In Lebanon a five-man committee has been created by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), aimed at “revisiting” the 2006 Mar Mikhail agreement between Hasan Nasrallah and Michel Aoun.
That understanding famously secured Maronite backing for the arms of Hezbollah in exchange for the party’s pledge to make Aoun president of Lebanon, a position that he had long coveted.
Aoun lived up to his part of the deal and in return, Hezbollah parachuted him into the presidency exactly ten years later, in 2016. The new committee is a product of a late December phone call between Nasrallah and Aoun’s son-in-law and political heir, Gibran Basil, the current leader of the FPM. Its members are expected to start work now.
Basil wants Hezbollah support to become president once his father-in-law’s tenure ends in October 2022, or if he is incapacitated due to old age given that Aoun is approaching 88 next September.
Both he and Basil have been pushing for a revision of the Mar Mikhail Agreement, Hezbollah reluctance at committing to a Basil presidency. The original agreement made no mention of Basil but he managed to attach himself to it, making his appointment as cabinet minister as one of the many preconditions of the Aoun era.
For starters Hezbollah feels that it cannot make him president before fulfilling a promise it had made to Suleiman Frangieh, head of the Marada Movement and a ranking member of the March 8 Coalition.
He had been promised the presidency back in 2016 but was talked into backing down due to Aoun’s age, on the pretext that he would be Hezbollah’s next choice for president in 2022. They cannot pass him over, yet again, for the sake of Gibran.
Additionally, Hezbollah has little trust in Basil, seeing him as an unreliable ally and political manipulator. They never forgave him for reaching out to Saad Al Hariri from behind their backs back during the parliamentary elections of 2018, nor for equating Syria’s presence in Lebanon with the French occupation of the early 20th century.
Far from being committed to their agenda, he is only using them to advance his own political ambitions. They too have been working with him out of sheer necessity, given that he controls the largest bloc in Parliament and heads one of the two major Christian parties.
Their Christian allies in the Marada Movement control a much smaller bloc and are far less influential in the Christian street, especially when compared to their adversaries in the Lebanese Forces (LF).
Yet despite their reservations and fears, Hezbollah found itself in the same boat with Basil, after the Trump Administration imposed sanctions on him last November. Many expected those sanctions to steer him away from Hezbollah, but what happened was the exact opposite.
Realising that he no other person to turn to, neither at home nor in the neighbourhood, Basil has thrust himself fully into Hasan Nasrallah’s lap, positioning himself as a firm and obedient ally.
He immediately played the victim, claiming that he had been blacklisted by the US for his support of Hezbollah, pleading Nasrallah to throw him a life jacket.
Without political cover from Hezbollah, Basil realises that his political career is finished, having lost plenty of support at home after the October 2019 Revolution. Many of the young people who took to the streets that month unleashed their anger on Basil, accusing him of nepotism.
A set of conditions
With that in mind, Basil ventures into talks with Hezbollah deprived of much of his previous tools and power base. He is the weaker link, unable to impose his will while being forced to accept all of Hezbollah’s dictates, when they start coming.
They will expect a position no less than the one of his father-in-law, when he linked Hezbollah arms to the security of Lebanon. For example, he wants a new agreement with Hezbollah, one that applies to him specifically and by name, but Nasrallah insists on simply amending clauses of the 2016 understanding, rather than writing up a new one.
Although the FPM is now in power and controls a parliamentary bloc of 29 MPs, it is far more vulnerable than in 2006, when the Mar Mikhail Agreement was signed. Aoun came to the negotiation table from a position of strength, having spent years in exile and boasting of a military and political career that dated back to the 1970s.
He was a self-made man who created a power base for himself using his own traits and charisma, hailing from none of the hereditary political families of Lebanon and relying on the support of none of the regional stakeholders like Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
His supporters obeyed him blindly. When he ordered them to fight the Syrians during the Civil War, they took up arms against the Syrian Army. When he said that it was time to reconcile with Damascus, they followed obediently, with no questions asked.
Basil enjoys none of that obedience or personal charisma or history — and Hezbollah knows that only too well. His one single trait is being the son-in-law of Michel Aoun. Hezbollah viewed Aoun as a political equal, a serious heavyweight with whom it could do business.
That certainly does not apply to Basil.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.