Elections in Lebanon: A Continuation of the “Permanent” Revolution?

By Charles Ough

Debate tent pictured on 24th November 2019 during the Revolution of that year and set up by the civil society organisation Beirut Madinati (My City). Beirut Madinati was founded by activists in 2015 in the wake of the “You Stink” movement but went further in its critique of the entire political class. It remains active and was involved in campaigning for independent candidates in 2022.

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.

Bibliography:

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

What the Killing of Shireen Abu Aqleh Means for Israel & the Middle East

By Ethan Dinçer

On the 11th of May, Israeli snipers shot and killed Palestinian-American journalist and Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Aqleh while she was on duty in Jenin, a city in the occupied West Bank. Abu Aqleh was covering an Israeli raid of Jenin when she was shot in the head, and reports have made it clear that there were no Palestinian forces in the area, indicating that Israeli forces specifically targeted Abu Aqleh and the three other journalists she was with. All four journalists were wearing press helmets and vests, and her killing has sparked a renewed wave of criticism against the Israeli occupation.  

The violence didn’t stop at the killing of Abu Aqleh. During her funeral, Al Jazeera aired live footage of military police raiding the funeral proceedings, detaining and beating mourners—almost causing the dropping of Abu Aqleh’s casket— smashing a window of the hearse, and tearing down Palestinian flags. According to the Israeli police, the violence was prompted by mourners refusing to place Abu Aqleh’s casket in a hearse, an arrangement previously agreed to by Abu Aqleh’s family. As funeral attendees were beat, kicked, subject to stun grenades, and arrested, Israeli forces once again proved their unending violence against the Palestinian people. 

Israel’s reaction to the killing of Abu Aqleh has been ridden with a lack of accountability. Soon after her killing, the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs claimed that indiscriminate firing of Palestinian terrorists shot and killed Abu Aqleh, a claim that was furthered by a statement from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office. Both claims have been retracted, pending an Israeli military investigation. These acts of Israeli media deflection have had an immense impact on media coverage of Abu Aqleh’s death: the Middle East Eye reports that The Guardian, Associated Press, and the New York Times all made misleading or vague statements surrounding the nature of Abu Aqleh’s killing, using rhetoric such as “clashes” and “fights” that obscured the responsible party. 

Abu Aqleh’s killing by Israeli occupying forces can be placed in a larger continuum of violence. In the past few months, more than 17 people were killed in raids and clashes in Nablus, occupied West Bank, 30 Palestinians were injured during an Israeli raid of the al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan, and Israel continued air raids in Gaza after a rocket attack in late April. Juxtaposed with last year’s 11-day Gaza war, in which 250 Palestinians were killed and 1,948 injured—in which the Human Rights Watch named apparent war crimes—the Israeli occupation seemingly remains steadfast in its violence towards Palestinians. 

What does this violence, and the international community’s increasing recognition of it, mean for continued support of the Israeli state by Western governments? The United States arguably remains Israel’s largest supporter in terms of monetary aid, with US $3.8 billion being delivered to the Israeli state in 2020, part of President Obama’s US $38 billion aid promise to Israel from 2017-2028. As more activists and human rights groups from across the world call for a reckoning with Israeli violence, military aid, and freedom for Palestinians, Shireen Abu Aqleh’s murder represents another instance in which the normalization of Israeli occupation—from across the Middle East to the interstate system—is being challenged. 

Abu Aqleh’s case, in particular, represents a challenge to the Biden administration’s support for Israel. Abu Aqleh was an American citizen, and an increasing number of lawmakers, activists, and civil society representatives are calling for a critical look at how the United States treats Israel, actively pointing out the double standards in US policy. Many of these double standards surround journalist rights and freedom of the press. When American journalist Brent Renaud was killed in early March by Russian forces in Irpin, Ukraine, the Biden administration immediately condemned the killing, with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan condemning Russia and Putin’s “brazen aggression” against journalists. The day after Renaud’s killing, the United States and France jointly agreed to step up sanctions against the Russian state. Similarly, after Washington declassified a report on the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate last year, the Biden administration was quick to maintain sanctions on the hit squad that killed Khashoggi. Yet, President Biden was steadfast on not taking action against Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, a move Biden defended in order to avoid ostracizing the head of state. 

These three cases illuminate the shifting, and at times hypocritical, policies maintained by the United States vis-a-vis journalists. Now, with increasing calls for Israeli accountability for the killing of Abu Aqleh, where does Israel stand in relation to the United States and to the greater Middle East? As more human rights advocacy groups name Israeli occupation as apartheid, Israel’s historic omnipresent force in the region seems to be dwindling. The Israeli government’s reaction to any critique of the occupation has turned more inflammatory, and Israel’s media campaign to diminish their violence against Palestinians is not reaching the same audience. Albeit relatively low, the higher number of U.S. Congressional representatives calling for a conditioning of aid to Israel signifies an interstate system increasingly willing to recognize and denounce the unacceptability of the occupation’s violence. 
Abu Aqleh’s killing, in the short term, should inspire more critical approaches to the Israeli occupation by both governments in the Middle East and the United States. While the Biden administration has called for an investigation of the violence at Abu Aqleh’s funeral, compared with the administration’s response to the murder of American journalist Brent Renaud, Biden is being expected to take more critical steps to hold the occupation responsible for Aqleh’s killing. In the Middle East, Abu Aqleh’s killing is a reminder of ongoing violence against Palestinians, especially to the four states—Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Morocco—who normalised ties with Israel under the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords. Abu Aqleh’s killing should be a sobering example to the Middle East about their policy decisions towards Israel, and inspire re-evaluating the policy support towards Palestinians.

Two Interpretations of Religion: The Tudeh Party and Iran’s 1979 Constitution

By Kelly Skinner

After Iran’s 1979 “Islamic” Revolution, Foucault noted that Islam was pervasive throughout Iran’s political discourse, rendering secular political options obsolete (Behrooz. Foucault in Iran, 82). This was largely due to the association of Islam with nationalism during the Revolution as it was used as a symbol of resistance against both the Shah and Western imperialism (Mirsepassi. Intellectual Discourse and the Politics of Modernization: Negotiating Modernity in Iran, 100). This left the secular-identifying political groups in a difficult position– would secularism remain central to their ideology or would they forge political alliances based on other factors? In mid-1979, as Iranian leaders were in the midst of creating a constitution which would define the new Islamic Republic, the political stakes could not have been higher. One of these secular parties, the communist Tudeh Party of Iran, forged an interesting path in their approach to this question, ultimately putting their economic goals above any other consideration. The Tudeh Party’s response to the growing presence of political Islam included identifying multiple interpretations of religion and espousing one interpretation as aligning with the party’s own goals. This also included identifying which versions of an Islamic Economy mostly closely aligned with their own economic platform. The Tudeh Party publicized these ideas in various interviews and articles published at the time, including those printed in Mardom, Ettelāʿāt, and recorded in the international press by the FBIS-Daily Service.

In early June, before the official June draft constitution was published, the Tudeh Party published their goals for the new constitution in Ettelāʿāt. Secretary General Nurredin Kianuri stated:

… the new constitution must include the following principles: full national independence and sovereignty in all political, economic, cultural, social and military affairs, democracy meaning the provision of all freedoms and fundamental rights, the right of the masses (tudeh mardom) to participate in determining their own destiny through strong social institutions, ensuring the national rights of the peoples (hoquq-e melli-ye khalqhā) and nationalities living in Iran within the framework of our unified and indivisible homeland, social progress that guarantees the comprehensive industrial, agricultural, and cultural progress of society, its dynamics and its people and the flourishing of human character, moral values, and spirituality. Public welfare for all the toilers (zahmatkashān) and the provision of the right to work, education, treatment, rest and housing etc. The health of the country’s economic construction in order to secure the interests of the vast majority of people and cut off the possibilities of plundering the natural and human resources of our country. (Ettelāʿāt 12 Khordād 1358/ 2 June 1979)

After the publication of the June draft, the Tudeh Party’s positions changed very little though the draft had included little of what they had argued for. However, their goals for the new document did have one significant shift, the inclusion of a cooperative sector of government in their ideal economy. In late August, the Tudeh Party published an article in their party paper, Mardom, stating,

The economic system of the Islamic Republic of Iran should be based on three sectors: public (dowlati), cooperative (ta’āvoni), and private (khosusi), with regular government planning. The governmental sector is the main economic factor of the country and is the basic device for its dynamics and the advancement of the economic objectives of the revolution. (Mardom 29 Mordad, 1358/ 20 August 1979)

This new part of the Tudeh’s platform was repeated in another instance in which a Tudeh Party spokesman qualified their advocacy for these types of ownership by adding that this was what the party believed, “under the current circumstances” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. Tehran Ayandegan in Persian 1979. “Tudeh Gives Views on Constitution.” 2 August 1979). This is interesting, because while cooperative ownership is not featured in the June draft, these three types of ownership are popular in many conceptions of an Islamic economy, including in the ideas of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani, and Mas’ud Rajavi. 

This shift can be explained by the Tudeh Party’s new support for leftist conceptions of an Islamic Economy. In late July 1979, Tudeh Party published an article in their party paper, Mardom arguing that there are two different interpretations of Islam. What the Tudeh Party claimed to be the modern interpretation was the Islam that Ayatollah Khomeini and other revolutionaries followed. This interpretation supported the same economic goals as the Tudeh Party. The article states:

In this regard, we should especially name Imam Khomeini and also other Islamic thinkers such as Ayatollah Taleqani, Doctor Ali Shariati, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, and others. This Islamic ideology, political and societal, that thanks to their efforts and the appearance of collective other Islamic thinkers of our country and was named “Monothesistic insight” (binesh-e towhidi), was a very important spiritual flag in the first stage of the of the victorious Iranian revolution against the Pahlavi dynasty and for  the establishment of an Islamic Republic and still in in the current revolutionary phase plays a progressive role in expanding and spreading the achievements of the revolution (Mardom 8 Mordad, 1358/ 30 July 1979)

In the same article, the Tudeh party also claims that in this new interpretation, Islam had become a social ideology, “Imam Khomeini by preserving his strict loyalty to all Islamic beliefs and Shi’ism, has given a new impetus to this trend and today Islam in countries is more and more formulated as a social ideology” (Mardom 8 Mordad, 1358/ 30 July 1979).

Not surprisingly for a communist party, the Tudeh Party’s support for Islam and an Islamic Economy only mentions the leftist proponents of an Islamic ecnomy, perhaps except for Khomeini. However, in his speeches during the Revolution, Khomeini too, often spoke of lifting up the oppressed, something the Tudeh party seems to have taken note of as they even adopted Khomeini’s rhetoric. In a press conference given on October 9th, 1979, Kianuri lays out the “content of the revolution” that the Tudeh party would support. These points include the following: “Fundamentally changing for the better the living standards of millions of plundered people, i.e., the working classes or, to use the term coined by Imam Khomeyni, the Mostaz’afin [the deprived]” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. Tehran Bamdad in Persian 1979. “Kianuri Press Conference”). Notably, Mostaz’afin, originally a Qur’anic term, was first used to talk about economic class in Shariati’s translation of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth into Persian as Mostaz’afin-e Zamin (The Oppressed of the Earth) (Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic, 47). Khomeini’s use of this term shows, at least to the Tudeh, that he is combining Islam with class struggle. 

On the other hand, the Tudeh party’s use of Mostaz’afin also attempts to show the Iranian people that although they often use different language to express their agenda, it is remarkably similar to Khomeini’s own goals. This is also evident a month later when in an interview a German newspaper Kianuri states, “The Shi’ite religion has democratic roots and in history it was linked with popular national and anti-imperialist forces… We are making every effort to find a common language with Khomeyni, because objectively he is playing a progressive role in Iran’s development” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. East Berlin 1979. “Interview with Tudeh’s Kianuri” 16 November 1979). Kianuri justifies this position by saying, “between scientific socialism and the social content of Islam there are no unbridgeable differences rather, many common aspects” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. East Berlin 1979. “Interview with Tudeh’s Kianuri” 16 November 1979).

Following this strategy, the Tudeh Party, although not agreeing with the form of government instituted by the new constitution, did support the overall constitution due to the leftist economic principles in the document. In November 1979, Kianuri stated:

Some articles of the constitution are positive and others negative… We support the articles relating to the structures of the economy in the Islamic Republic. The economy will be based mainly on the national sector… despite the great resistance shown by the bazaar. (FBIS-Daily Service 20 Nov. 1979)

This is interesting because Khomeini has historically been an ally of the bazaar in the lead up to the Revolution and relied on their support to oust the shah (Abrahamian, Khomeinism, 41).  In the view of the Tudeh party then, the final constitution marks a victory of Khomeini’s revolutionary rhetoric over his more conservative tendencies. However, the economic focus of the Tudeh Party may have been shortsighted as the party would be banned by the new government only a few years after the Revolution, in 1983.

Secular political groups in Iran had to adapt to the changing meaning of Islam during and after the Revolution. The Tudeh Party did this by accepting the fact that Iran’s constitution would include principles for an Islamic Economy. Following this acceptance, the Tudeh Party then identified the proponents of an Islamic Economy whose ideas were most similar to their own economic beliefs. This included Shariati, who was known as the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution, though he died before its fruition and Khomeini, the leader of the Revolution, as well as Bani-Sadr and Taleqani whom the party endorsed for the Assembly of Experts. Even after the final draft of the constitution was published, the Tudeh Party still supported the document, which famously included theocratic elements such as Velāyat-e Faqih, due to its inclusion of leftist economic principles.

Image obtained from Tudeh Party of Iran