Analysis

Lebanon’s Reformers Trade the Street for the Ballot Box

After 40 years of stasis, some new faces sense a glimmer of hope to change Lebanon’s poisoned politics.

By , a freelance journalist, photographer, and filmmaker.
A Lebanese protester lifts a national flag.
A Lebanese protester lifts a national flag during a demonstration marking the one-year anniversary of the beginning of a nationwide, anti-government protest movement in Beirut on Oct. 17, 2020. ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

For months, protesters in Lebanon remained on the streets after the spark of the uprising in October 2019, when tens of thousands came together to demonstrate against corruption and an economic downturn and call for accountability and social rights. Now, they have focused their energy not on barricades but on ballot boxes, hoping to at last topple Lebanon’s entrenched political elite in next year’s election.

They face some big obstacles, starting with a corrupt, sectarian power-sharing system allergic to reform. They’re also up against a sub-state militia which all but controls the levers of power in Lebanon. Even so, a new generation of political activists is hoping to leverage the increase in political engagement in Lebanon over the last two years into a more democratic state.

Formed during the 2019 uprising and bolstered after last summer’s explosion in the port of Beirut, Minteshreen is the largest of the new activist groups to emerge in Lebanon. The party’s name has two meanings in Arabic: “from October” and literally “spread out,” or coming from everywhere and different backgrounds, a nod to its determination to break down divisions that the political elite in Lebanon have instilled.

For months, protesters in Lebanon remained on the streets after the spark of the uprising in October 2019, when tens of thousands came together to demonstrate against corruption and an economic downturn and call for accountability and social rights. Now, they have focused their energy not on barricades but on ballot boxes, hoping to at last topple Lebanon’s entrenched political elite in next year’s election.

They face some big obstacles, starting with a corrupt, sectarian power-sharing system allergic to reform. They’re also up against a sub-state militia which all but controls the levers of power in Lebanon. Even so, a new generation of political activists is hoping to leverage the increase in political engagement in Lebanon over the last two years into a more democratic state.

Formed during the 2019 uprising and bolstered after last summer’s explosion in the port of Beirut, Minteshreen is the largest of the new activist groups to emerge in Lebanon. The party’s name has two meanings in Arabic: “from October” and literally “spread out,” or coming from everywhere and different backgrounds, a nod to its determination to break down divisions that the political elite in Lebanon have instilled.

Mia Atoui, 34, is a clinical psychologist who co-founded the mental heath organization Embrace and established Lebanon’s only suicide prevention hotline. She joined Minteshreen after months on the street throughout the uprising. The turning point for Minteshreen came in the wake of the August 2020 Beirut explosion, when its protesters were attacked and shot at by police and security forces, galvanizing the group’s transformation into the liberal, progressive party that it is today.

“We realized that the political class and the people in power are ready to do anything so that they stay in power,” said Atoui, who is running for parliamentary election, representing Minteshreen, in a Beirut district next March.

But even if she and other new independent candidates win their elections, that won’t bring immediate change. The biggest problem is that Lebanon isn’t entirely a sovereign state. Real reform can’t advance as long as foreign interference in the country, particularly Iranian support for the terror and political group Hezbollah, is a constant. After the end of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 2005, Hezbollah has only increased its grip on the state. 

Hezbollah has great power over the pro-Syrian parliamentary coalition—the March 8 alliance. It has a history of rejecting prime ministers unless they are aligned with the group, as well as stalling the creation of new governments or collapsing existing ones. But the most significant way Hezbollah has controlled politics in Lebanon over the years has been through violence and assassinations. 

Among the casualties are many who worked toward reform who were either assassinated or removed from office. Ronnie Chatah, a political commentator and columnist in Lebanon, is the son of Mohamad Chatah, a foreign policy advisor to then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Mohamad Chatah was assassinated in 2013. Days before he was killed, he sent a draft letter to parliamentarians to sign that called for Iran to reconsider its investment in Hezbollah for the sake of reform in Lebanon.

“In the last 16 years you had Lebanese [calling for reform], Lebanese that stood up on their own, economists, journalists, diplomats, everyone you would want for a government or society to succeed, killed by one group,” Ronnie Chatah said. “So then the question is, how do you expect a population to do more?”

Considering that there have been multiple protest movements and endless lists of would-be reformers in Lebanon’s history, only for the economic and political situation to get progressively worse, Chatah concedes there are reasons to be skeptical of the prospects of the new generation of activists.

“Perhaps this is a repetitive story that is less to do with Lebanon’s own internal divisions and has more to do with its geography or region at large—something that is beyond the reach of an activist,” he said.

But those internal divisions are real. Following Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943, political power was allocated on a confessional system, divvying up seats in parliament by faith quotas. This sectarian arrangement was only amplified after the end of the civil war in 1990, when all public institutions in Lebanon had to have a certain number of Christians, Druze, and Shia and Sunni Muslims. Lebanese had to access public services through their own sect rather than via a functioning government as sectarian leaders took hold of certain ministries for themselves.

Especially since the end of the civil war, Lebanon has faced political deadlock and had the same people in power—both Rafic and Saad Hariri served twice as prime minister, and Najib Mikati, the current prime minister, has held the post three times now—because those people gripping the levers of power haven’t brooked any new faces. Atoui hopes that Minteshreen, a youth-led political organization whose members are mostly under age 40, and other new political formations will be able to crack that barrier.

“The next elections will be our first catalyst or historical opportunity where there will be a much bigger proportion of new faces coming up as a result of several new political parties that have emerged in the last year or so,” she said.

There will be another big opportunity: the diaspora. Since the economic crisis’s acceleration at the end of 2019 and the devastation of the Beirut port explosion, it is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 citizens have left Lebanon—but not Lebanese politics. The number of diaspora Lebanese who registered to vote in next year’s election has soared to 244,442, a big jump from the 93,000 registered for the 2018 election. People who lost everything—even their homeland—in the last two years will likely vote angry.

And the diaspora vote is important in another way: Overseas voters are freed from the clientelistic networks that often chain people to their parties in Lebanon. Traditional political parties intentionally make the state weak in order to monopolize key services, and as elections draw closer, clientelism only increases. 

“We have to counter with a narrative that says, ‘Look, we have tried that and we see where they have led us’; our only solution is a state that provides to everyone equally, regardless of their confession,” said Diana Menhem, managing director of Kulluna Irada, a political advocacy group trying to raise awareness about how social services should come from the government and not patronage networks. The group partners with emerging political groups such as Minteshreen, providing support so those groups can confront the political class—provided they meet pre-conditions such as opposing the six parties in power and acknowledging the sovereignty deficit and need to deal with Hezbollah.

In any event, Lebanon’s economic crisis is already weakening those patronage links. Plummeting purchasing power has made it harder for political parties to provide social services and jobs in exchange for support. “Even with the connections they have, their political parties can no longer provide [people] with the amount of services that was being provided to them prior to the economic crisis,” Atoui said.

Given all the challenges to creating reform in Lebanon, Atoui and Menhem realize the importance of creating a united opposition and the largest possible coalition to change the dynamic in parliament. Even then, Hezbollah might have the final word.

“Whoever ends up in Parliament and whoever governs this country, there are red lines that they can’t cross,” Ronnie Chatah said. “When something [is an issue for Hezbollah] to contain easily, they collapse governments.” Hezbollah does so by having its members and allies resign from parliament en masse if its coalition has a majority power—as it did in 2011, shortly after the U.N. indicted Hezbollah-affiliated suspects for the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri.

Atoui and other reformers envision a Lebanon free of foreign interference and with a workable government. They see this upcoming election as the first step—but hardly the last.

“There can be no expectation that radical change will happen in the immediate future, considering reformers are fighting a system that is 40 years old,” Atoui said. “On the contrary, these will be the years that we will be fought very ferociously by the people in power, and that’s why these years are some of the more difficult years before we can begin to reap the seeds of what we are planting today.”

Tessa Fox is a freelance journalist, photographer, and filmmaker. She focuses on war, conflict, and human rights in the Middle East. Twitter: @Tessa_Fox

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