Gebran Bassil

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Foreign Minister of Lebanon

You are Gebran Bassil, Foreign Affairs Minister of Lebanon

Quotes

“You will not find one Lebanese [who describes] Hezbollah as terrorists, because Hezbollah freed our country from an occupation, which is Israel, and because Hezbollah is now fighting the terrorists.”

“All we are asking for is peace, but peace co-existing with dignity, with the right to exist, and this is where I believe that daesh and the terrorist groups and Israel look alike in their behavior, in their refusal of the other.”

“We don’t believe in making Lebanon a refugee country. If we want to protect Lebanon, and the model of Lebanon, we have to have the Yazidis and the Christians in their place in Iraq. If we want to preserve the Christians in the region, don’t bring them to Lebanon! Keep them in their place.”

“Middle Eastern Christians are actually the best guarantee, not to say the only one, for avoiding the transformation of the region into a launching-pad for global terrorism. Only their effective presence, alongside with their full political role, not a symbolic one…will preserve the Middle East from major sectarian reshuffling as orchestrated by daesh and Israel.”


Early Life

You were born in Batroun, Lebanon, on June 21, 1970 to a Maronite Christian family. In 1992, you received your B.A. in civil engineering from the American University in Beirut, and the next year graduated with an M.A. from the same university in the same field. In 1999, you married Chantal Aoun, the daughter of the legendary general and current president of Lebanon, Michel Aoun.

Political Career

In 1998, you became an early activist in what became known as the Free Patriotic Movement, the political party formally established by your father-in-law in 2005 following the Cedar Revolution and his return from exile (see the Michel Aoun biography for more info). That same year, you ran for parliament as a representative of your home district of Batroun, but were not elected. You continued to work for the FPM as its political relations officer, and helped to preside over the 2006 memorandum of alliance with Hezbollah, an alliance which continues to this day under the umbrella of the March 8th Coalition. In 2008, you were appointed Minister of Telecommunications. Some criticized this appointment, since at that time you were not (and in fact have never been) an elected member of parliament. However, in Lebanon, unlike in other parliamentary systems, this is not a requirement for government ministers, and you were aided by your senior position in the FPM.

Following the parliamentary elections of 2009, you became the Minister of Energy, one of 10 ministries granted to the March 8th Alliance, then a minority in a government led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The government was often deadlocked, however, and in 2011 you and 10 other Hezbollah-allied ministers withdrew from cabinet prior to the release of the UN’s Special Tribunal on Lebanon (STL) report. This report would soon condemn four Hezbollah agents, acting at the behest of Syria, for the 2005 murder of Rafik Hariri, and Hezbollah had been pressing PM Saad Hariri to reject the results of the report. However, at the urging of Western backers to the Sunni-led government, including Presidents Obama and Sarkozy, Hariri resisted, prompting the resignations which you personally announced to the press. While many feared that Lebanon could go for years without a new government, as had already happened from 2006-8 following a similar Shiite-led walk-out, a new cabinet was announced five months later under a March 8th-supported PM, Najib Mikati. You maintained your ministerial post, though now under the auspices of the Change and Reform bloc, which with 11 seats was guaranteed veto power. (There are 30 cabinet posts in the government, and veto power requires 1/3 + 1). Hezbollah, which had long demanded this veto power, seemed finally to have achieved it, since even though its 2 cabinet ministers were not technically part of Change and Reform, they knew that they could count on the support of you and the other FPM ministers.

In 2013, Mikati resigned. At the time of his resignation, the Syrian civil war had begun to take its toll on Lebanon, with armed conflict flaring up Tripoli – the capital of Mikati’s home district – resulting in more than 12 dead and 100 injured. Mikati had wanted to hold new parliamentary elections, which would probably have given the anti-Assad March 14th Coalition another majority. However, this would not have sat well with Hezbollah, which was and is working to support Assad, both politically and militarily. They therefore used their position in the March 8th Coalition to hijack the elections, in part by refusing to appoint members to the Supervisory Commission for Election Campaigns. After Mikati’s resignation, the parliamentary election was cancelled, and in 2014 President Michel Suleiman’s term expired. These two factors meant that from 2014 to the end of 2016, Prime Minister Tammam Salam served as both Prime Minister and President. Meanwhile the members of Parliament, having last been elected in 2009, continued to extend their own terms of office, with the next elections not due until May, 2017.

All of this political dysfunction has worked out well for you, however. Ten months after the Mikati resignation, Tammam Salam announced a new cabinet lineup which included you as the new foreign minister. Then, In August, 2015, Michel Aoun chose you as the new head of the FPM. Finally, on October 31, 2016, after 43 rounds of voting in parliament, Aoun was elected president. The deciding factor in his election was Saad Hariri’s support, which he had announced earlier in October. To some extent, this change of heart reflected Saudi Arabia’s decreased presence in Lebanese internal politics, partially due to their ongoing war in Yemen, and partially due to their dissatisfaction with the growing influence of Hezbollah. Without their traditional backing, Hariri and the March 14th Coalition were somewhat weakened politically, and felt the need ultimately to throw his support behind a compromise candidate, and was rewarded himself when Aoun, in his capacity as president, asked him to form a new government on November 3rd, appointing him Prime Minister on December 18th. To no one’s surprise, you held onto your post at Foreign Affairs.

Foreign Policy

Above all else, your statements on foreign policy reflect a desire to build international consensus on the need to fight and destroy ISIS, which you typically call by its Arabic acronym, daesh. Your condemnation is not limited to ISIS, however, as you frequently draw an ideological parallel between the Islamic State and the state of Israel. According to you, both states reflect a refusal to share land with populations whose religious beliefs differ, in degree or in kind, from the one supported by the government. To this end, you were outspoken in your support for Hamas in the 2014 Gaza conflict:

Now it’s only the resistance…who gave us hope again…that the model of Israel, which is a uni-model, cannot exist…If you take it on the longer term, it is not about winning a battle, or lifting the embargo partially or completely, it is about demolishing a statute of terror embodied in the country…where the supremacy of the state of Israel over the regional countries and over a poor and weak Palestinian people should no more exist.”

You often contrast such “uni-models” with the Lebanese example, which in theory promotes compromise and cohabitation between the many different confessional communities represented your country.

However, as much as you promote Lebanon as a beacon of compromise and support for minorities, you have come under criticism recently for your desire to limit the flow of refugees arriving in Lebanon from Iraq and Syria. On the one hand, this is understandable, since Lebanon has already received 1.1 million Syrian refugees at a time when the central government is deeply in debt, politically deadlocked, and struggling to provide even basic services, such as garbage collection, to its own population. It must also be remembered that Lebanon still hosts hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, whose presence was a leading contributor to the civil war that raged from 1975-1990. As in the case of other contemporary anti-immigrant populist movements (the U.S.’s alt-right, the U.K.’s UKIP, France’s Front National, etc.) where supporters see a legitimate concern with territorial sovereignty, detractors see opportunism and xenophobia.

Concerning the Syrian civil war, your views are both practically nuanced, and purposefully murky. Within Lebanon, Hezbollah is your ally, both in parliament and in their military contributions to the defense of Lebanon’s southern borders. However, you have also been careful not to directly support their participation in Syria. In your words:

“We have an understanding with Hezbollah about Lebanon and the defense of Lebanon. We don’t have an understanding about Syria and their actions in Syria.”

While you are likely not a personal fan of Assad, your relationship with Hezbollah has led you to take a wait-and-see approach to the civil war while focusing primarily on the need to defeat ISIS, partially because of the chaos it is creating in the region, and partially because it is one issue on which practically everyone can agree.

Character Playing Notes

It should be clear by now that in playing Bassil, you must always walk a fine line. The nature of the confessional political system in Lebanon means that even domestic issues will quickly take on international significance. Any criticism of Hezbollah will be seen as an attack on Iran; any criticism of March 14th will be seen as an attack on Saudi Arabia and its Western allies; and in attacking Israel you will undoubtedly bring the condemnation of the US, who will be quick point out your alliance with a group that many in the Western world see as terrorists. You must therefore take care that in your press releases you be as specific and nuanced as possible, while at the same time focusing on issues, such as ISIS, that can garner you the maximum amount of international support.

In responding to criticisms based on your alliance with Hezbollah, you should not hesitate to point out that merely working with a group does not entail your support of all their actions. Consider, for example, the following statement:

“And what do you call the United States and the European Union and the p5+1, who agreed with Iran on the nuclear deal? Do you [say] they made an alliance with Iran?...If this is the case, you can accuse us [as well]…If we agree with Hezbollah on something, it doesn’t mean that we agree on everything.”

As the Foreign Minister, you should make extensive use of private communiques. You should use them to directly communicate with other diplomats and to determine their positions. You should also use them to provide private assurances, and to negotiate points that may not be appropriate for public debate. You are encouraged to use public comments on the Press Releases of others to either lend them support, or to correct misunderstandings. It is not your duty to dominate the public domain, but rather to enhance understanding of your nation's point of view.

Your continued political relevance in Lebanon shows, if nothing else, that you are a canny political operator with a keen understanding of your country and its place in the larger world. While you are a Christian, and have spoken of the need for Christian political activism in Lebanon and the Middle East, your motivating ideology is not overtly religious, and you are not above making deals with anyone who can further your political goals. Your country is in dire straits, and requires a great deal of foreign assistance, but at the same time you are keen to keep out any foreign influence that could jeopardize your party or the sovereignty of Lebanon. Best of luck!

Sources

Interviews with the BBC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5axMnYKodZ0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqv_75oeGXs

Interview with CNN: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqv_75oeGXs

UN speech excerpt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6bXUYlmJOI

Interview with Face to Face: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjhgucRHC9Q

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gebran_Bassil

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebanese_government_of_November_2009

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebanese_presidential_election,_2014–2016

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Patriotic_Movement

Wife’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/chantal.aounbassil/about?lst=902400654%3A100007611995688%3A1483921927&section=year-overviews&pnref=about

Arabic Biography: http://www.gebranbassil.com/gebran%20bassil/who-is-gebran-bassil/cv.aspx

Other News: https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/nowspecials/meet_the_government#23

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/13/world/middleeast/13lebanon.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/08/2012822142040588686.html

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB125780463967939649

http://carnegie-mec.org/2013/03/23/lebanon-imperiled-as-prime-minister-resigns-under-duress/fsq9

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/11/lebanon-parliament-extension-foreign-decision.html

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/02/lebanese-pm-unveils-national-unity-cabinet-2014215112754343666.html

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/michel-aoun-elected-president-lebanon-161031105331767.html

http://gulfnews.com/news/mena/lebanon/new-cabinet-in-lebanon-vows-to-preserve-stability-1.1948384

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