A new daring, critical mood emerging in Lebanon

Sunday 05/06/2016
Sunni politician Ashraf Rifi voting at polling station

BEIRUT - Despite the gloom and uncertainties facing the country, Lebanon has successfully conducted four rounds of munici­pal elections. What was supposed to be a rather folkloric exercise pro­duced results that took “untouch­able” political leaders by surprise, shaking what they thought was their absolute control of their com­munities.
A new mood, critical of Lebanon’s political establishment, expressed itself in different ways and levels during May’s series of municipal elections — the first such opportu­nity for Lebanese to express their political voice since the start of the Syrian war in 2011. The country has been without a president since May 2014 and the parliament’s mandate has been extended twice since 2013.
The fact that the municipal elec­tions took place on time and with­out incident proved that Lebanon’s leaders were wrong and manipula­tive in citing security as an excuse for not having general elections. Their political disputes, coupled with widespread corruption and the burden of hosting more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees, plunged the country into political and eco­nomic paralysis, creating a malaise among the population.
The municipal elections, how­ever, presented an opportunity to generate long-absent political ac­countability.
“These elections reflected a new popular mood, no more at ease with the main political parties and their bumptious attitudes and imposed deals,” said Fadia Kiwan, director of the Institute of Political Science at St Joseph University. “However, the objection expressed was about the performance and not the politi­cal choices adopted by the parties.”
Kiwan said there is resistance to the control and hegemony of Leba­non’s political parties, saying: “No one is controlling his own commu­nity… and there is no (political) po­larisation anymore.”
The main parties, which include the Sunni Future Movement, the Shia Hezbollah Party and Amal Movement, the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, struck odd alliances to secure what they thought would be easy wins. Con­trary to their expectations, they were confronted with close races against strong traditional families and new political and civil society figures.
The rising star was Ashraf Rifi, a Sunni former police chief who re­signed as Justice minister earlier this year in protest at what he called the dominant role of the heavily armed, Iran-backed Shia Hezbollah. Rifi’s list won a majority of seats on the council in the northern city of Tripoli in the final round of the municipal elections, defeating an alliance backed by Sunni leaders, including former prime ministers Saad Hariri and Najib Mikati.
Analysts said Rifi’s victory ex­pressed a rejection of Hariri’s con­cessions and deals, mainly his nomination of Suleiman Frangieh, a pro-Hezbollah political leader and personal friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad, for the Lebanese presidency, as well as his alliance with Mikati in the municipal elec­tions.
“Change is looming within the Sunni community but these are calls to change from within (the Future Movement) and for Hariri, who has been away for a long time, to make a good review,” said Amin Kammourieh, a political analyst. “Rifi could be a new player, partner, but the door is not closed for Hariri to reconfirm his position as the leader of the Sunnis.”
The Christian LF-FPM alliance had its own share of objections, proving that it cannot control the Christians and impose itself as their sole representative.
Hezbollah and its traditional Shia ally the Amal Movement faced re­sistance to their attempts to assert dominance among Shias and sup­press local resentments.
“There are signs of objection within the Shia community, too, but still they are not clear due to Hezbollah’s heavy hand and sacred resistance slogan,” Kammourieh said.
Imad Salamey, a political sci­ence professor at the Lebanese American University, explained that among the main outcomes of the election was the emergence of “sectarian duets” consisting of tra­ditional political contenders within each sectarian group “joining force to confront and suppress local civil oppositions”.
“The weak political performance of these parties explains the erosion of public support: poor governance and widespread corruption. The majority of votes cast were against dominant political parties,” Sala­mey said.
Is it the beginning of real, long-awaited change?
The people are more encouraged after the municipal elections and would be more daring but the polit­ical-sectarian system is still strong in the absence of an alternative.
The political leaders might have finally recognised the malaise in the country but do not seem yet ready to change. They quickly en­gaged again in discussions to agree a new election law that would pre­serve their influence.