Although the October 2019 protests in Lebanon rallied every sector, class, and gender in a moment of enthusiasm with the expectation of revolutionary change, the country’s ruling political class was able to weather the storm and is now more entrenched than ever. Public frustration reached new heights after the August 2020 Beirut Port blast that leveled much of the city and exposed both the magnitude of deep-rooted corruption and the ruling class’s maneuvers to escape accountability. Further outrage has since been directed at the political class’s petty rivalries that are keeping Lebanon in a state of deadlock, without a president or functioning government at a time of distress and acute financial crisis.
Lebanon’s many crises and its politicians’ refusal to satisfactorily address them have ultimately convinced the Lebanese people that their country’s salvation is premised on fundamental systemic change, and have prompted the emergence of a potential political alternative, one that has already gained a foothold in parliament: a movement of non-establishment groups advocating change, which sprang from the protests and which neither took part in the civil war nor participated in the country’s collapse. However, this group has thus far been largely ineffectual, despite the fact that it is well-positioned to develop and foster a better alternative to Lebanon’s longstanding corrupt and sectarian political system.
Lebanon is flirting with the unprecedented collapse of its political system, having already undergone irreversible economic and demographic degradation. The World Bank berated the country’s elites for having engineered a deliberate depression, at the root of which is Lebanon’s ongoing economic catastrophe. Despite this crisis, Lebanon’s political elite continue to misuse their power and benefit from their fierce grip on state resources. Today, halting Lebanon’s free fall is uncertain. Combined health and economic crises have, in just three years, turned into humanitarian and accountability disasters that have compounded Lebanon’s political ills and pushed it to the brink. Hyperinflation has exceeded 180 percent; unemployment is at almost 30 percent, and has exceeded 64 percent among the youth; and nearly three-quarters of the population now live in poverty. The Lebanese middle class, which previously enjoyed lifestyles that distinguished Lebanon as an open and vibrant cultural society, has been reduced to a mere shadow of its former self through a combination of economic hardship and the exodus of a large number of its dynamic, creative, and capable members.
The Lebanese middle class has been reduced to a mere shadow of its former self through a combination of economic hardship and the exodus of a large number of its members.
The continued deterioration of the humanitarian situation—beyond just the population’s general impoverishment—is evident in the proliferation of negative coping strategies (including child labor and forced marriage), widespread bank heists, a cholera outbreak, skyrocketing crime rates, asylum seekers’ fleeing via boats, and a rapidly deteriorating health system. About 40 percent of Lebanon’s medical staff left the country during the crisis, and the Ministry of Health’s budget, which was worth $300 million before the crisis, is now worth around $20 million because of currency depreciation and devaluation. Meanwhile, widespread shortages of drugs and medicine have deeply impacted cancer patients and many others suffering from chronic illnesses.
Lebanon’s ruling elite has yet to enforce structural and economic reforms that would unlock $3 billion of International Monetary Fund (IMF) assistance, which would, in turn, bring in a further $11 billion in aid pledged by international donors in Paris in 2018. Reforms hinge on the election of a president, after 11 parliamentary sessions failed to elect a successor to former President Michel Aoun, whose term ended in October 2022. They also hinge on the formation of a government to replace the current caretaker one that has been in charge since the May 2022 parliamentary elections.
Lebanon’s establishment politicians—a cartel of self-serving sectarian rivals who share power to safeguard their economic interests—are neither capable nor interested in undertaking reforms that would unlock economic rescue, but that would force them to relinquish their privileges. Having withstood the challenges of protests, pandemic, financial collapse, and one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions, they still remain solidly in control. How, then, can the country be saved? Can Lebanese politics produce the kind of national leadership that transcends parochial and sectarian interests?
The Potential for a New Kind of Politics
Bold, brave, progressive, and reform-minded individuals and youth-led groups emerged from the October 2019 protest movement, with their agendas initially converging in calls for reform to confront governance failures and economic mismanagement, and in denouncements of the ruling establishment’s corrupt practices. This amalgam of nascent parties and activist groups wrestled with the modalities of change in Lebanon; despite possessing potentially compatible visions for the country, they remained plagued by contrasting strategies for effecting political change. But with the occurrence of parliamentary elections in May 2022, some realized the value of forming pro-change opposition alliances, and a group of 13 “change MPs” from across the political spectrum was subsequently voted into parliament.
The newcomers scored important wins in the elections against key establishment figures who had long dominated political life.
This was a significant outcome; the newcomers who represented the potential for an anti-establishment opposition front and the possibility of political renewal scored important wins in the elections against key establishment figures who had long dominated political life, including longstanding Deputy Speaker of Parliament Elie Ferzli, pro-Syria politician Assad Hardan, and pro-Hezbollah banker Marwan Kheireddine, who was blamed for the massive flight of capital that helped lead to the financial collapse. Initially, the disparate “change” parliamentarians pitted themselves against the ruling class as a whole, but refused to form tactical alliances with potential supporters from among former members of the March 14 Alliance (a coalition of parties united by their anti-Syria and anti-Hezbollah stances), despite common interests. Questions emerged thereafter about the new change MPs’ ability to constitute a coherent bloc that would push for a transformation of the political system. There was also the issue of whether they would ally with some 15-20 other independents in parliament who, despite representing special interests, were not affiliated with ruling parties.
As a result, opposition actors have been on the receiving end of a steady stream of threats and disinformation that seeks to demonize and discredit them. Hezbollah’s “electronic armies” had already sought to delegitimize the October 2019 protests and associated political actors by accusing them of collaboration with foreign governments. And Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, in a November 2022 speech, accused protesters of treason. More recently, in reaction to a decision made by State Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat to release detainees in the Beirut blast case, change MPs were accused of plots to destroy the state and of sowing chaos. They have been subject to character assassinations made by the political elite and its allies, have repeatedly been accused of being US agents, and have been shamed and discredited by establishment media and the pro-Hezbollah information operation.
It is important to note that the new group of 13 MPs is diverse in platform as well as circumstances. The majority, who come from civil society backgrounds, were untrained in the day-to-day rules of parliamentary duties, as well as in the larger strategy of turning campaign platforms into legislation. And few of them were especially savvy when it came to communications. In parliament, they also found themselves in an ideologically divided landscape, having decried both Iran-backed Hezbollah and its opposition, the Saudi-aligned Lebanese Forces, two of the largest parliamentary blocs. And public distrust in the very institution to which they now belong, their own lack of experience with mass media exposure, and the very imminent dangers of both co-optation and inaction all threaten the success of this cohort.
At the same time, the public’s expectations for these newly elected figures were initially high, and remain so. Though these new MPs agree that Lebanon’s ruling establishment is responsible for driving the country to ruin through corruption and mismanagement, they remain divided on several priority issues: the path to political accountability, an economic recovery plan and the overhaul of the banking system, the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons, social protections, and the introduction of a civil personal status law. Indeed, the biggest obstacle to their playing a constructive role, despite the best of intentions, has been their fragmentation and inability to control the narrative that is being written against them.
Though these new MPs agree that Lebanon’s ruling establishment is responsible for driving the country to ruin through corruption and mismanagement, they remain divided on several priority issues.
Despite a failure to craft and control their own narrative, the change MPs have nonetheless played a noteworthy role in raising public awareness about certain key issues, including the lack of accountability for the Beirut blast. Recently, in a rare show of unity, a declaration was issued by some 40 deputies (including change forces) condemning the blocking of Judge Tarek Bitar’s investigation into the Beirut blast and calling for an international fact-finding mission into the explosion’s circumstances. The 13 MPs have also converged in smaller blocs around common interest issues, such as the environment. They regularly attend legislative sessions and continue to insist on a presidential election. In addition, Members of Parliament Melhem Khalaf and Najat Saliba have not left parliament since January 19, undertaking a rare sit-in denouncing the presidential vacuum. A group of 47 MPs, including change, Kataeb, and Lebanese Forces MPs also just announced a parliamentary boycott until the presidential vacuum is filled. But parliament is still far from electing a president, and change MPs remain divided on their candidate of choice, underscoring the continued dysfunction among them.
They have, separately, renewed efforts to improve grassroots positioning and strengthen their parties through coalition-building, including by the integration of Minteshreen, a social-liberal protest group, into the National Bloc, a secular party that had been dormant since the 1970s and that was revitalized in October 2019. Some of the political organizations that carried these new figures into parliament (such as Lana and Taqaddum) are also fading into the background of the personalities leading them. So far, the change “bloc” has proven too small and too fractured to have any real impact, and is therefore struggling to remain politically relevant.
The Next Phase
The October 2019 revolution may have been the last iteration of the bottom-up dynamic that sought to impose itself; but it ultimately failed as a result of weak structures, hyper-individualism, and various external factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and regional influences. Today, Lebanon is again reduced to the question of how to manage segregated communities, with any remnants of a national vision being shouldered by this weak and heterogeneous cohort of change parliamentarians amid catastrophic economic and social deterioration. How, then, can Lebanon be rescued?
One starting point should be the IMF staff-level agreement negotiated in April 2022, according to which Lebanon must embark on a list of reform measures to rebuild the economy, restore financial sustainability, and strengthen governance, including amending laws on capital reform and banking secrecy, and passing a budget. Enacting these reforms will allow Lebanon to access funds to ease its financial meltdown. But progress on any potential implementation of reforms remains slow in the absence of political will. Parliament is still debating capital controls on banks and an amended banking secrecy law that was passed in July, but that was sent back to lawmakers to revise following the IMF’s assessment that it had not resolved “key deficiencies.” While the recognition that IMF reforms need to be the baseline for any conversation on economic revitalization and for Lebanon’s return to the international community as financial interlocutor and beneficiary certainly exists, the government has so far been impervious to pressure and has been engaged in a waiting game that will only lead to more corruption. Change MPs have pushed for the implementation of a variety of these reforms without success.
A New Social Contract and Political Transition
While the evolution of a non-sectarian youth culture in Lebanon has driven the country toward national integration and away from the communitarian segmentation that has typified the Lebanese political system, this grassroots reality has not yet translated into a national reality. However, the rise and political organization of change groups points to the potential emergence of a space for political expression beyond sectarian divisions; but this will not emerge without time, organizational planning and support, and deeper engagement with the public. To break the many deadlocks currently afflicting the country, citizens will need to be galvanized into action and encouraged to channel their anger and indignation into collective action around issue-based priorities. This could enable the burgeoning alignment of forces to challenge the sectarian establishment whose durability is ensured by patronage and clientelism.
The rise and political organization of change groups points to the potential emergence of a space for political expression beyond sectarian divisions.
What is also urgently needed is for change parliamentarians to create a unified front on the basis of commonalities, rather than trying to distinguish themselves individually. Because the traction of each of the 13 MPs alone is limited, it will be essential for them to think of themselves as a group that can form a kernel of opposition, one that can act as observer and witness and, with a foothold in parliament, can both offer and prepare the ground for a political alternative. The focus here needs to be on immediate priorities: documenting the collapse, charting a course out of crisis and toward credible reform and sustainability measures, and seeking accountability for the corrupt practices that have caused Lebanon’s current plight. Although they are not in a position to instigate significant changes, the change MPs are in a position to start formulating (if they work in unison and with a sense of urgency) a position on a possible future alternative to the present reality, an alternative that is just, inclusive, and non-sectarian.
Only a new social contract and a political transition— albeit one that is free from foreign interference—can rescue Lebanon from its ever-spiraling crisis. For this to happen, it will be critical to reinvigorate advocacy by activists who are fighting fragmentation by creating avenues for debate around issues of national priority in the context of Lebanon’s breakdown. This will help alter political discourse, allowing for the possibility of alternatives to take root and for the opposition to expand its current foothold in parliament, thereby offering the Lebanese people an inclusive sovereign vision for the future. While the presence of a cohort of reform-oriented MPs might appear to be only a small step in that direction, it is still a solid base to enable more substantive reform in the next phase of recovery and political change.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC or its Board of Directors.