Political change in crisis-ridden Lebanon? Challenges and opportunities

32 years after the end of the Lebanese civil war, lasting after-effects of the war can still be felt in Lebanon: indeed, society is divided along sectarian lines and a corrupt leadership plunged the country into a deep political, financial and economic crisis. However, a succession of mass protests took place between 2005 and 2020, calling for a substantial change in politics. These uprisings are the fruits of decades-long efforts made by civil society. The transformation of the sectarian political system towards a modern democratic state seems necessary, if Lebanon wants to see light at the end of the tunnel. However, the Lebanese might not be able to free themselves alone from the current leadership and the current system without meaningful measures and sanctions from abroad.

 

Lebanon experienced a civil war (1975 – 1990) which was both an internal conflict between different political groups and religious sects, as well as an external conflict where other countries influenced what was happening on the ground. After the Lebanese civil war came to an end through the Ta’ef Agreement, a general amnesty was granted to everyone who had participated in the war. Some of the key figures of the civil war/ militia leaders became political leaders. This was supposed to be a transitional solution to help bring peace to the country, but much of the same leadership is still in place today. Also, the Syrian regime was present in Lebanon until 2005, significantly influencing Lebanese politics.

Today, Lebanon’s politics still take the shape of a sectarian system, where leaders from different political sects seek support from countries outside Lebanon, thus allowing other countries to influence internal affairs. Support levels are manifold and range from financial, political and economic support – such as from Saudi Arabia or the European Union – to delivering weapons – as in the case of Iran and Syria. The sectarian leaders use their own sects in a clientelistic system, providing services to members of the sect in return for political support. A small group of sectarian leaders heavily benefitted, both politically and financially, from this system of clientelism and outside support. This system has led to a society deeply divided along sectarian lines, increasing levels of corruption, and external dependencies. Lebanon is one of the most unequal societies in the world.

Since 2005, the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri sparked mass protests but these didn’t lead to significant political changes. In 2015, a garbage crisis led to mass protests against the ruling class which again didn’t materialize in political change. In 2019, at least a quarter of the Lebanese population engaged in four months of mostly peaceful protests against the corrupt political leaders. The protestors came from very diverse backgrounds: from the cities as well as the countryside, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, politically active and others who came to protest for the first time in their lives. The protestors willingly didn’t want anyone to represent them. Later on, the lack of leadership became a trap because it hindered the formation of a political opposition. It must also be said that these successive protests would not have been so massive and articulate if a very diverse and active civil society hadn’t worked for decades on topics such as citizenship, civil rights and dialogue. On August 4, 2020, one of the biggest explosions that ever occurred in the world hit Lebanon, killing over 200 people. No political leader resigned, and the government didn’t do anything to help people affected by the explosion. And again, no political change occurred.

 

Deep political and economic crisis

In 2019, Lebanon was hit by a deep financial and economic crisis, with soaring inflation, frozen accounts, and the most of the political elite shuffling their billions abroad. All normal citizens lost their live savings and retirements and weren’t able to access their accounts anymore. Lebanon’s population impoverished within a few months, businesses broke and thousands of Lebanese young professionals left the country in search of a better future abroad.

How to solve these complex situation and deep political, economic and financial crisis? And how to get rid of this corrupt political sectarian leadership in a non-violent way? Since 2005, the mass protests show that on a grassroots level, a significant number of Lebanese citizens want a change in politics and a different leadership. And, as mentioned above, the protests also were a consequence of decades of hard work done by civil society – in all regions, sects and social classes.

 

Challenges and opportunities

The only way seems to be to create a new political culture free of sectarianism. Moreover, political change can only be achieved through the ballot with the formation of an opposition. With the current electoral law, it will not be easy for independent, non-sectarian candidates to take a seat in parliament. But the possibility does exist. The challenge is to form a united opposition. The ultimate goal would be to transform the sectarian system into a modern civil democratic state: Lebanon definitely is in need of a new social contract, where sectarianism is abolished but the religious diversity continues to exist.

The successive mass protests show that there is a desire for political change on behalf of a large part of the Lebanese population. What is the critical mass to achieve this? And will it be possible to be achieved, knowing that some sectarian groups are heavily armed, which might be one of the reasons why political change hasn’t been achieved so far.

It might well be that the Lebanese will not be able to free themselves from the political establishment (and this includes the above-mentioned armed group). The solution to force substantial reforms upon the political leadership and make them engage in serious negotiations with the International Monetary Fund could be quite simple: after 2019, most ruling leaders illegally transferred an estimated 21 billion US Dollars (which were also illegally acquired) to Europe, the US and elsewhere, while ordinary citizens couldn’t even get 100 US Dollars from the banks. It is the duty of the international community to investigate this immense and illegal transfer of money to offshore accounts and it would be the duty of the banks in these countries to freeze these accounts as well as other assets. This is the only language the political establishment will understand. Once their financial resources fade away, they will very quickly engage in substantial reforms and real negotiations with international institutions. Those are the necessary measures to unlock aid which would lead Lebanon out of the current political, financial and economic crisis.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christina Foerch Saab holds a Diploma in Political Sciences from the Free University of Berlin and has a certificate in biography work. In the year 2000 she moved to Beirut to work as journalist and filmmaker. In 2014, she co-founded the NGO Fighters for Peace together with former combatants from the civil war. She specialized in topics such as violent extremism, reintegration of former combatants, arms control, dealing with the past and peacebuilding.