The latest political crisis rocking Lebanon is more of an ego clash between two veteran sect-based leaders and Civil War-era enemies. Jibran Bassil, Lebanese Foreign Minister and son-in-law of Maronite Christian President Michel Aoun, was loose-tongued enough to refer to the powerful Shiite Speaker of parliament and leader of the Amal movement as a “thug”. Once the video went viral, and Berri’s supporters were out on the streets, demanding an apology, the hapless Bassil expressed “regret”. And Aoun had this to say about the crisis involving his nemesis: “What happened on the ground is a big mistake based on a mistake. I forgive all those who assaulted me and my family, and I look to those who insulted each other to forgive each other.”
This sad episode highlights how Lebanon continues to be in thrall to its ‘big men’, leaders of militias and clans who have become a permanent fixture of Lebanese politics. Every sect-based political party has at its helm one of these big men, whose fathers and relatives before them, more often than not, led the same parties. The biggest loser in all this is the Lebanese state, and its institutions, which have become weakened to such an extent that it is now all about individuals.
Tensions between Berri and Aoun have been on the boil since December when Aoun signed a decree promoting dozens of army officers without the signature of Shiite Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, one of Berri’s closest aides. The row threatens to ignite sectarian tensions in the run-up to a parliamentary election in May, and also risks paralysing Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri’s coalition government. The individuals, the parties, and their vociferous supporters must ensure this episode doesn’t push the country over the brink.