Witten by Pablo Pastor Vidal
In the international political sphere, a clear protest trend has sprung up in the last few years. According to Colomina (2022), demonstrations were recorded in over 90 countries in 2022 due to problems accessing public commodities: in Peru, Ecuador and Panama in relation to high fuel prices; in Eastern Europe in relation to the consequences of the energy crisis; and in the Middle East, against the setback of political freedoms years after the Arab Spring. Certainly, a decline in purchasing power, inflationary pressures, and the disintegration of markets are highly intertwined with the invasion of Ukraine, which has disproportionately affected countries highly dependent on the exports of Russia and Ukraine, mainly wheat (Welsh, 2022).
This policy brief will investigate the role of the Lebanese protests in the current political sphere. Is there any future for the demands of the protests? Which are the critical indicators to foresee the next political steps in the Levantine republic? Can the protest movement’s leaders change something, if anything? This policy brief does not intend to provide a deep study of the Lebanese uprising, but only to bring a few, important key points to the table to foresee the next political steps. What was the previous situation in Lebanon, and is the ongoing political situation a big change or “business as usual”?
In the first part of this brief, I will explain the factors that sum up the context of Lebanon, with a special mention of the role and interests of the European Union (EU). Secondly, I will examine the scene of the May 2022 elections and the newly elected Members of Parliament. Thirdly, I will conclude with an examination of the possible political future. Lastly,I will examine the question of whether there is any possible way that the EU can help these demands be heard and implemented.
Lebanon: paradise lost?
Lebanon is a small Arab republic in the East Mediterranean which has suffered from one of the worst economic declines since it was hit by the compound effect of the Syrian civil war and the economic crisis of 2008. More recently, the dramatic devaluation of the Lebanese lira, followed by the loss of bank liquidity, the explosion of the port of Beirut, and the shortage in medical supplies and basic products are some of the challenges that worsen the prospects for the recovery of the Lebanese economy. Lebanon was described as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” in the 1960s because of its financial and tourism sectors; a land of multiculturality and coexistence. Since the civil war that sprang up in the mid-70s, it has been called a failed state (Kingston, 2020). Many Lebanese still live with the war’s consequences today.
However, many Lebanese historians have demystified any view of Lebanon as a utopian state before the civil war. For instance, Kamal Salibi, in his paradigmatic book “A house of many mansions: the history of Lebanon reconsidered”, changed the view of Lebanon as a paradisiac place before the war: Lebanon was never a harmonious place where religious conflicts would remain quiet. Many ingredients of discontent were in place, and only a spark was needed to start the war.
There is an apparent political stalemate where many religious groupings have tied their history to Lebanon and the identity of the Lebanese state. It is worth remembering that Lebanon was under French mandate in 1943 but is now a fully recognised state, albeit with only nominal sovereignty. Different international actors have tried to influence the outcome of Lebanese politics, and they support specific political parties in the country. For instance, the Shi’a party Hezbollah regularly enjoys financial support from Iran and Syria, and is allied with the Amal Movement, also Shi’a; the Sunni’ party Future Movement, led by the Hariri family, is backed by Saudi Arabia; and many Lebanese hold close ties with the United States, France, and other Western countries, where big communities of Lebanese expats live and from where they send remittances.
The foreign influence in Lebanon is reflected by the fact that every confessional group has a different rationale for how the Lebanese state represents their values: for Amal and Hezbollah it is their pride to be a locus of resistance against Israel, for the Christian party Lebanese Forces it is to be the resistance of Christianism in the Middle East; and for the Sunni it is the reputation of Lebanon as a financial hub. Despite this, Lebanese citizens consider Lebanon their common home. When the 17 October Protests started in 2019, what at the time seemed the most hopeful sign for the fall of the corrupt regime was precisely the union of people from different religious groups in the streets. During the protest, only one flag was waved: the Lebanese flag.
Today, the Lebanese protests continue in spite of more and more people fleeing the country. In 2021, 79,134 people left the country in what has been said to be the “third wave of mass emigration” (Sheikh Moussa, 2022). In a 2021 survey, almost half of citizens (48% of the estimated population) were seeking to leave, with the main reason being “corruption,” followed by “security considerations”, and “political reasons.” The number of people wanting to emigrate aged 18 to 29 years amounted to 63% (Arab Barometer, 2021). Notably, it is estimated that 20% of Lebanese doctors have fled the country. As a result, the American University of Beirut Hospital, once one of the most prominent medical centres in the Middle East, is now suffering from a scarcity of professionals.
The impact and role of the Lebanese diaspora in the local culture and politics is not a trivial topic. In the field of music, remarkable and unique artists like Mashrou’ Leila, one of the most important Arab and LGTBQ+ indie groups, whose singer, Hamed Sinno, had openly come out, was banned from playing in the country in August 2019. After that, the band performed around Europe and America, where many fans supported them. The same people that could not watch them play live in Lebanon filled the stages in Berlin, London, and New York.
The diaspora has been such a strong force that in the general elections of May 2022, more than 100,000 people registered to vote from abroad, and an important part of the campaign was directed to gain their sympathy. Moreover, the Lebanese diaspora was a part of the uprising, taking the streets around the world.
The reason why the Lebanese abroad have been an important focal point of the political scene in Lebanon lies in the fact that the domestic economy is not diversified. The two primary sources of income, tourism and the financial sector, are both now stagnant (the first since the war in Syria started; the second since the loss of liquidity in US dollars in the Lebanese banks in October 2019). Hence, the Lebanese economy is highly dependent on remittances, increasing the political influence of the diaspora. In a study by Mercy Corps published in December 2022, Lebanon was found to be “the most remittance-dependent country in the world”, accounting for more than half of the GDP in 2021 (Shehadi, 2022). According to the sociologist Ghassan Hage (2020), the fact that the President of the Republic told the demonstrators during the protests to leave if they did not like how things were was “a sign of how remote and disengaged from popular sensibilities this whole regime has been”.
In fact, many Lebanese have already left for countries like France and Brazil. However, data about Lebanese expats are difficult to trace because the generations that were born and have grown up abroad have lost their Lebanese nationality, even though they may consider themselves Lebanese.
In this context, France still plays a significant role in contemporary Lebanon. Lebanon was under French rule until 1943, greatly influencing the country. In fact, the idea of Lebanon as a country separate from Syria was led by the Maronite Christians (and, to some extent, the Druze) and rejected by the Muslims in the early 20th century (Salibi, 1988, 169–70). Today, the remains of these links are clear: the economic cooperation and EU aid allocated to Lebanon has mainly been led by France, and especially Jacques Chirac, in the form of various conferences in Paris. More recently, after the explosion of the Beirut port in August 2020, the first foreign president to travel to Beirut was Emmanuel Macron.
Lebanon is, however, also an important country for the EU, or at least for France, which has dominated EU southern neighbourhood politics since the Treaty of Rome. The EU is Lebanon’s leading trading partner, accounting for one-third of Lebanese imports, and the Levantine country has free access to the European market. Yet, EU aid to Lebanon is focused on targeted areas and, as Assem Dandashly (2021, 326) writes, “EU financial support for democracy promotion is minimal compared to socio-economic development and security”.
Indeed, EU funding does not reach NGOs or foundations that support democratic regime change and accountability, on the one hand, while on the other, EU support is confined to a diplomatic and normative stance. This policy orientation can be seen as a consequence of the notion of “Fortress Europe” (Badarin & Wilderman, 2021): in many times, the tacit objective of European member states has been to keep migrants, such as Syrians and other people from North Africa and the Middle East, out of Europe because of the fear of terrorism. This means that, in practice, EU foreign policy has been conducted much more from a defensive perspective against neighbouring threats than from a real intent to improve political rights and freedoms. Overall, the EU calls for reform, but it has done little to support civil society actors because it knew that by doing so, it could have compromised “fruitful” economic deals with actors like Ben Ali’s Tunisia or Bouteflika’s Algeria, even if they were governed by wrathful dictators.
Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam!: protests and elections
Two years after the protests started, the result of the 2022 elections was a milestone for change in Lebanese politics. At least 13 out of 128 seats (although the numbers of independent candidates vary according to the sources) were won by independent opposition candidates (Gritten, 2022). However, the EU Election Observation Mission (2022) stated in its final report that the elections “were overshadowed by widespread practices of vote buying and clientelism, which distorted the level playing field and seriously affected the voters’ choice”. So what is the future of politics in Lebanon, and how can these independent MPs change the politics of a country that has apparently lost hope, after the deep economic and political crisis in which it has been involved for the past years?
According to the same report, corruption was the main topic in the elections. But what is interesting about the Lebanese regime is that, instead of being conformed by one single autocrat, it is composed of many confessional parties that accuse each other of ruining the state. At the same time, these leaders act like a “cartel” dynasty, where they hold to their political power for decades. Because public institutions are non-existent or very poorly funded, many citizens depend on the benevolence of the warlords of their area, which they are instigated to vote for in exchange for basic public services.
But this time was slightly different: 13 new independent candidates entered the Parliament (although the figures of independent candidates vary according to different experts). According to Ellen Ioanes (2022), however, no immediate change was to be expected from the elections since the confessional partition of the government and the permanent political dynasties made it impossible in the short-run. Additionally, the independent lists did not present a unitary discourse. Diana Menhem (2022), Managing Director of Kulluna Irada (a Lebanese NGO for political reform), in a more optimistic view, said in a chapter of the podcast Sarde After Dinner before the elections that “the majority of this opposition agrees on the same topics” and that “every vote counts”.
Some days later, Mouafac Harb (2022) was invited to analyse the post-election scene on that same podcast. Apart from the structure of the Lebanese electoral system (widely accused of ‘gerrymandering’ and favouring the interests of the traditional elites), the journalist explained that some Lebanese had made a vote utile, only going for those lists with more probability to pass the threshold to gain seats in Parliament. Harb said that this did not hinder the strength of the independent opposition but instead made them more resilient.
Now that the independent candidates have entered the Parliament, the political situation in Lebanon faces two major challenges: first, the election of a new government after the resignation of Saad Hariri from office, as a result of the failure to form a government during eight months due to opposing views with the President of the Republic, Michel Aoun. This position is now held by caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati. Second, the election of a new president of the Republic after the end of the term of Aoun. In this context, the newly elected independent MPs have the opportunity to overcome the opacity of Parliament, when in the past, the political elite disclosed little about their activities in the Parliament. From now on, these MPs are the eyes and ears of the political opposition.
At the time of writing, there is still no president elected in Lebanon. Since the independence of the country in 1943 which was confirmed by the 1989 Taif Agreement (signed to end the civil war), this role has been fulfilled by a Maronite Christian. Some experts say that the inability of Lebanese politicians to elect a new president can be traced to the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is being played out in the Yemen war (Chehayeb, 2022): Iran will not accept the demands for a government in Beirut unless the Saudis withdraw their military presence from Yemen. Unfortunately, as has happened many times with Lebanon, time is running out to receive the International Monetary Fund (IMF) package of about 3 billion US dollars conditioned on the undertaking of “several critical reforms” (Davis 2023).
The future of the Lebanese protests and social change
According to experts, the main danger for the new independent candidates that have entered the Parliament is co-optation, that is, falling prey to the ruling parties. As Youssef Cherif (2019) writes, it is difficult to push for reforms in autocratic environments (Thailand, Zimbabwe); in the case of nearby Egypt, an authoritarian system impedes any possibility of activists joining the political structure but fractures them into more specific demands (joining, for instance, LBGT groups or trade unions).
The research referenced above points to the regime type as one of the main factors contributing to protests’ potential to successfully bring about any change. That is to say that autocratic regimes, where political power is controlled by few, leave little or no room for political change on a large scale. So, the question arises – which kind of regime is the Lebanese one, and how could things develop in the near future?
According to Khattab (2022, 5), what better reflects the Lebanese state is a “neoliberal sectarianism”, whereby “a mutually beneficial relationship between political and economic power takes shape in Lebanon, although sectarianism precedes neoliberalism”. In particular, in post-war Lebanon, the privatisation of every piece of land is considered a given in the life of every Lebanese. The Hariri family is responsible for the reconstruction of ‘downtown Beirut’ (Makarem 2014), amassing a considerable fortune in the process. This is one of the neighbourhoods where protests took place (strategically, to target the political centre of the country), but very few Lebanese live there because its high prices are reserved for the political elite and inaccessible for the 80% of Lebanese who live below the poverty line.
This economic and political scene adds to the current unaccountability in the Lebanese port blast case, the depreciation of the Lebanese lira, and the rising inflation. Nadim El Kak (2021), a member of The Policy Initiative, a Beirut-based anti-establishment think tank, says that seats in Parliament are not the ultimate goal but a step towards the recognition of the “severe limitations of the sectarian state” and the “protracted nature of revolutions”.
Conclusion: notes on the EU’s agenda in Lebanon
For Issa & Merhej (2021), the agenda against corruption in Lebanon is nothing more than a neoliberal practice embedded in the system. Anti-corruption laws and regulations are approved to keep the international institutions satisfied for a little longer, while the main economic actors in Lebanon benefit from extracting resources from the state and the legality is never enforced. Thus, despite the steps towards the approval of transparency laws, Lebanon keeps declining on the standards of good governance and transparency because they are never applied.
Particularly, corruption standards and benchmarks are neoliberal and postcolonial. They are postcolonial because they perpetuate the dependency of Lebanon (as part of the ‘Global South’) from the financial aid of the North: a vicious circle is created whereby Lebanon cannot survive unless it receives aid from the outside. Additionally, they are neoliberal because they result in the dismantlement of the Lebanese state until all social services are effectively non-existent. Consequently, a blind eye is turned to the private sector, which is clearly the winner of neoliberal interventions in Lebanon (whose Prime Minister is the richest man in the country but fails to pass any social policy). In particular, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) is still not fully set up, only on paper, and many well-intentioned initiatives that never see the light.
According to a report in September 2022 by U4 Anti-Corruption Centre in Collaboration with Transparency International (France 2022), in the current crisis “it has become even more important to prevent the flow of illicit funds out of the country and to recover assets that have been stolen by corrupt public officials”, but, apart from the formal setups in the last years, little has been done to advance actual improvements.
In a letter dated from December 9th 2022, the G7 Ambassadors in Lebanon argued in the journal L’Orient Today that “the path to get out of the economic crisis is clear”: the actions recommended by the IMF and other international actors need to be taken in “good faith”. However, the argument posed by Lebanese activists in favour of the change of political regime, such as Issa & Merhej (2021), is that in practice, the NACC is politically influenced and that, instead of “apolitical technocratic fixes”, anti-corruption must be a “multi-front struggle that situates corruption within local and global entanglements”.
For the EU, the priority should not be pardoning and allowing traditional rulers to keep the ball rolling, as Macron seems to be doing with the current Prime Minister (Khouri 2023). In order to be a significant actor in the region, the EU needs, at the same time, to critically assess the persistence of colonial elements in its discourse (Sen, 2021), while acknowledging the demands asked by the Lebanese to improve their economy and put an end to the rampant corruption. Following the call by Carmen Geha (2021), former professor of the American University of Beirut and an activist very involved in the Lebanese uprisings, whilst funding should be withheld while real accountability and reforms take place, “Europeans should support local institutions such as schools and hospitals to help ordinary people and create space for new politics to emerge”.
I want to express my deep gratitude to the professor at the College of Europe and Executive Director of the Samir Kassir Foundation, Ayman Mhanna, who has reviewed and contributed very important insights to this text. I also want to thank the professors and friends I met in Beirut in 2019, who taught me about Lebanon’s complexity and beauty. Lebanon deserves change for people like them.
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