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Paul Salem, President of the Middle East Institute and LCPS board member

November 2019
Leveraging the Current Uprising for Sustained Political Change

The nationwide protests are the most significant domestic political development in Lebanon since the end of the civil war. It would be useful to examine both the short and long term political potential of this new awakening.

In the short term, the protests have already mobilized the power of the public to bring down a corrupt and ineffective government, and to gain great leverage on the rejection or acceptance of any new government. They have also raised urgent national demands and forced the ruling class to confront these demands. 

In the longer term, the uprising has had the effect of a social revolution. It has generated a new national consciousness and will, and is forging a generation of citizens in a spirit of national unity, civic awareness, and public empowerment. In that sense, it is similar in some ways to the 1960s when a new generation, both in Lebanon and in the West, led a movement of social and cultural change that rejected the previous decades’ values and standing order, and proposed a new way forward. 

Regardless of the fall or rise of particular governments in the next months, what is happening is already changing the civic identity and values of a whole generation. Indeed, a new Lebanon is being born.

This also indicates that there are two tracks to maintain awareness of: The socio-cultural one where profound long term change is happening among citizens regardless of the government; and the strictly-speaking political track in which governments rise and fall, political leaders are elected or selected to office, and policy is made. 

The two tracks are connected but also separate. The revolution in civic identity and values is already under way, and there is little the ruling class can do to stop or reverse it; and it is the most important and lasting change, which will impact Lebanon for decades to come. It needs to be sustained and amplified through continued social action, civic networking, artistic production, and sustained public engagement. 

The political track is, in the short term, more stubborn. The 2019 revolution has not yet produced an alternative political leadership to take over from the old; and some in the movement say that it should remain—for the near term—a public protest and revolutionary movement and not venture into selecting and producing representatives or alternative leaders. Indeed, the old (and I mean old-fashioned, not old in age) ruling class might persist for many years, even as society is fast-changing underneath it, unless there is a clear strategy to leverage a considerable portion of this national awakening into lasting and impactful political change. The struggle for power between the old ruling class and the rising movement is going to be long and bitter. It will be measured in years, not months. No one gives up power easily, or willingly.
Elements of Power
We might identify three elements of political power. The first is the power of public space; to be able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of citizens to take to the squares and streets, create new narratives and dynamics, and impose a public will by force of mobilization and public numbers. This, the current movement has already proven it can do. And this will likely be an important tool of political change for years to come. Of course, the challenge here is to build and maintain this mobilization network, but also to use it strategically so that it does not lose steam or create public backlash, and can be maintained as a political method for a long time to come.  

The second is the power to reclaim institutions of civil society. The movement indeed started among civil society and NGOs, who were instrumental in mobilizing, organizing, and messaging for the protests. This NGO network should be maintained and expanded as much as possible throughout all regions and towns of the country to become a sustained grassroots network. But by civil society, one also means the web of professional syndicates, workers’ unions, business associations, teachers’ unions, educational institutions, media, and other networks and structures that fill the space between society and the state. The revolution made its first inroad here with the electoral victory in the Beirut Bar Association. The movement needs to develop a strategic and sustained campaign to engage in this important intermediary sector and to build its presence and influence there. 

The third and ultimate level is to build power within the state itself. In the Lebanese political system, that power rests in parliament, and until the movement can build a significant presence within it, we will continue to be negotiating with an empowered—and one must say duly elected!—political class from a position of considerable weakness. If the movement is to move over time from beseeching the ruling class to listen to its demands, to mobilizing the citizenry to raise up a new group of representatives to power and throwing the old ones out, it needs to develop a sustained strategy to prepare for, contest, and win parliamentary elections. 
Winning elections is not rocket science but it is not easy. Many uprisings in the Arab world succeeded massively in mobilizing nationwide protests and bringing down governments, but failed in turning that national momentum into any notable results in open contested elections. The current ruling class is going through a period of considerable public unpopularity but that does not mean that it will necessarily or automatically lose or be wiped out in the upcoming elections. Citizens’ electoral behavior differs markedly from the general patterns of public protest. 

First is the challenge of electoral participation: Many of the young generation who participate in protests and demonstrations are not as familiar or dedicated to the often tedious work of electioneering and may not want to volunteer their time and energy to electoral campaigns and to turn-out-the-vote drives. 

Second, there is a large portion of the electorate that supports or even participates in the protests but has longstanding electoral ties with existing parties and political representatives. They need to be won over patiently by showing them that the movement—or whatever political organization or party it turns into—presents a meaningful and sustainable political alternative for them, and that the representatives that they will be asked to vote for, are a clearly better and more sustainable choice for them in both the short and long term.  

Unless the movement does not want to contest actual political power, but remain on the outside ‘asking’ the ruling class to do its bidding, it will need to develop into a more well defined and well organized political movement. It has to develop a clear presence throughout the country, a well-defined political platform, and an emerging set of representatives who can begin working to challenge and supplant current members of parliament in the next elections.
Election Law
The question of a new election law is a relevant and important one, and several points are worth raising in this regard. First, unless we devote an intensive amount of effort, energy, time, and resources to prepare a powerful nationwide election campaign over the next year or two, it won’t matter what the election law will be; we will not do well. In other words, the urgency and importance of massive and intensive organization and preparation is a major priority. There is no law that will create victors at the ballot box if we cannot bring hundreds of thousands of voters to the polls and have strong candidates to beat the more experienced incumbents. That type of preparation will also mean that whatever election law we have next election, the new uprising movement candidates will do well. 

Second, there is a tactical risk in insisting on debating and developing a new election law as a precondition for elections, and it might play right into the ruling class’s hands. They can say ‘yes’ to that, and then drag on the ‘talks’ over a new election law for as many months or years as they want; it gives them control of the timing. This happened in previous years when elections were postponed several times over the excuse that there wasn’t agreement over a new election law. 

Third, the current election law—which is a combination of majoritarian and proportional representation—is workable and gives a wide open opportunity for new candidates to run and win, if they are part of a powerful national campaign that has done its homework nationally as well as in every region and district of the country.  The point is to hold elections soon and get into parliament, and this can be achieved with the current law if the preparations are serious. Once in parliament, then the longer term work of developing alternative election laws, and considering other important reviews or reforms to the constitutional and governance system can begin.

The 17 October uprising has given Lebanon a historic opportunity to change its corrupt and sectarian ruling class and bring about profound and lasting political change. This opportunity will require a clear strategy, planning, and perseverance. These opportunities do not come often in the life of a nation; we should leverage this one to bring about lasting and transformative political change.

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