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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lebanon’s Newfound Optimism Must Not Perish

Lebanon’s Newfound Optimism
Lebanese independent candidate Elias Jradi celebrates with his family after winning the Orthodox Christian seat against Hezbollah in the parliamentary election, at his home in the southern town of Ibl al-Saqi on May 16, 2022. Ali DIA / AFP

Justin Salhani

When Lebanon’s new parliament convenes, a host of new faces will sit beside the representatives of Lebanon’s traditional political elite. The country’s first elections since the October 2019 revolution and the Beirut port explosion, carry the aspirations, dreams and expectations of Lebanon’s young at home and abroad. Despite a pervasive sense of despair, many voted for change in hopes of averting an economic collapse precipitated by the country’s long-ruling parties’ incompetence and corruption.

With over a dozen independent opposition candidates, some coming directly from the streets of the revolution, there is a lot to be optimistic about. For this brief moment where the lights of the election are still glowing, Lebanese who supported the revolution and dream of a state that serves its people can temporarily rejoice. Celebrating moments of joy, no matter how fleeting, are also revolutionary acts. The opposition broke through in ways that shook the establishment, despite an electoral law that overwhelmingly favored traditional parties.

Long time establishment figures like Deputy Speaker of Parliament Elie Ferzli, whose vaccine scandal in 2021 personified the corruption and lack of accountability present in the Lebanese political system, and Assaad Hardan fell to opposition candidates. With them went family dynasties like Talal Arslan from the Chouf and Faysal Karame in Tripoli. Even attempts at vote tampering couldn’t keep these relics from the era of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon from falling.

The breakthroughs from elections also show that hope exists in most corners of the country. The South has long been disregarded as an impenetrable bastion where the hegemony of Hezbollah and their ally, Amal, rule supreme. But the election of Elias Jarade and Firas Hamdan dispelled that notion. In the Chouf/Aley district, a well organized opposition group picked up three seats from an area that sparsely deviates from supporting former warlord Walid Jumblatt. The boycott of elections by Lebanon’s preeminent Sunni figure, Saad al-Hariri, also worked in the favor of the opposition as one of his traditional strongholds in the Beirut 2 voting district elected three anti-establishment candidates. Among the districts that didn’t seem to have a breakthrough are the Christian regions of Keserwan/Jbeil and Metn, though opposition candidate Jad Ghosn was only 88 votes away from a seismic victory in a region dominated by right wing Christian parties since before independence.

Anti-establishment figures now have a real opportunity to build a block that can influence legislation, with 13 wins in all. Melhem Khalaf, a newly elected Beirut MP, described it as “playing kingmaker.” On some subjects, a few of independents and newly self-declared opposition MPs who have previously worked with the establishment may be compelled to join this new generation of parliamentarians.

Most traditional parties lost votes compared to 2018. Only Hezbollah (19%) and the Lebanese Forces (18%) gained more, while anti-establishment newcomer groups saw a 200 percent increase in votes. Anti-establishment candidates won the second-highest number of votes, with Hezbollah coming first.

These wins of course come with some caveats. Newly elected MP from Beirut’s first district, Cynthia Zarazir, has said despicably racist comments toward Syrians. Beirut 2’s new MP Waddah Sadek has vowed to fight any pro-LGBTQ legislation. Such attitudes and positions have no place in a country whose citizens are in dire need of dignity and the respect for human rights. When it comes to human rights, there are no shades of gray nor room for compromise.

Of course, no politician should be worshiped or idolized. They are conduits to push through the desires and needs of the people they represent. Flipping the traditional dynamic of bowing the knee to a ruler and pledging eternal support should pack its bags and exit the political scene with Ferzli, Karame and co. What is most needed currently from these new members of parliament is increased transparency and accountability. Light must be shed on the long secretive and shady inner dealings of parliament.

Arguably, one of the most significant outcomes of the election has been the emergence of a political consciousness among a hitherto unengaged part of the public though a nihilistic vein remains. Around 50 percent of the population abstained from voting and more than 19,000 submitted blank votes. While some of that may be blamed on fuel costs and transportation difficulties in traveling to familial villages, many citizens are also battered from years of fighting a system that constantly reproduces itself.

Nevertheless, many people voted for the first time in their life. The diaspora, in particular, increased their participation and helped opposition candidates win in key districts. A number of resources were created by civil society actors and groups to help guide citizens decide on who to vote for.

The hope going forward is that this momentum continues. Civil society will hopefully be able to push through a number of financial reforms already on the table. While traditional parties are largely pushing for small depositors to take the bulk of the flack for the financial crisis, the opposition must fight for the depositors’ rights. Hopefully, a reformist wave will result in the repeal of other antiquated or discriminatory regulations, such as the inability of Lebanese women to pass on their nationality to their spouses or children, many of whom are denied the right to vote in their own country’s elections.

The patriarchal nature of the Lebanese nationality law is unjust toward women first and foremost, but the injustice creates ripple effects throughout society as a whole. As the son of a Lebanese father, I am technically entitled to vote. However, the fact he left Lebanon in the war’s latter days without having registered an earlier divorce means my pathway to citizenship is also impeded. Until a litany of paperwork and lawyers can register said divorce, a second marriage to my American mother, and my birth abroad, I will not be able to have a voice in Lebanon. My case, however, is not isolated. Thousands suffer the same fate under the patriarchy.

There is a lot to work with going forward for supporters of change. But the coming months will also be a challenge. Lines at gas stations have returned just days after the election. The Lebanese Forces seem emboldened by their electoral gains and newfound Saudi backing, which has analysts predicting political deadlock and a potential uptick in tensions with Hezbollah. Such instability is never far away in Lebanon. Though it is important to remember that just as is the case with the economic crisis and the Beirut explosion, it is the traditional sectarian parties who are responsible.

The time to rejoice will be short. All those who want to see change and a brighter future in Lebanon will have to work hard. The divisive and corrupt sectarian system has yet to be defeated. Many setbacks have befallen the Lebanese people, and there will certainly be many more. However, the results of recent elections illustrate that progress and resistance are still possible, even under a system designed to oppress and batter people. In Lebanon’s political scene, a new trend has formed. It is up to us to ensure that it does not perish.

DISCLAIMER

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our bloggers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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