Lebanese reformers hope to overthrow political elite


For months, protesters in Lebanon remained in the streets after the spark of the October 2019 uprising, when tens of thousands of people gathered to protest against corruption and the economic downturn and call for accountability and social rights. Now they have focused their energy not on the barricades but on the ballot boxes, hoping to finally topple the entrenched Lebanese political elite in next year’s elections.

They face big hurdles, starting with a corrupt and sectarian power-sharing system allergic to reform. They also face a sub-state militia that practically controls the levers of power in Lebanon. Despite this, a new generation of political activists are hoping to use the increased political engagement in Lebanon over the past two years to make it a more democratic state.

Formed during the 2019 uprising and reinforced after the explosion last summer in the port of Beirut, Minteshreen is the largest of the new activist groups to emerge in Lebanon. The party’s name has two meanings in Arabic: “from October” and literally “spread out”, or coming from all over and from different backgrounds, a nod to its determination to break down the divisions that the political elite Lebanese breathed.

For months, protesters in Lebanon remained in the streets after the spark of the October 2019 uprising, when tens of thousands of people gathered to protest against corruption and the economic downturn and to call for responsibility and social rights. Now they have focused their energy not on the barricades but on the ballot boxes, hoping to finally topple the entrenched Lebanese political elite in next year’s elections.

They face big hurdles, starting with a corrupt and sectarian power-sharing system allergic to reform. They also face a sub-state militia that practically controls the levers of power in Lebanon. Despite this, a new generation of political activists are hoping to use the increased political engagement in Lebanon over the past two years to make it a more democratic state.

Formed during the 2019 uprising and reinforced after the explosion last summer in the port of Beirut, Minteshreen is the largest of the new activist groups to emerge in Lebanon. The party’s name has two meanings in Arabic: “from October” and literally “spread out”, or coming from all over and from different backgrounds, a nod to its determination to break down the divisions that the political elite Lebanese breathed.

Mia Atoui, 34, is a clinical psychologist who co-founded the mental health organization Embrace and established the only suicide prevention hotline in Lebanon. She joined Minteshreen after months on the streets throughout the uprising. The turning point for Minteshreen came in the wake of the Beirut explosion in August 2020, when its protesters were attacked and shot by police and security forces, galvanizing the group’s transformation into the liberal and progressive party it is today.

“We realized that the political class and the people in power are ready to do anything to keep them in power,” said Atoui, candidate for the legislative elections, representing Minteshreen, in a district of Beirut next March.

But even if she and other new independent candidates win their elections, it won’t bring immediate change. The biggest problem is that Lebanon is not entirely a sovereign state. True reform cannot advance as long as foreign interference in the country, in particular Iranian support for the terrorist and political group Hezbollah, is a constant. After the Syrian occupation of Lebanon ended in 2005, Hezbollah only increased its hold over the state.

Hezbollah has great power over the pro-Syrian parliamentary coalition, the March 8 alliance. He has a habit of dismissing prime ministers unless they’re aligned with the group, as well as blocking the creation of new governments or bringing down existing ones. But the most significant way Hezbollah has controlled politics in Lebanon over the years has been violence and assassinations.

Among the victims, many of those working for reform were murdered or dismissed from their posts. Ronnie Chatah, political commentator and columnist in Lebanon, is the son of Mohamad Chatah, foreign policy adviser to then Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Mohamad Chatah was assassinated in 2013. A few days before his assassination, he sent a draft letter parliamentarians to sign calling on Iran to reconsider its investment in Hezbollah in the name of reform in Lebanon.

“Over the past 16 years you have had Lebanese [calling for reform], Lebanese who stood up alone, economists, journalists, diplomats, all those you would want for a government or a company to succeed, killed by a group ”, declared Ronnie Chatah. “So the question is: how do you expect a population to do more? “

Considering that there have been multiple protests and endless lists of reform candidates in the history of Lebanon, only for the economic and political situation to gradually worsen, Chatah admits there are reasons for be skeptical of the prospects of the new generation of activists.

“It may be a repeating story that has less to do with Lebanon’s own internal divisions and has more to do with its geography or region in general, something that is beyond the reach of an activist,” he said. he declared.

But these internal divisions are real. After Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943, political power was assigned according to a denominational system, dividing seats in parliament by denominational quotas. This sectarian arrangement only gained momentum after the end of the civil war in 1990, when all public institutions in Lebanon had to include a number of Christians, Druze and Shia and Sunni Muslims. The Lebanese had to access public services through their own sect rather than through an operational government, as sectarian leaders took over some ministries for themselves.

Especially since the end of the civil war, Lebanon has faced a political stalemate and had the same people in power – Rafic and Saad Hariri have twice served as prime ministers, and Najib Mikati, the current prime minister, has occupied the post three times now – because those people who grip the levers of power have not tolerated any new faces. Atoui hopes that Minteshreen, a youth-led political organization whose members are mostly under 40, and other new political parties will be able to break this barrier.

“The next election will be our first catalyst or historic opportunity where there will be a much greater proportion of new faces to come due to several new political parties that have emerged over the past year,” she said.

There will be another great opportunity: the diaspora. Since the economic crisis acceleration at the end of 2019 ae the devastation of the explosion in the port of Beirut, it is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 citizens left Lebanon, but not Lebanese politics. The number of Lebanese in the diaspora who have registered to vote in next year’s elections has climbed to 244.442, a big jump from the 93,000 registered for the 2018 election. People who have lost everything, even their homeland, in the past two years will likely vote angry.

And the diaspora vote is important in another way: foreign voters are freed from patronage networks that often link people to their parties in Lebanon. Traditional political parties intentionally weaken the state in order to monopolize key services, and as elections approach patronage only increases.

“We have to counter with a narrative that says, ‘Look, we’ve tried this and we see where they’ve taken us’; our only solution is a state that offers everyone equally, regardless of faith, ”said Diana Menhem, CEO of Kulluna Irada, a political advocacy group trying to raise awareness of how services social should come from the government and not from patronage networks. The group is partnering with emerging political groups such as Minteshreen, providing support for these groups to take on the political class, provided they meet preconditions such as opposing the six ruling parties and acknowledging the deficit. sovereignty and the need to face Hezobollah.

In any case, the economic crisis in Lebanon is already weakening these bonds of patronage. The fall in purchasing power has made it more difficult for political parties to provide social services and jobs in exchange for support. “Even with the relationships they have, their political parties can no longer provide [people] with the amount of services that were provided to them before the economic crisis, ”said Atoui.

Considering all the challenges in creating reform in Lebanon, Atoui and Menhem realize the importance of creating a united opposition and the largest possible coalition to change the dynamics in parliament. Even then, Hezbollah might have the final say.

“Whoever finds himself in Parliament and whoever rules this country, there are red lines that they cannot cross,” said Ronnie Chatah. “When something [is an issue for Hezbollah] to contain easily, they collapse governments. Hezbollah does so by dropping its members and allies from parliament en massee if his coalition has majority power, as it did in 2011, shortly after the UN indicted Hezbollah-affiliated suspects for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Atoui and other reformers envision a Lebanon free from foreign interference and with a viable government. They see this upcoming election as a first step, but far from the last.

“Drastic change should not be expected in the immediate future, as reformers are fighting a 40-year-old system,” Atoui said. “On the contrary, these will be the years when we are fiercely opposed by those in power, and that is why these years are among the most difficult before we can begin to reap the seeds of what we are planting today. “


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