Why is Lebanon's Gebran Bassil so controversial?

Bassil, 49, has seen his fortunes shift since mass protests against corruption and nepotism erupted last year.

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    Bassil enjoys unwavering support from his Christian base, who see him as a shrewd hard worker and a protector of their rights [Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP]
    Bassil enjoys unwavering support from his Christian base, who see him as a shrewd hard worker and a protector of their rights [Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP]

    Beirut, Lebanon - A colourful mix of insults and allegations of nepotism, racism and corruption is how an average Lebanese protester would describe the country's former Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil.

    He is not alone. Lebanon's entire ruling class has been targeted by protesters who took to the streets more than 100 days ago to demand an end to corruption and sectarian politics.

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    Bassil is one of the newer politicians on the bloc, having come to power after the country's 15-year civil war.

    But he quickly rose to be a symbol of the cynical sectarian politics and mismanagement that have dominated the post-war era, critics say.

    Protesters point to his last 10 years in the government where he moved through the telecommunication, energy and foreign ministries and assumed leadership of one of the country's biggest parties, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

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    Lebanon has some of the highest telecommunications costs in the world, and the FPM has held the energy portfolio for a decade while the country remains without uninterrupted electricity supply. 

    Still, Bassil enjoys unwavering support from his Christian base, who see him as a shrewd hard worker and a protector of their rights.

    MP Mario Aoun, a member of Bassil's FPM parliamentary bloc, told Al Jazeera that Bassil was being "targeted because of his successes". 

    Insults from the crowd

    When the protests against Lebanon's corrupt ruling elite broke out more than three months ago, crude chants were aimed at Bassil's mother. So severe were the insults that Bassil, in his first address after more than two weeks of uncharacteristic silence, apologised to his mother. 

    "I'm so sorry that you were attacked because of me and it wasn't your fault. You taught me to love Lebanon," he said, addressing her in front of crowds of supporters at an organised rally on the outskirts of the capital, Beirut.

    Before the protests, Bassil was widely expected to remain a top minister in government for a long time and was thought to be a serious contender for the presidency, a post currently held by his 84-year-old father-in-law, Michel Aoun.

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    However, he was not named as a minister in Prime Minister Hassan Diab's new government announced earlier this week.

    He was forced to go back on his initial demand to retain a cabinet post and instead name people not directly affiliated with his party.

    Bassil's most recent trouble came when Lebanese people found out he had been invited to speak on a panel about the return of Arab unrest at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland

    Before the interview on Thursday, 40,000 Lebanese people signed a petition saying he no longer represents them.

    CNBC reporter Hadley Gamble asked Bassil how he arrived at the forum on a ministerial salary of about $5,000. Bassil responded that it had been offered to him, rather than paid for by the Lebanese treasury.

    Family rule

    Bassil's political career began in earnest after he married one of Aoun's three daughters, Chantelle, in 1999. This is not unusual in a country where many politicians inherit their posts or marry into power. 

    He first stood for elections with the FPM in 2005, failing to win a seat in his hometown of Batroun.

    He lost again four years later, leading many in Lebanon to joke that he was not even welcome in his own town. But he finally managed to win a seat in his third election bid in 2018. 

    Despite the presence of other popular figures in the FPM, Aoun had handed Bassil the party's reigns in 2015 over fears that leadership elections could sow division. 

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    "You really feel like he's that spoilt kid, because he's the president's son-in-law," Nidal Ayoub, an activist who has led chants on the streets throughout Lebanon's uprising, told Al Jazeera.

    Family politics also plays a large role in the party Bassil leads. Three of the FPM bloc's 24 members - Salim, Mario and Alain - are all relatives of the president, and, by extension, Bassil.

    Chamel Roukoz, one of Aoun's in-laws, is also an FPM member of parliament, though his relationship with Bassil is frayed over what Roukoz has previously put down to their "different ways of doing things".

    Al Jazeera was unable to reach Bassil for comment while Roukoz and a former brother-in-law of Bassil declined to comment.

    Charbel Nahhas, a two-time FPM minister who broke away from the party in 2012, told Al Jazeera that Bassil had been troubled by the impression among his peers that he was in his position because of nepotism. This, Nahhas said, translated into an overbearing approach to politics that led Bassil into chronic conflicts with other parties. 

    "He's a hyperactive person. He works on all the files and learns, which is a rare thing to find among politicians in Lebanon," Nahhas said. "Because he was so hyperactive, he would easily antagonise even those who are with him."

    Bassil has, over the years, led the FPM into public spats with most of the country's major political parties, who have accused him of engaging in corruption, monopolising top-level appointments and violating the delicate power-sharing agreement that ended the civil war in 1990.

    As an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Bassil also sought to normalise ties with Damascus despite half the country's political parties opposing the move.

    Rhetoric on refugees

    During a portion dedicated to Syrian refugee policy at a party event in 2017, Bassil told FPM supporters that, "Yes, we are Lebanese racists, but we know how to be Arab in our belonging, global in our [diaspora] and strong in our openness".

    There are just less than a million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations in Lebanon, though Lebanese officials including Bassil have said the number is much higher.

    "The Syrians have one place to go: Back to their country," Bassil said during that same event. It is the rhetoric like this that has led many to accuse Bassil of incitement against refugees.

    As the leader of the country's largest Christian party, Bassil has also repeatedly held up government work, including vital appointments, citing Christian representation. 

    This includes his years-long refusal to sign off on the appointment of forest rangers because most of them are Shia Muslims.

    Is Bassil's career over?

    In a recent four-hour interview with Lebanese broadcaster Al Jadeed, Bassil said all the pressure and insults he was facing would only make his resolve stronger.

    There were calls to boycott the interview. The interviewers repeatedly alleged he was involved in corruption, as Bassil was forced to defend himself throughout.

    It was a far cry from past white-glove treatment by local media, such as a glowing 2018 documentary by another local broadcaster about Bassil titled "The Man Who Doesn't Sleep", where he was portrayed as a hard-working family man.

    But it is unlikely that Bassil's career is over. He still heads the biggest party in the Parliament and, importantly, enjoys Hezbollah's backing.

    "I don't think those leading this campaign against him will be able to win - he's cunning and clear-headed and on a path, a struggle till the end," Mario Aoun, the MP, said. 

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    Nahhas, however, believes Bassil will be brought down by the impending collapse of the country.

    Lebanon is mired in an economic and financial crisis that new Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni said earlier this week was the worst in its history.

    "If the whole system wasn't falling then he [Bassil] could digest it - lets not forget that the logic of these Zuama (sectarian leaders') is built on constant fighting and conflict and even if there are 10,000 deaths on both sides, they can reconcile and become national heroes again," he said. 

    "But the system is falling apart, and this is what threatens them all."

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News