Note: This is an older article re-posted in light of a piece by Robert Fisk claiming stagnation within the Lebanese political arena
It’s been 6 years since the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, and the outcome of the events that followed have been a great disappointment to what was dubbed as a wave of hope throughout the region. Libya is on the brink of being declared a failed state and is struggling to install a unity government. Egypt is back in the firm grasp of the military. Syria and Yemen have descended into what seem to be never ending civil wars facilitating the rise and spread of ISIS. And other “springs” in the gulf have quickly been supressed by Saudi military interventions.
Throughout all this, Lebanon, previously the most unstable country in the region, seems to have maintained relative stability. Albeit constantly teetering on the edge by fears of its proximity to Syria and its absorption of more than a million refugees.
Considering the odds of success brought forth by the Arab spring, a meek 1 to 7, one might nod in approval to the fact that Lebanon was able to steer clear from what has become a regional mess.
And indeed there are several reasons as to why Lebanon did not fall victim to a civil yet rash uprising. Freedoms in Lebanon are notably higher than in the countries around it, it has not suffered under a dictator (and ironically has been president-less since 2014), nor has it an appetite for armed conflict as it is yet reeling from a civil war that lasted 16 years and ended in early 1991.
On the other hand, Lebanon still suffers from similar pains faced by other Arab countries. An ineffectual government run by those who plunged it into civil war rampant with corruption and favouritism, a crumbling infrastructure with rolling power cuts and a lack of access to water, and high youth unemployment with a major case of brain drain due to an exodus of its highly educated.
These ailments have been slowly eating at the country and they seemed to have reached a precipice last year when a government impasse led to the breakdown of garbage disposal. This impasse put a halt on all garbage collection services and left local communities to deal with the mess which was either swept under the rug, by pilling trash under bridges and highways, to even more innovative “rivers of trash” where roads were blocked and transformed into fill sites.
The combination of all of the above has led to the rise of a-political civil movements that are waging a silent revolution. First, through popular demonstrations on the streets triggered by the garbage crisis, and now through the system of governance itself.
The silent spring
These 6 dormant years have provided Lebanon with ample time to undergo an important change that no revolution could create, but rather is a precedent to any successful national change. That is a shift in conversation from reaction, to constructive thought and debate questioning the relationship between citizen and state, and re-defining how that relationship should be governed.
This cognitive change seems to have matured in a workaround solution that has seen two civil movements launching campaigns to win municipal powers in the upcoming elections. By doing so, these movements aim to bypass established political figures who have stagnated the political process on a national level, and tap into legal municipal powers to positively impact the lives of those under its jurisdiction.
Although these two movements have identified similar problems and seek to utilise municipal elections as their main strategy they remain incredibly different. The first of these movements is “Beirut Madinati” which translates into Beirut my city. This movement identifies itself as a grassroots movement where none of the candidates have had previous involvement with political roles although all have all either been involved in rights movements or have a technocratic background. As the name suggests the movement is localised to Lebanon’s capital city, Beirut where they have put forth a 10 point platform specific to the city’s need built on academic research and canvasing.
The second and more recent movement, “Citizens within a state”, is launching on a national level. They plan to put forth a list of candidates in municipalities across the country. The group is made from different factions who have been involved in Lebanese political life, but could always be found on the fringes as secular representatives. The movement has yet to release a specific platform, when it comes to municipal elections, but has identified generic objectives that it would like to achieve including establishing a non-sectarian state, reinforcing the government’s competence, and rejuvenating the democratic process.
Although these movements only propose a workaround solution, they remain a refreshing change in which for the first time grassroots movements representing real documented needs, present a platform approach to the elections. A large shift away from sectarian politics and alliances backed by established political parties that have held on to firm control since the civil war.
Next stop, progress
It’s hard to know whether or not these movements will be successful in this workaround solution. They face stringent opposition from establishment political movements that have gone to great lengths to ensure they remain in power, including bending Lebanon’s constitution to extend their parliamentary term.
The fact that more than one movement is arising is both good news and bad, in that it is a positive display of a cognitive shift, but also, from a strategic point of view, could dilute the strength of what should be a concerted effort.
The biggest challenges though, is that like the movements of the Arab spring before it, the success of this manoeuvre largely depends on the country’s youth, most of which are disillusioned with the state of affairs, have never voted due to disenfranchisement, and are looking for their ticket out of the country. If these movements are to succeed in mobilising the youth or shift the outlook of those who have avoided elections in the past due to a sense of helplessness, a lot of work needs to be done in educating individuals into the remits of municipal power and its ability to effectively impact change.
If these movements succeed, they will continue to face an upward battle with bureaucracy, corruption, and barriers that will be intentionally be put in their ways by both office holders higher up the food chain and political hooliganism on the ground.
Irrespective of whether or not these movements make it into office, one thing can be taken as a certainty, they have already made the biggest contribution seen in modern Lebanese politics by adding a dimension of policy and devolution previously unseen in Lebanon’s modern political discourse.