Political horse-trading weakens Lebanon

The intense and ferocious debate is not new but resurfaces every time Bassil, ever aspiring to the Lebanese presidency, openly challenges the position of the Sunni prime minister.
Sunday 09/06/2019
Dangerous bickering. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (R) and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last February. (AFP)
Dangerous bickering. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (R) and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last February. (AFP)

The end of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr celebration were tragic for the Lebanese because festivities were interrupted by terrorism in Tripoli, leaving four law enforcement officers dead and a country in shock.

Yet the dreadful act, which was carried out by a local jihadi lone wolf who briefly fought with the Islamic State in Syria, fuelled a more violent verbal dispute, one that has been raging between factions of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law and president of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

This intense and ferocious debate is not new but resurfaces every time Bassil, ever aspiring to the Lebanese presidency, openly challenges the position of the Sunni prime minister, an act that takes a sectarian undertone and convulses an already polarised nation.

Such political bickering has been the norm the last few years, yet the level to which politicians have sunk and their willingness to exploit their power are at a record low.

The abuse of power is palpable in the showdown between Bassil and Hariri’s faction, the Future Movement, with Bassil vying to depose the Director of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) Major-General Imad Othman, a Sunni officer whom Bassil accuses of usurping power and operating without oversight.

Bassil and his faction are very clear that Aoun’s term is one that will see the reinstatement of the Maronite hegemony over power, a status they lost to the Sunnis following the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990 and the adoption of the Taif Agreement.

The power feud between Bassil and the Future Movement recently moved to the judiciary with Bassil allegedly instructing military prosecutor Peter Germanos to exonerate Major Suzan Hajj, who was accused of falsifying evidence leading to the unlawful detention of actor Ziad Itani.

Hajj, the former head of the Lebanese Anti-Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Bureau who enjoys Aoun’s patronage, made news when the ISF Intelligence Branch provided evidence allegedly implicating her in framing Itani.

The Itani affair provided both sides with an arena to exchange blame with each side accusing the other of trying to subdue the judiciary and law enforcement agencies to serve their own goals.

However, following the Tripoli incident, the FPM took its assault further, accusing Othman and the Sunni community of harbouring terrorism and providing protection for jihadists.

This dangerous sectarian undertone and the reaction of the Hariri faction go beyond merely instigating strife but dangerously erode the base of the Lebanese state and transforms the judiciary and the police into sectarian pawns that lack the confidence and support of the general public, rendering them ineffective.

While true that all aspects of governance have been traditionally controlled by the ruling elite, the brazen way Bassil, as well as Hariri, are taking liberties by declaring high-ranking bureaucrats as part of their political fiefdom is utterly disgraceful.

What is more appalling is that this outrageous tug of war has become recurrent. Yet both Hariri and Bassil seem to be sticking with their sacred alliance, which led to the election of Aoun as president two years ago.

Despite these brief falling outs, the Bassil-Hariri political and allegedly financial arrangement has persisted and used the populist feuds to justify and perhaps reinforce their alliance vis-a-vis their supporters. Remarkably, every time Hariri had to make a major concession or a lucrative deal with Bassil this would be preceded by a mock verbal fight such as the current one while failing to address the deficiencies.

Time and again, Hariri has been criticised by his Sunni supporters and his political allies for not properly assuming the reins of the premiership and instead allowing Aoun and Bassil to infringe on his constitutional prerogatives. Interestingly, throughout this recent feud, Hariri has not properly responded to Bassil’s attacks but preferred to stay somewhat silent on the matter and allow for Bassil’s rampage to run its course.

Wishing to divert attention from the abysmal budget passed by his cabinet, Hariri’s only way to muster support is to lean on his sectarian Sunni power base, a tactic Bassil also uses with his Christian power base.

Hariri and Bassil have major obstacles to overcome, including senior bureaucratic appointments that their opponents and allies will try to sway to their side. Having this tense atmosphere allows them to play both sides.

As long as Hariri and Bassil have their arrangement, which includes sanctioning Hezbollah’s continued hegemony over all other Lebanese matters, the Lebanese state will become increasingly weaker, resulting in a potentially dangerous political vacuum that threatens stability and makes it easier for terrorists and lone wolves to operate.

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