Lebanon cannot rely on civil society alone to bring about change in the country

Earlier this month, the deadline was reached for the submission of candidate lists for Lebanon’s May 15 legislative elections. The main takeaway is that the opposition, mostly made up of civil society groups, failed to form unified lists, with one notable exception. This means that the opposition candidates will present themselves divided in the elections, giving the advantage to the lists prepared by the political leaders of the country, whom the opposition aims to overthrow.

There had been a lot of hope, both in Lebanon and abroad, that civil society would make gains against the corrupt political class. While opposition candidates, who were motivated to challenge established politicians following the October 2019 popular uprising, are likely to win a few seats, it will be too few to change anything. The Lebanese political class is resilient, aided by the short memory of voters that politicians have effectively stolen.

That said, Lebanese civil society is remarkable, both for its pluralism and its dynamism. However, it would be a mistake to exaggerate his abilities. Pluralism also means fragmentation, reflecting the fundamental nature of Lebanon’s social composition. Civil society groups meant to change the country’s social and political landscape are also among the most typical offshoots of the divided system.

Downtown Beirut, Lebanon, 30 November 2021. Lebanon has been suffering from a severe <a class=political and economic crisis for two years. APE” src=”https://thenational-the-national-prod.cdn.arcpublishing.com/resizer/JDof8p2ntrjGVMo3np_m-FbeQfM=/1440×0/filters:format(jpg):quality(70)/cloudfront-eu-central-1.images.arcpublishing.com/thenational/ORYNEKZJYT2I4VEBLDMDDXKSSA.jpg” width=”1440″ height=”0″ loading=”lazy”/>

The reason why civil society in Lebanon is so vigorous is that those who pursue political or social goals have always had a strong impulse to circumvent the state and those who control it. Because the political class resisted anything that could threaten its prerogatives and its power, those who wanted to do everything did so outside the realm of state institutions.

This was aided by a fairly liberal Ottoman law of 1909 that allowed people to form associations without having to seek prior state approval. In a remarkable case, in the early 1990s, an election monitoring group called the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) was established under this law. The then Home Secretary, Michel Murr, tried to impose prior authorization and block Lade. The group effectively ignored him and started monitoring the election anyway, winning that battle.

After the October 2019 Lebanese uprising, there was speculation that the traditional political leadership had suffered a decisive setback. This belief only hardened when the economic system collapsed from that November and declined further in the years that followed. Last year, the World Bank described the economic crisis as “likely to rank among the world’s top 10 or even top three worst crisis episodes since the mid-19th century”.

Against this dire economic backdrop, there was some confidence that civil society candidates would make a breakthrough in the elections, given the potential for popular anger against politicians who plundered the state and caused economic collapse. However, traditional leaders have also exploited this situation to use the crisis as a means of patronage and assistance to vulnerable people, thus creating greater dependency.

This was a major factor that reduced the chances of civil society lists making substantial electoral gains. Another was the electoral law itself. Lebanon votes on the basis of a proportional law, with a threshold determined by dividing the number of votes by the number of seats in a constituency. This means that if there are a high number of voters in an electoral district, the threshold can reach a level that eliminates most independent lists.

The upcoming elections should also give a better idea of ​​how the Lebanese diaspora will vote. There are twice as many registered voters from the Diaspora this year as in the 2018 elections. However, it is unclear whether the Diaspora are more likely to vote for civil society lists or party lists. . Certainly some parties, like the Courant patriotique libre led by Gebran Bassil, expect a strong vote in their favour, but there is also a lot of outrage overseas at the behavior of the political class, so there are surprises probable.

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The problem is that by not unifying their efforts and forming common lists, civil society groups are shooting themselves in the foot. In several key districts, including Beirut I and Baabda, civil society lists will compete with each other, which will only benefit traditional political forces. Reasons for the inability to come together include clashing egos and the willingness of some groups, and the reluctance of others, to form alliances with the mainstream political parties that had backed the 2019 uprising.

One civil society slate worth watching, however, is the slate running in South Lebanon District III, where the two main Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal, are dominant. This list alone brings together all the civil society groups active locally, in an area that has suffered greatly from the economic crisis. If voters are not intimidated, surprising breakthroughs can be expected. It would be ironic if civil society showed its true potential in an area where established political parties may well use force to prevent them from winning.

Posted: April 13, 2022, 04:00

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