Hariri-Bassil war of words lays bare deep divisions
The formation of the Lebanese government two months ago ushered in a new push for consensus governance, highlighting the need for the country’s main political players, mainly Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, to work together to address their many challenges.
The Hariri-Bassil alliance withstood numerous challenges, including Bassil’s diehard support for Iran and Syrian President Bashar Assad. Those positions put Bassil at odds with Arab countries that accused Iran-backed Hezbollah of hijacking the Lebanese state.
Recently, however, the sacred alliance between Bassil and Hariri seems to be faltering, with publicly levelling criticism at the other.
This feud began when Hariri excluded Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib from Lebanon’s delegation to the Brussels III international conference for Syrian refugees, March 12-14 in Brussels.
Hariri’s excuse for cutting Gharib, a member of Bassil’s ministerial bloc, was that the invitation extended to Lebanon included only the prime minister, foreign minister and minister of education and social affairs. This supposedly meant that it was against protocol to include Gharib in the delegation.
Bassil responded by boycotting the conference and began a media campaign against the international community and, indirectly, Hariri, accusing them of working to prevent the return of Syrian refugees who, Bassil and his pro-Assad allies claim, are safe to immediately return home.
At the Brussels conference, Hariri toed the government line, saying that “the only solution to the refugee crisis lies in their safe return to their homeland in accordance with international laws and treaties.”
Hariri’s decision not to address the concept of voluntary return was in accordance with his existing deal with Bassil, which indicates it is not the source of their current dispute.
The root of their disagreement involves more important matters, at least within the context of the clientelist political system that both Bassil and Hariri jointly own and operate.
For Bassil, the standoff is a chance to consolidate his status as the strongest Christian politician, one who, four years down the road, could make a run for the presidency.
To maintain this strongman act, Bassil is boldly demanding most of the senior Christian bureaucratic appointments, something Hariri cannot easily concede to without losing his other Christian allies, specifically the Lebanese Forces.
Hariri is using the standoff with Bassil to respond to his many critics who warned that allowing Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Bassil to infringe on his constitutional prerogatives would weaken his position.
More important, the spat between Hariri and Bassil coincided with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Lebanon, during which he put further pressure on Beirut to cooperate with US sanctions on Iran and its affiliates, chief among them Hezbollah.
Yet this supposed theatrical act of disagreement between Hariri and Bassil will neither exonerate the Lebanese government nor exempt it from assuming responsibility and cooperating with the US sanctions, no matter how harsh and injurious they may be on Iran and Hezbollah.
The differences between Hariri and Bassil will not protect Lebanon from its predicament because Pompeo and his administration have one sole agenda: containing Iran.
Regardless of how the Hariri-Bassil dispute plays out, the socio-economic and political challenges facing the government will require a better understanding of local and regional constraints and, above all, a revamp of the entire Lebanese governing structure.
The Hariri-Bassil war of words could momentarily divert attention but the resumption of their accord will directly result in them sharing what remains of the state’s meagre resources.