Lebanon’s civil society no better than the coyote hopelessly chasing the road runner

Voters will regrettably stick by what they see as more reliable traditional politicians.
Sunday 18/03/2018
Students walk outside the parliament building in Beirut, last November. (Reuters)
Young hopefuls. Students walk outside the parliament building in Beirut, last November. (Reuters)

Anyone who grew up watching cartoons is familiar with Wile E. Coyote and his endless pursuit of the Road Runner. As ingenious — and often convoluted — as his schemes were, he never succeeded in his pursuit of the elusive bird.

It’s entertaining, often hilarious and shows how opposing and different characters can find purpose and even define each other in what appears an absurd and vicious cycle of chaos.

This cartoon analogy serves as a good prism through which to view the uphill bid of Lebanese civil society, as it tries to replace the country’s archaic political elite and steer Lebanon towards good governance.

Yet, as many members of this loosely defined “civil society” gear up for nationwide elections May 6, an examination of the group’s mindset and the challenges that lie ahead gives little cause for optimism.

Now is a good time to consider the many factions among these independent activists who, by design or perhaps coincidence, have assumed the mantle of “civil society.” Many of the groups and individuals running for office belong to one of three broad categories.

First, there is an assortment of shady and legitimate millionaires and entrepreneurs who wish to replicate the example of the late Rafik Hariri in parlaying business into a political success.

However, lacking Hariri’s vision (and the crucial support of Saudi Arabia), the public is left with nothing but knock-off-version candidates, who assume that, by setting up charitable organisations and university scholarships, buying prime airtime and endorsing TV celebrities to run for office, they will have done the spadework to proclaim themselves statesmen.

The second group is a hodgepodge of former party activists and political rejects who have fallen afoul of their previous party’s leadership, either due to ideological awakenings or because they were passed over for government office. Viewed from a distance, it’s hard to see the group as little more than disillusioned hopefuls and born-again opportunists looking for a share of the government’s spoils.

Which takes us to the final cluster, one that constitutes most independent activists. It includes young men and women who have made a name for themselves through working and leading NGOs and civil society organisations. Supported by international and local funds, these activists, through interaction with the different branches of government, have become aware of the structural obstacles to reform and have decided to act.

Despite their wildly varying motivations and backgrounds, the ambitions of all three factions are predicated on two fundamental miscalculations: that they can easily dislodge the ruling hegemonic political elite and that the frustrated electorate will do the right thing and vote for change.

As outwardly sound as these assumptions may appear, they neglect essential facts. Principally, that, despite the many problems and seemingly outdated appearance of Lebanon’s ruling establishment, the established groups have a legitimate and wide power base, which none of the independents can match.

More importantly, contrary to the lines these civil society activists are peddling, the current electoral law, which was tailored to fit the ruling establishment, works against these so-called voices of change.

As it stands, Lebanese law only allows voters to cast ballots for closed lists based on proportional sectarian voting, with the option of giving their preferential vote in the smaller districts to one candidate on the list. The threshold percentage required to earn a seat was increased to ensure that only established political parties with their vast financial and human resources can attain them.

Yet, what truly stands in the way of these independent candidates reaching parliament, other than their propensity for division, seems to be their grave misunderstanding of the voting mindset and behaviour of their constituencies; a mistake that will prove catastrophic.

Many of these advocates of reform proclaim with deadly certainty that, when the time comes, the voters will do the right thing and vote for change. This assumption presumes that in past elections the political conditions and the electoral law precluded voters from voting against the wishes of the political elite. They didn’t.

Once the voters enter the booth they will look at the ballot and weigh how their vote will transfer into privileges for them, their spouse or their children under the clientelist system. Many of these supposed voters for change may endorse reformist rhetoric and even share these independent candidates’ posts over social media platforms. Yet when Election Day comes, they will regrettably stick by what they see as more reliable traditional politicians.

While the rotten Lebanese political system is in dire need of reform, the overall culture is geared towards rewarding people based on their sectarian tribal affiliation, a fact that voters are fully aware of.

Consequently, anyone, including the civil society activists, hoping for real change from the elections are like those watching cartoons and waiting for the coyote to catch the road runner. It’s entertaining, occasionally hilarious but unlikely.

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