Lebanon News

Bassil becomes FPM president in deal ‘blessed’ by Aoun

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil speaks in Beirut, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015. (The Daily Star/Dalati Nohra, HO)

BEIRUT: Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil was selected as the new president of the Free Patriotic Movement Thursday, following an internal settlement “blessed” by the party’s founder MP Michel Aoun. Aoun congratulated the competitors from his home in Rabieh and stressed that “there is no victor or vanquished as this is the will of the absolute majority.”

He also announced that he “has not” and “will not” prevent other members from submitting their candidacy for the party’s presidency.

FPM members had been scheduled to vote for a new party president in a contest that would have pitted MP Alain Aoun, nephew of Michel Aoun, against Bassil, his son-in-law.

But Michel Aoun intervened to mediate the process after it became apparent that elections could tear the party apart. Alain Aoun and Bassil were at odds over the powers the president ought to enjoy, among other issues. Bassil had pushed for a strong, independent president with overreaching powers, while Alain Aoun stressed the need to share power with the party’s politburo.

As part of the settlement resulting in Bassil’s ascendancy, substantial changes will be made to the party’s internal bylaws. The powers of the politburo will be increased and the president’s powers will be curbed, in an attempt to foster inclusive decision-making. An assessment of party officials is also expected to take place.

Born on June 21, 1970, in the seaside town of Batroun, Bassil received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from the American University of Beirut in 1992 and 1993, and established a construction company upon graduation. He married Chantal Aoun, Michel Aoun’s daughter, in 1999.

Bassil has been active in the FPM since its inception. His began his political career as communications minister, from July 2008 until November 2009, before serving two terms as water and energy minister, from 2009 until 2014. He is currently Lebanon’s foreign minister.

According to his website, Bassil’s achievements include the creation of a manual dictating the strategic plan for the Energy Ministry for the year 2010, in addition to strategic plans for the electricity, water and sanitary sectors.

Yet his years in office have been riddled with scandalous allegations. A Lebanese business magazine conducted a lengthy interview with Bassil, part of which included an enquiry about $33 million of revenues generated from the sale of seismic data detailing Lebanon’s offshore oil reserves. The then-energy minister’s response was to sue the magazine and issue a 10-paragraph rebuttal that did not touch upon the sum in question.

As foreign minister, Bassil was also captured on video at the U.N. General Assembly in New York displaying carnal interest in one of his female colleagues. In the footage, Bassil is depicted enquiring after Caroline Ziadeh, the U.N. deputy permanent representative of Lebanon. “Rami, where is Caroline?” he asked one of his aides jokingly, receiving a perplexed look from the Emirati foreign minister. Bassil then proceeded to motion with his hands, in what was interpreted as a gesture signaling his admiration of Ms. Ziadeh’s figure.

Yet despite his scandalous tenure, Bassil’s gift for politics, or perhaps his marriage into it, has vaulted him to the highest echelons of the FPM’s political leadership. Media reports said that the deal was struck ahead of the Change and Reform bloc’s weekly meeting Tuesday.

Alain Aoun and Bassil arrived together in MP Ibrahim Kanaan’s car for a meeting Thursday to announce the selection. An-Nahar newspaper reported that Kanaan had brokered the deal between the two candidates on the recommendation of the group’s leader, Michel Aoun.

After Thursday’s announcement Alain Aoun said “unripe circumstances” prevented the party from conducting democratic elections, due to the “risk of division in the post-election period.” He said such division would have been particularly harmful at a time when “we are being politically targeted.”

Alain Aoun also reaffirmed his “faith in Michel Aoun and his person,” and called on his supporters to “overcome this obstacle and work hand-in-hand for the well-being of the FPM.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 21, 2015, on page 1.

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