there is a political dispute on shares.

Whilst using political slogans such as "fighting corruption" and "reform programmes", Bassil has allegedly helped himself to public funds. He is not one of the "established" politicians who has been involved in corruption for generations. He is seen as novice corrupt who is trying to snatch whatever is left in the Lebanese treasury.

Bassil seems to outdo any other politician in sexism and chauvinism. In 2014, footage spread online showing Bassil using hand gestures to describe the body of Caroline Ziadeh, the UN deputy Permanent Representative of Lebanon

The 'vulgar' statesman

Lastly, and most significantly, Bassil is seen as vulgar. Lebanon has never lacked in vulgar politicians, however, Bassil stands out.

Elias Hrawi, a late president of Lebanon, was interviewed by a journalist friend of mine soon after elections. The printed interview was full of ellipses. When I asked my friend about these omissions, he said they were the president's swear words.

Hrawi, however, was not seen as a "obnoxious" or vulgar. His followers and enemies, alike, took his profanities in a humourous way. There are a few other politicians who regularly use profanity like Wiam Wahhab, Ashraf Rifi and Nihad Al-Mashnouq, to name but a few.

Yet, Bassil seems to outdo any other politician in sexism and chauvinism. In 2014, footage spread online showing Bassil using hand gestures to describe the body of Caroline Ziadeh, the UN deputy Permanent Representative of Lebanon, in an official exchange with the Foreign Minister of the UAE.

His deputies and media spokesmen seem to follow the same pattern, too. One of his media supporters has recently described female protesters on government television channel as "drug and alcohol addicts" and "sexually promiscuous", restating the sexist language often used in the propaganda of both Aoun and Hezbollah.

Bassil, however, is now using verbal insults instead of slogans. Why he chose verbal insults instead is simple. The division of "labour" between him and Hezbollah is clear; he verbally insults the protestors while Hezbollah followers intimidate them.

People have only one way to respond to these insults and it is to deply laughter and profanity against him, although if interpreted literally, it targets his mother.

Dalal al-Bizri is a Lebanese researcher and writer. She specializes in contemporary Islamic movements and has authored several studies on women’s issues. She served as lecturer in Political Sociology at the Lebanese University.

This is an edited translation from Arabic. Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.