By Charles Ough
For the first time since the 2019 protest movement, the Lebanese people have voted in parliamentary elections which took place on 15th May 2022 and returned the highest number of independent candidates in the country’s history. These thirteen new MPs, while not united in a monolithic party or bloc, share a commitment to the goals expressed in 2019 to challenge the dominance of former Civil War (1975-90) militia leaders over politics which, they argue, has resulted in endemic corruption, clientelism and sectarianism dividing the population and ultimately resulting in the current economic crisis. However, after capturing headlines in Western newspapers and websites throughout 2019 and 2020, the compounding hardship suffered by most Lebanese (with more than three-quarters of people below the poverty line) has, in its gruelling mundanity, pushed the country away from the spotlight of most press in the Global North. This is true also with the elections which, despite constituting a peaceful, democratic way for Lebanese to express their discontent and continue the legacy of the protest movement scotched by economic hardship and coronavirus lockdowns, have been relatively ignored in the media in Europe and North America. This relative lack of interest merely continues the trend of Western obsession only with violent change in the Middle East and Global South(Battah, 2016: 2).
True, the electoral system, with its sectarian divisions and gerrymandered constituencies, does specifically prohibit change through reinforcing the power of the aforementioned sect-based former militia leaders-turned politicians, thereby reducing the importance of elections. However, when Western media reported on the most recent poll, they corroborated the domination of the entrenched elites by focusing on just one topic: the supposed collapse of Hezbollah’s majority in parliament. Most of the first reports to appear in the West, by outlets such as the BBC, Reuters, Al-Jazeera, the Washington Post, New York Times and Times of Israel, all focused on the loss of a parliamentary majority for “Hezbollah and allies” or the “Hezbollah-led bloc.” This further betrays the pervasive US-led policy bent of the media in the securitised presentation of political developments in the Middle East, focusing solely on how they affect Western interests.
In fact, a closer look at the full breakdown of the results, in a Reuters “factbox” piece, shows that Hezbollah itself gained a seat in these elections compared to its showing in 2018 while its Shia-majority ally, the Amal (Hope) Movement, also retained its seats. Instead, it is these two parties’ main Maronite Christian allies, the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun, along with the seat of the Druze Lebanese Democratic Party leader, Emir Talal Arslan, which were the big scalps of the anti-Hezbollah independents and Lebanese Forces, now the largest Christian party. While the Free Patriotic Movement lost in areas once seen as “strongholds,” it is clear that, unless support has fallen away drastically since 2019, opinion towards Hezbollah among the Shia of Lebanon remains overwhelmingly positive (Karakoç, Özcan and Özcan, 2022) and this has been vindicated in the elections of May 2022. This fundamentally undermines the view in the US-led bloc that Hezbollah exerts a “stranglehold” over Lebanon and the Lebanese people. This stance ignores the agency of those inside the country and focuses on the organisation’s apparently enforced inclusion of the country within “the Iranian axis, even though many Lebanese don’t approve of this hijacking.”
Furthermore, the real novel development in these elections can be seen as a rejection not specifically, or not solely, of the “Hezbollah-led bloc” or the “Iranian axis” but of the entirety of the entrenched civil war-era political and economic elite as represented by both the rival Lebanese forces and Free Patriotic Movement. As mentioned, the highest number, thirteen, of MPs running on an anti-establishment and non-sect based platform have been voted into the new parliament. This fact is particularly pronounced by Lebanese on Twitter and in Arabic-language news sources including the London-based al-Araby al-Jadeed which highlighted that the independents’ importance is increased by the fact that they have formed Lebanon’s first-ever “parliamentary bloc for change.” This demonstrates that, in spite of the economic crisis and the outward appearance of a fading desire for the overthrow of the government, the demands of the Lebanese “uprising” of 2019 remain very much alive. Indeed, the political scientist and activist Carmen Geha, formerly based at the American University of Beirut (AUB), admitted that she was “wrong” when it came to these elections. She had believed, “Even after Beirut’s port exploded in August 2020, the warlords seemed to be able to revive the system again.” However, with the results of 15th May, she observed, “An unprecedented awakening and political confrontation has started, and we must all rally to support it.”
While the hope expressed in this opinion is certainly laudable and important considering the apparent lack of change and continuing harmful political deadlock following 2019, Geha does not mention the previous activism that has fuelled this “awakening.” In fact, the recent history of protests and demands for an overhaul of the sect-based system in Lebanon prior to 2019 has been almost completely ignored by analysts and the media in the West. The assertion by BBC journalist Martin Patience that “what has been striking is that the protests have cut across the sectarian lines that have plagued Lebanon for decades,” was an “analysis” repeated ad nauseam by newspapers and online outlets in the wake of the October “revolution,” referred to as the thawra or intifada in Arabic. While the movement certainly was impressive in scale and ambition, it was not the first of its kind in twenty-first century Lebanon and the election of the independents in 2022 can be seen as a result and continuation of activism far pre-dating 2019.
In fact, beyond the habitual myopia of contemporary journalism, academics have long been aware of this history and the need to challenge what Miriyam Aouragh describes as the presentation of Lebanon “as trapped between war and sectarianism.” Moreover, she asserts that Lebanon also had its own “Arab Spring” moment in 2011 which hardly any mass media outlet mentioned at the time. Instead, Aouragh illustrates that thousands of Beirutis came together onto the streets at that time to “forge a unique and non-sectarian camaraderie” in a truly grassroots movement rejecting the political leadership which had led earlier protests, such as those on both sides in the wake of former Prime Minister Rafic Harriri’s assassination in 2005 (Aouragh, 2016: 125-6). Even the 2011 uprisings, however, “were not singular events,” in the sense that they drew on “existing indignation” and, in turn, created the potential for further activism through digital “archiving [which] keeps moments of protests alive… a source of political strength that can be drawn upon later.” All in all, contextualising these seemingly sudden outbursts of emotion and action reminds us of the “permanent character of revolutions,” each episode building on the previous and inspiring the next (Aouragh, 2016: 139).
Indeed, only if the historicity of the non- or cross-sectarian activism in Lebanon is acknowledged can the apparently spontaneous, sudden and, hitherto, unprecedented 2019 protests and 2022 elections be explained and seen as what they really are; articulate and well-thought out demands for real, structural change rather than mere knee-jerk reactions to economic stimuli. Habib Battah’s 2016 Reuters Institute Paper further highlights the construction and continuance of these post-sectarian “Structures of Change” through digital collective activism challenging specific issues– such as the endemic corruption leading to infrastructure decay and waste build up as confronted by the 2015 “You Stink” movement”– together with the government regime in its entirety (Battah, 2016).
Therefore, whereas a focus on the loss of Hezbollah’s majority can point only to a temporary shift that could, quite possibly, be reversed at the next election by a reciprocal swing against the more pro-Western and pro-Saudi parties, the election of a record number of independent MPs is testament to the continuance, and possible renewal, of an ongoing cross-sectarian movement for change in Lebanon. However, while much has been made of the removal of the “Wall of Shame” protecting the Lebanese Parliament building from the 2019 protests, this, at the moment, can be no more than a symbolic step. Furthermore, Lebanon’s economic freefall has only worsened in the weeks since the election while many, including Battah himself, have pointed out that the increase in factions in Parliament with no overall majority decreases the chance of the formation of a government which can solve the crisis through structural reforms or the provisionally-agreed International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout.
It is also clear, however, that the economic and political elites have long exploited times of crisis to strengthen their grip on the country through specious sectarian explanations for the country’s problems. Now though, the presence of a small but significant bloc of MPs could enable them to become kingmakers in the formation of a new government, forcing the aforementioned elites to listen to the demands of the people despite the preoccupation of most with the day-to-day hardships of Lebanon’s seemingly-perpetual crisis. Thus, Joe Macaron is right to point out in his opinion piece for l’Orient Today that the onus to unify, pursue and enact real and lasting change – including in Lebanon’s sect-based electoral system – now falls to the independent MPs themselves. According to Macaron, “Otherwise, their participation in this election might merely re-legitimize a failed system looking for aid from the international community,” and, indeed, most of the first internal elections held in the new parliament went to candidates from Hezbollah and its allies. However, expectations are, understandably, incredibly high for these new MPs among Lebanese quite frankly exasperated and exhausted by economic freefall and political paralysis. There is still a chance for the new MPs to deliver, however, and what is needed are not short-term fixes oft-promised by the traditional elites, but long-term solutions. Indeed, if independents can deliver on what Macaron believes is their “unique opportunity to become a long-term force in Lebanese politics,” then perhaps this election can spell the beginning of a successful end for Lebanon’s “permanent” revolution.
Aouragh, M. (2016), ‘Online politics and grassroots activism in Lebanon: negotiating sectarian gloom and revolutionary hope’, Contemporary Levant, 1 (2), 125-141
Battah, H. (2016), ‘Structures of change in post-war Lebanon: Amplified activism, digital documentation and post-sectarian narratives’, Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper, University of Oxford
Karakoç, Ekrem, Mesut Özcan, and Sevinç Alkan Özcan (2022), ‘Beyond Identity: What Explains Hezbollah’s Popularity among Non-Shi‘a Lebanese?’, Politics and Religion 15 (1), 85–113