Is this the end of Gebran Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement?

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Analysis: Gebran Bassil's reputation has suffered in recent years, and many predict his Free Patriotic Movement will not fare too well in the upcoming Lebanese elections.

Gebran Bassil is not the figure he once was. A two-time minister and previously anticipated successor to his father-in-law, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Bassil has appeared embattled on the campaign trail.

The slogan Bassil picked for his party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), “We were … and we will remain” hearkens back to a better time.

To the party’s aging base, the nostalgia might recall a Lebanon where things were functional and optimism for the future seemed appropriate. To Bassil, the slogan may recall a time where his political future seemed brighter.

Indicators suggest that the FPM will take a beating on Lebanon’s 15 May election.

“Opinion polls indicate that the FPM has lost about 50 percent of its Christian supporters. This will considerably change the political landscape in the Christian seat,” Karim Bitar, a professor of international relations at the University of Saint Joseph, told The New Arab.

"To many in and outside of Lebanon, Gebran Bassil is symbolic of the corruption that is endemic to the country"

Bassil himself, the central figure and icon of the FPM, is in no danger of losing his seat in Parliament. Batroun, the picturesque Lebanese coastal district where he is running, has experienced an economic renaissance in the past few years, largely due to his stewardship. The many pictures of Bassil that dot the seaside town pay homage to this.

However, his own seat aside, the FPM’s electoral outlook is not rosy. It seems likely the party will secure fewer seats in Sunday’s election than in 2018.

Despite being Hezbollah’s Christian ally in parliament, Bassil has reportedly lost Hezbollah’s support to become the next president. Instead, the Shiite militia and political group is rumoured to be throwing its weight behind current MP Suleiman Frangieh.

Bassil not only has issues with his political allies, but is also faced with a growing image problem he has struggled to shake off.

A election campaign billboard depicting FPM leader Gibran Bassil in Batroun, on May 6, 2022. Despite his popularity in his hometown, Bassil's party is projected to have a difficult election. [Getty]
A election campaign billboard depicting FPM leader Gibran Bassil in Batroun, on May 6, 2022. Despite his popularity in his hometown, Bassil's party is projected to have a difficult election. [Getty]

Declining popularity externally, problems internally

To many in and outside of Lebanon, Gebran Bassil is symbolic of the corruption that is endemic to the country. During the country’s 2019 October revolution where millions took to the streets in protest of this same corruption, his name was the subject of revolutionary chants, often along with expletives not fit for print.

A 2020 interview with Bassil at Davos made CNBC presenter Hadley Gamble a household name in Lebanon after she held him to account for financial benefits he reaped from public office. A few months later, in November 2020, the United States sanctioned him over alleged corruption charges.

Bassil claims this is part of a character assassination plot against him, cooked up by his political enemies. FPM figures have further claimed the accusations are aimed not just at Bassil, but at weakening the status of Lebanon’s Maronite Christians whom he represents.

At the same time, Bassil has pushed out some mainstay figures out of the party, giving their seats up to businessmen who would fund party activities in exchange. The move has caused controversy among the party base, with some long-time FPM activists disgruntled and announcing their candidacy against the party.

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One such figure, current MP Mario Aoun, resigned from the party in protest and said he would run against it on an alternative political list.

“Bassil has generated significant controversy. Many veterans of FPM feel estranged … they have been marginalized in favour of candidates who are often financiers. This might accentuate the horizontal divide between the base of the FPM and its current leadership,” Bitar said.

To Bassil’s political rivals, these developments present an opportunity.

The Lebanese Forces (LF), a former Christian civil war militia and the FPM’s historic rival, have positioned themselves as the political foil of Bassil’s party. In a campaign kickoff speech in March, LF head Samir Geagea, announced the party’s electoral slogan “We can and we will.” In the same speech, Geagea described the FPM as the party that “could, but won’t.”

"The [Lebanese Forces] has styled itself as carrying the banner of the 2019 October revolution, promising to confront Hezbollah, restore accountability and ending corruption"

The LF has styled itself as carrying the banner of the 2019 October revolution, promising to confront Hezbollah, restore accountability and ending corruption. It claims that unlike Lebanon’s opposition parties, it has the political know-how to actually carry out campaign promises. And unlike the FPM, it promises not to cosy up to Hezbollah for political capital.

To some Lebanese, the idea is a promising one. As one 30-year-old voter who voted for former PM’s Saad Hariri’s Future Movement in the last election put it, “I don’t care who they are, as long as they can stand up to Hezbollah.”

To others, LF is just another establishment party co-opting the revolution for their own political gains. Regardless, it’s expected that the LF will manage to siphon off some seats that typically go to the FPM.

“There is a consensus in Lebanon that the FPM will lose seats in the Parliament and the LF will gain more. The Christian vote will be split between the FPM and the Lebanese Forces,” Hilal Khashan, a professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB) told The New Arab.

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It’s unknown how many seats the FPM will lose, but given that it is currently the largest parliamentary bloc in Lebanon, it is unlikely to be pushed out of power altogether.

“Neither one will be able to dislodge the other. This is how the Lebanese system operates. It is not designed for one parliamentary bloc to dislodge another,” Khashan said.

How will this affect Hezbollah?

Despite the controversy Bassil has attracted, Hezbollah has stuck by its Christian ally. This is not necessarily out of loyalty to the FPM – but rather due to the fact that they have no other alternative.

“Hezbollah cannot disown them without gaining a new Lebanese ally. The Sunnis will not work with Hezbollah. No matter what happens with FPM, Hezbollah will continue to ally with them because it has to,” Khashan said.

"It’s unknown how many seats the FPM will lose, but given that it is currently the largest parliamentary bloc in Lebanon, it is unlikely to be pushed out of power altogether"

The LF, even if it presents a challenge to the FPM, particularly among the Maronite Christian base, would not partner with Hezbollah. The party is widely thought to be bankrolled by Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia already allowed one of its former Lebanese allies, Saad Hariri, to cosy up to Hezbollah and was burned in the process. It likely would not allow the mistake to be repeated.

There are also simmering tensions between the LF and Hezbollah. These tensions erupted into a gunbattle in Beirut in October 2021, when gunmen, allegedly from both parties, fought on the streets of the capital following a protest.

For better or for worse, and despite an expectation that the FPM will not fare as well in the upcoming election, Hezbollah is stuck with Bassil for the time being.

William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.

Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou