Lebanon’s political economy has long been characterized by the dominance of localist forms of governance, typified in the political familism and patrimonialization of local leaders within communities in a political cultural of za’amatiyya (idolized leadership). In other words, communities, often cantonized on a sectarian basis, are represented by a za’iim, (leader) who is then replaced by their descendant (typically, their son) and witness the rise of powerful families. Such a division of power based on sectarian aspects, the intra-sectarian competition between different parties as to who “represents the sect”, the usage of Lebanon as a proxy-war arena for foreign actors, and a 15-year sect-based civil war, led to the emergence of today’s ruling political parties in Lebanon, who share power within a system of consociationalism.
The sect-based division of power and competition between parties shouldn’t deter attention from their common objectives. Oligarchic elites collude in deciding public policy, the country’s economic strategies, and the sharing of quotas. This is often seen in the divergence of public funds to their respective constituencies, the spread of nepotist and clientelist practices represented in a bloated public sector filled with patronage-induced employment, and the erosion of vertical accountability.
In response to what is dubbed by the World Bank as one of “the worst economic crises globally since the mid-nineteenth century”, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Lebanon in 2019 kicking off the ’17 October Protests’, triggered by a suggested regressive tax on Whatsapp (far from being the main reason). With more than 80% of the population pushed into poverty and the Lebanese pound (LBP) losing more than 98% of its value - going from $1/LBP1,515 to $1/LBP101,000 at the time of writing – the protests continue till this day, albeit to a less degree given different debilitating factors.
Previous protest movements in Lebanon were highly technical and issue-focused. Lebanon’s nationwide garbage crisis protests in 2015 centered around a technical discourse related to the government’s failure to find solutions to waste management. The 2011 protests “to overthrow the sectarian system” centered around reforming the country’s sect-based institutions.
In contrast, the 2019 protests were highly political, aiming directly at the ousting of the ruling oligarchy, the provision of basic needs such as food, water and electricity, and radical calls for the establishment of a new social contract. The latter centers around a responsive and accountable state, one that would provide systematic and reliable rights guarantees, instead of a state that’s hollowed in favor of the proliferation of patronage networks.
As a consequence, alternative political parties rose to the scene, and new political organizations emerged in a popular “thirst” for political organizing. Alternative student movements defeated traditional parties’ university representatives in student body elections, sectoral syndicate elections witnessed new coalitions challenging traditional parties for syndicate boards, and parliamentary elections witnessed many “independent” (i.e., unaffiliated to traditional parties or figures) campaigns. It was a multifrontal uprising, targeted at formal institutions such as elections, informal patriarchal structures, discursive hegemony and spatial control.
There were no technical fixes to the current economic crisis, which resulted from a mix of financial schemes dubbed as a nationwide “Ponzi scheme” with a central role played by Central Bank governor and prominent commercial banks - almost all of which are owned by or affiliated to politicians. These economic policies were supported by a totality of Lebanon’s traditional ruling class parties, with most of them benefitting from the crisis and accentuating it through informal clientelist schemes to their constituencies – often financed through the diversion of public funds by patronage-bloated public institutions.
There were no technical fixes, yet the ruling class attempted to provide some to dilute the political nature of the protests.
After the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri in 2019 and the dissolution of the government, ruling class politicians started calling for the formation of an interim “techno-political” government. As the term hints, the suggestion was to form a government that is composed on one hand from economic and sectoral technocrats, and on the other hand from ruling class politicians.
In a hint of Machiavellian and political communication genius, I argue that this semantical separation between the technical and the political had the goal to suggest that the political part – i.e., Lebanese politics – were to be monopolized by the ruling class. It also hints that technocratic politics are devoid from decisions around distributive justice, favoritism and overall governance choices.
With the support of affiliated mainstream media, the ruling class’s suggestion (albeit not implemented) gained significant ground and amplified the logic of depoliticizing the oppositional movement and keeping politics out of the realm of civil society and, most importantly, out of the realm of alternative political organizations, who kept seeing the importance of having solid, progressive and democratic political movements.
High hopes were put in the 2022 parliamentary elections given the general oppositional environment induced by the protest movement. However, the lack of political and policy-level programming on that front was also apparent. A few campaigns located in the capital Beirut, the North and the South of the country hosted clear political visions for the future of the country, organized themselves in a grassroots fashion and presented quasi-detailed economic programs. However, a large number of alternative and independent campaigns relied on populist anti-establishment buzzwords and on their independence from the current ruling class as a claim to electoral legitimacy.
The need for “new blood” was the logic of electioneering, with a lack of policy- and vision-related approaches. Calls for the unification of independent parties and individuals, regardless of political and ideological alignment, were popular as a major part of the oppositional population just wanted to oust current ruling class figures, disregarding systematic and structural features of the current regime that need subversion. In this sense, many movements personalized their approach, focusing on the current faces of the regime instead of targeting wider systematic practices and structures.
Moreover, the localist and personalized nature of electoral politics led to the victories of many members of parliament who are locally popular for the services they offer, their family’s history, and their overall personal traits, as opposed to their political and programmatic visions.
Despite being disadvantaged materially – with ruling class parties advancing numerous clientelist schemes and violent threats before and during elections – independent campaigns did in fact manage to break through with 13 new members of parliament.
The capacity of these new MPs to lead change in the country was, however, limited, given their small share of seats (13/128) and the various obstructions by other parliamentary groups.
Following the political culture of za’amatiyya - where attention is individualized and given to figures as opposed to collective movements - people started decollectivizing and reducing the entire oppositional movements into these new parliamentary figures, removing its collective nature.
With the limited capacities available to new MPs, concerns of the uprising’s value and the question “you haven’t achieved anything?” started proliferating, obfuscating the role of MPs and labeling them as representatives of the wider opposition movement. This led to a loss of popular confidence in the potential for political change in the country, in addition to reputational losses for the oppositional movement as a whole. Many even reverted to old sectarian allegiances and traditional political partisanships.
Given the aforementioned importance of community trust and a localist political culture, municipalities remain a pivotal avenue for political salience, despite elections recently being delayed for a second time.
Municipality duties are tangible and visible to local constituencies, as municipal boards can implement timely interventions to local concerns, as opposed to parliamentary legislations which take years to achieve and are thus less apparent for the average local resident. At this stage of the crisis, the need for tangible and timely interventions is at an all-time high for local populations, and oppositional breakthroughs within them are crucial for the movement’s reputation and people’s trust in it.
As with previous political events, ruling class political discourses - and even some oppositional groups who succumbed to the discourses - are trying to label municipality elections as a “technical developmental” matter that should be confined to technical experts who should improve local infrastructural and service-related provisions.
The ruling class’s attempt to divorce another such major event from its political nature is salient in the way it’s trying to implement either a technical discourse to municipal matters and local issues overall, or a familial governance discourse whereas known local families’ role as local foci of wisdom and conflict mediators is romanticized, as opposed to concrete organizational political planning.
Progressive political actors within the opposition have (rightly) started to locate the upcoming municipality elections as part and parcel of a broader, multifrontal political endeavor. The complementarity of different political avenues for change – from parliament, universities and syndicates to municipalities and others - has proven crucial in establishing a crucial counterhegemony to the ruling one, and challenging established neoliberal, sectarian and patriarchal institutions and understandings.
The oppositional breakthroughs in these various avenues have not been important for their mandate-related roles only such as the duties of student bodies or parliament members, but for their contribution to a changing public opinion, discursive hegemony, informal institutions, and political culture.
Armed with such a politicized perspective, political groups have realized the need to move away from the current fragmented nature of organizing and the need to retake the initiative and form solid, flexible and pragmatic political organizations that forward a detailed systematic political approach and programs, capitalize on the breakthroughs achieved in different avenues lest they dissipate within the organizational void, and unify different political battles within one collective, people-centered political vision.
These groups have thus rejected attempts at technocratizing alternative political endeavors, individualizing collective action and depoliticizing the struggle and its different avenues.
As such, even technically-loaded developmental projects should be located firmly under the political, and hopefully in the hands of the newly emerging grassroots movements and progressive groups who put democratic, socially just, and people-centered approaches to their political manifesto.
Written by Marwan Issa
This is one of a series of blogs supported by the IDS alumni office and written by current IDS students and PhD Researchers from academic year 2022-2023 Spring Term.
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