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Monday, November 29, 2021

The Lebanese beach town immune to the economic collapse where the party never stops

“I did all the infrastructure of the city: electricity, water, sewage, everything, roads – and the municipality was very helpful,” he says. “Then we started renovating the city as a whole. This is where it started to get more and more busy.”

Mr Bassil was unsuccessful in his 2005 parliamentary bid but his position as head of the FPM secured him roles as the telecommunications minister in 2009, the energy minister from 2009-2014, and the foreign minister from 2014-2020.

Mr Bassil has ties to Michel Aoun, the Lebanese president, and is seen by some as the real power behind the 88-year-old leader, whose position he is said to covet.

Mr Bassil offers the same diagnosis of Lebanon’s woes as many of the country’s politicians: corruption and mismanagement are the cause, present company excluded.

“Politicians in this country… they don’t believe in development, they believe in clientelism. Citizens are customers for them, they are not people of rights who have rights to services, so they come to you and ask for services and you do it on a personal level,” he says.

Mr Bassil is more eager to show off Batroun than rehash familiar political themes and rushes out into the drizzly evening to commandeer an electric golf cart.

With a dark sedan and another buggy loaded with a half dozen tattooed body guards trailing behind, Mr Bassil navigates the cobblestoned streets at 20 miles an hour, pointing out development projects he is involved with.  

“This is what I really do best in life,” he says of his love of development, then, catching himself, he adds: “No, I’m a good politician too.”

Mr Bassil has been criticised for a hyperactivity, love of performance and lack of seriousness. His tour is frequently halted to greet supporters and kiss babies.

“This is a very good man,” says Mounir Sfeir, a young man who stops Mr Bassil for a selfie. “He’s honest and he works hard for the benefit of the country.”

But not every Lebanese citizen is as well disposed towards him. To the 2019 protest movement that railed against decades of economic mismanagement, Mr Bassil became the ultimate symbol of the corrupt self-serving Lebanese politician. A crude chant insulting his mother became an anthem for demonstrators.

Over the summer a video of a confrontation between a young Lebanese woman and Mr Bassil’s bodyguards went viral after she confronted him in a Batroun restaurant.

“Shame on you!” Yasmine Masri had shouted, using a coarse local idiom, before his security pushed her away and snatched her phone.

Mr Bassil’s opponents criticise his party’s alliance with Hizbollah for empowering the sanctioned group to increase its influence in Lebanon. 

They cite unmet promises Mr Bassil made to supply 24-hour power while electricity minister and his failure to reform a sector that eventually came to account for nearly half of Lebanon’s public debt. His dam projects have been criticised as costly and ineffective, while construction contracts have gone to his associates.

“Gebran’s track record in every ministry that he occupied is miserable,” says Bachar El Halabi, a Lebanese analyst.

Mr Bassil is still driving through the deepening gloom in Batroun when his assistant informs him that the latest tranche of US sanctions on Lebanon has targeted Dany Khoury, a contractor involved in Mr Bassil’s controversial dam projects.

“Because of his close relationship with Bassil, Khoury has been the recipient of large public contracts that have reaped him millions of dollars while failing to meaningfully fulfill the terms of those contracts,” the US Treasury says.

“He is someone I know but who I’m not financially or politically affiliated with,” Mr Bassil counters without taking his eyes off the road.

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