• Politics
    Jun 17, 2021

    Lebanon’s Emerging Opposition: From Covid-19 to the 2022 Elections

    • Karem Chehayeb
    On 17 October 2019, an evening protest in downtown Beirut grew into mass demonstrations across Lebanon. Existing activist groups and recently formed political parties also mobilized to confront the rapidly deteriorating economic situation. Protest squares across the country were ideologically diverse, but were united by their resentment of Lebanon’s ruling class and a desire for political and economic reform.
    In less than two weeks, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned. Protestors generally perceived this as a key victory, but there were still significant divisions over their demands, protest strategies, and political positions, as state repression was on the rise, including torture.
    Through interviews with several independent political parties and organizations, this article explores how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the momentum of the uprising, and how groups are positioning and strategizing for the parliamentary elections slated for 2022. The groups interviewed are Citizens in a State, Li Haqqi, the National Bloc, Beirut Madinati, Tahalof Watani, Liqaa Tishrin, and Sabaa.
    Covid-19: Picking up the pieces
    The countrywide Covid-19 lockdowns slowed the popular uprising’s momentum, with much of the population already concerned about the political elite’s resilience and the continued unravelling of the economy.
    The newly appointed Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced the first lockdown on 15 March 2020, prompting the army to take down protestor tents in Tripoli overnight, while security forces dismantled tents in downtown Beirut for what the interior ministry described as “increasing trespasses.”
    Mobilizations declined almost entirely, but emerged in sporadic protests, as the economy continued to spiral while the country was under lockdown. After the authorities announced another lockdown in January 2021, protests and riots raged across Tripoli. In March, countrywide protests and roadblocks rocked Lebanon after the Lebanese lira’s depreciation accelerated.
    Several independent political parties were asked if they saw the Covid-19 pandemic and the measures taken to contain it as a fatal blow to the momentum of the uprising.
    “We avoided calling people for protest out of responsibility, and we resorted to online campaigns and outreach,” Ibrahim Halawi of Citizens in a State, founded by ex-minister Charbel Nahas, said. “But political opposition is more than street protests, so we adapted by considering other tactics to grow and expand.”
    “What has changed is that we were once present and vibrant in the streets,” Rania Masri, also from Citizens in a State, said. “And now we had to take our political discussions online.”

    Like Li Haqqi, the National Bloc, Beirut Madinati, and other groups on the ground, Masri and other members of the party held organized discussion groups during the late 2019 protests in a downtown Beirut parking lot near the Azarieh building complex. Within days, the parking lot and other areas of downtown Beirut turned into a tent city.

    For Beirut Madinati, the onset of the pandemic limited their recruitment drive, as their public talks were key to attracting new members. “[Covid-19] affected it because before we were able to attract people through the talks we were giving,” Beirut Madinati’s Rami Rajeh said. “It was a very smooth and ideal filtering process into who’s coming in as a supporter.”
    For Sabaa, which relied heavily on its stage, sound system, and its sea of purple paraphernalia to mobilize support for the party, the Covid-19 lockdown severely impacted what appeared to be a crucial tool for them.
    “These people in the establishment seem to have God as their ally,” Jad Dagher, who heads the party said, adding that many people had already felt burnt out from taking to the streets on a daily basis. “We can’t expect hundreds of thousands of people to stay in the streets for [many] months,” Dagher added.
    Before the onset of Covid-19, Liqaa Tishrin was holding in-person, town hall-style meetings in various locations across Lebanon. But the pandemic stopped all that. “We met periodically with our core members,” Ziad Abdelsamad of Liqaa Tishrin said. “But we also used to visit people in towns and public spaces in different Lebanese regions.” He said they have tried to rely on Zoom and other methods, but “it’s not the same.”
    Factoring in the economic crisis, which has left over half the population in poverty, and the “frustration” people felt with the prolonged political stalemate, mobilization was becoming increasingly difficult. “You’re not in a normal situation to do politics,” he said.
    Tahalof Watani needed time to adjust as well. “It took a while until we adapted to Zoom, and meetings over Zoom are still not like physical meetings,” Marc Geara of Tahalof Watani said. “We’ve now adapted, but still, the tents are gone.” Prior to the lockdown, Geara said they focused on organizing on the ground and only recruiting through word of mouth. “But during the lockdown, we started working more on recruitment.”
    The public spaces claimed by protestors, and the different organizations and collectives that emerged, were fertile ground for movement-building and recruitment. With the lockdown in place, political organizations had to find new tools to maintain this momentum.
    Beirut Madinati admitted to slowing down and prioritizing immediate needs as a result of the pandemic. “Being able to talk about anything but Covid-19 for [the first] two months was very difficult—it was everybody’s obsession,” Rajeh said. “It did slow things down externally in every aspect. Internally, we kept on meeting and trying to tighten any loose ends.” He added that this was an opportunity to strategize on a plan that will be voted on within Beirut Madinati on how to take things forward.
    Dagher said that while protests declined, Sabaa continued the rest of its work as usual, including its active social media campaigning. “We are present on social media and have our people on the ground communicating in small groups with people,” he explained. “So things are okay for now. It’s not the ideal environment of course.”
    Meanwhile, Adham Hassanieh from Li Haqqi said they primarily focused on building their party’s structure. “We organized [internal] elections, meetings … and benefited heavily from that. We [also] worked on new policy papers,” Hassanieh said. “People are still uncomfortable to be in crowded places, so large-scale mobilization [at the time] was not a priority as much as internal organization and building a strong support-base.”
    The National Bloc meanwhile launched a new digital platform to promote more discussion of key local and national issues. “We took advantage of the restrictions imposed by Covid-19 to work on structuring a platform for change called Afaal,” the National Bloc’s Mohammad Serhan said. The party’s website describes the platform as “an open, inclusive, decentralized, democratic, and collaborative community engagement tool” that is not restricted to members of the party.
    In the spring and summer of 2020, the National Bloc and Citizens in a State frequently held discussion groups that were later moved to online spaces, utilizing Facebook, Instagram, Zoom, and other digital tools. For the latter, meetings turned into hybrid events that were in-person, but also live-streamed.
    Masri from Citizens in a State says there was ultimately a “shift in tools rather than a shift in strategy.” Serhan echoed her sentiments: “We are a modern political party and we try to use technology to our advantage,” he said.
    Changing strategies
    The Beirut port explosion on 4 August 2020 led to the resignation of the Hassan Diab government. Nearly one year after he was ousted, Hariri returned as prime minister-designate in October. Over six months later, Lebanon is still without a government, as Hariri and President Michel Aoun are unable to reach agreement on the cabinet’s composition.
    As of May 2021, over half the population lives in poverty, and the Lebanese lira has lost more than 85% of its value. The political gridlock, the Beirut blast, and the economic downward spiral have all pushed independent political parties to reassess their positions.
    “After the Beirut blast, there was more talk about a political revolution, and to promote political organizing in Lebanon,” the National Bloc’s Serhan said, adding that the party began to develop committees to work closely with students, workers, and the Lebanese diaspora.
    Following the blast, independent groups started discussing coalition-building to forge a viable political opposition. But their disdain for Lebanon’s ruling class was not a strong enough point of unity to overcome their differences. These groups, which had managed to band together on broad slogans of anti-sectarianism and anti-corruption at the beginning of the uprising, are now realizing that significant policy and strategic differences can no longer be swept under the rug.
    Li Haqqi has continued to work on grassroots movement-building and supporting syndicates and unions. Given the dire economic situation in Lebanon, it says there are some key issues that it cannot compromise on. “[At] this stage, there is no room for concessions to be made, especially with the economic situation, socioeconomic policies, social welfare, privatization, and so on,” Adham Hassanieh of Li Haqqi said, anticipating obstacles to forming broad coalitions “likely between the left and right.”
    Citizens in a State and the National Bloc, though they share different positions on several matters, have frequently collaborated in recent months, notably co-organizing public talks together and issuing joint-statements on shared positions. However, they have diverged both in terms of strategy and political positions. Hezbollah and its military wing, and the extent of the party’s role in the country’s financial collapse, remains one of the most divisive issues among different opposition groups in Lebanon.
    Much of the debate centers on either the country’s systematic corruption (i.e., government institutions, commercial banks, and the Central Bank) or Hezbollah’s weapons, which has allowed the party to become a powerful military force in the region.
    As far as Liqaa Tishrin is concerned, blaming and dealing with both is a crucial and non-negotiable position that independent groups should take. “We see that both cover each other up,” Abdelsamad said. “The weapons obstruct the conversation and discourse … while the corrupt system looted and squandered public funds.”
    Liqaa Tishrin and a handful of other groups announced a political coalition in mid-April, which included new political groups like Taqaddom, but also the Kataeb Party and the Independence Movement, who together once held four seats in Parliament before resigning in August 2020.
    Around the same time, the National Bloc, Tahalof Watani, Beirut Madinati, the Popular Observatory against Corruption, and other independent parties and groups issued a common call “…to form the broadest political front to contest the parliamentary elections…” as a first step towards building a coalition of their own. They called for a downsized cabinet of ministers outside the auspices of the ruling parties that would focus on economic reforms, social protections, accountability mechanisms, and setting up an independent administration for the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2022.
    This is a position that most other independent groups share. At the outset of the uprising, many called for snap elections. However, given that the parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in less than a year, a number of groups just want them to happen on time. Lebanon’s last parliamentary elections (in 2018) were originally scheduled for 2013—many independent groups fear that the same could happen again.
    “We continue to see great value in coalition building. But we are now more cautious of turning coalition building into a hollow stunt without institutional foundations that must transform oppositional politics the day after we come to an agreement,” Ibrahim Halawi of Citizens in a State said. “Thus, any effort we are exerting on this front takes time, and relies largely on clarity from other opposition parties on the role they want to play in this transitional period.”
    Citizens in a State continues to promote its economic recovery proposal. And, unlike some of the other groups, it views the transition of Lebanon into a non-sectarian, civil state as a priority over the elections.
    The 2022 parliamentary elections
    Lebanon’s last parliamentary elections in 2018 saw independent and civil society candidates emerge in greater force than previous years. Among the most notable lists was the nationwide Kuluna Watani coalition. That being said, the only candidate to win was ex-journalist Paula Yacoubian in Beirut’s first district.
    Since the beginning of Lebanon’s uprising in October 2019, a common call among many groups on the streets was early parliamentary elections. “Early elections was one of several demands that came with the initial protests, which demanded the downfall of the Hariri government followed by a transitional government,” Adham Hassanieh of Li Haqqi explained. “[And] then paving the way for early elections with a new electoral law without sectarianism.”
    The 2018 elections were held according to a new proportional electoral law, the first in Lebanon’s history. However, the new law had no shortage of flaws. The law stipulated that candidates can only run as part of a list. Each list, depending on the district, had different seats allocated for different sects. As a result, just about 61% of registered candidates were able to form electoral lists and become viable contenders. This also meant that not all districts were equally competitive. Much of the diaspora were able to vote from abroad for the first time as well.
    It was not just the electoral law that was criticized—the lack of proper monitoring meant the elections were rife with procedural violations. In fact, Transparency International said the Supervisory Commission for Elections operated with “such inefficiency and poor transparency,” that it created an “unfair advantage for candidates and hindered the ability for civil society to monitor the electoral process.”
    With some modifications, Sabaa’s Jad Dagher says that opposition groups ought to put their energy into elections. 
    “It would be wise to push for elections and let the revolution happen through the ballot box,” Dagher maintained. “We would of course request independent supervision of those elections, as we do not trust the current establishment … with a few amendments to the current electoral law.”
    But are these independent groups ready to compete in the next elections?
    Abdelsamad from Liqaa Tishrin says that had early elections taken place, the independent groups would not have been ready for it. “Last elections, we made a big mistake by setting up arbitrary lists based on broad slogans rather than policies,” Abdelsamad said. “We now have to set up an alternative policy program and take on the elections based on that.”
    Abdelsamad also does not see the political climate as a suitable one to ensure fair elections. “The electoral law is not helpful, and the authorities are not impartial,” he said. “So we are calling for an independent government that is impartial that would organize fair elections.” That same government would also urgently enact swift economic reforms, as the country’s fiscal crisis is crippling the population.
    “Elections are important—at the end of the day, we are trying to work within the system,” Beirut Madinati’s Rami Rajeh said. “But the priority is building a base, trying to talk to as many people as possible, convincing them that what’s going on is not sustainable, and that they have the power to change [the status quo] once the opportunity arises.”
    But Citizens in a State has a more critical position on prioritizing elections. “We are now more cautious of turning coalition building into a hollow stunt without institutional foundations that must transform opposition politics,” Halawi said. “It relies on partners pursuing power through a transitional government in this period, instead of demanding elections or demanding a government from others.”
    The Lebanese government, ideally a transitional one, ought to have a laundry list of items on its agenda, says the National Bloc’s Mohammed Serhan: reforming the economy, prosecuting financial crimes, building a social safety net, reconstructing the Beirut port and the surrounding neighborhoods, and bringing those responsible for the blast to justice. “And then finally hold elections,” he explained. “When elections are held, we then form a new government, as per the constitution.”
    With the country’s ruling parties entrenched in state institutions, having amassed significant financial and social capital through clientelistic networks, Lebanon’s budding opposition will no doubt face major obstacles. And whether prioritizing the 2022 elections is a viable and effective tool for structural change is a debate that appears to be nowhere near being resolved. However, one thing independent political parties and groups all agree on is that they need to develop their programs, expand their membership base, and build formidable coalitions based on clear policy positions.
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