New political parties challenge Lebanon’s oligarchy
Founded just last year, Seven is one of Lebanon’s newest political parties. Its means are innovative; its language modern. On its website, the party posts its financial statements, showing its sources of income and detailing expenses. The party endorses the concepts of good governance and democracy.
Ultra-modernity, however, risks opening a gap between the party’s leadership — mostly educated, middle-class Lebanese — and the rest of the population whose welfare depends on state resources, which they receive through the country’s long-time ruling oligarchs.
Vicky Zwein, one of Seven’s founders, showcased her group’s principles, most of which seem to be in reaction to Lebanon’s prevailing political culture. “We have no hierarchy or leadership who hands over the party to his children,” she said.
Over the past half century, a few families have dominated Lebanon’s political scene. Since the end of the civil war, the family of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — now succeeded as prime minister by his son Saad — has dominated the Sunni leadership. Maronites Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea have been competing over the Christian leadership, at least since 1985. Walid Jumblatt, a Druze, inherited his leadership from his father, Kamal, and has been grooming his son Taymour to succeed him. Similarly, the Shia leadership has been under Nabih Berri, the longest serving parliament speaker in the world, and Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah, who has been leading the Party of God since the mid-1990s.
Under its oligarchy, Lebanon was ranked 136th out of 176 by Transparency International in terms of corruption and 99th on the “World Press Freedom Index” by Reporters Without Borders. The country carries a debt of more than $70 billion, making it the second highest indebted country in the world (after Japan) when compared to its GDP.
Though the concept behind Seven, named after the victory sign that reflects the number in the traditional Arabic font, may seem bold, many of its goals are more conservative, establishing itself as a multi-sectarian party willing to operate within Lebanon’s religious power-sharing formula.
Seven is not the only modern party in Lebanon. During the country’s municipal and mayoral elections in 2016, another modern group, Beirut Madinati, rose to prominence and gave the oligarchy’s ticket a run for its money.
Beirut Madinati won one of the capital’s three districts but none of its candidates made it to the council. Like Seven, Beirut Madinati offered a new look and a modern platform and disclosed its financial statement. Many of Beirut Madinati’s activists are preparing for another showdown with Lebanon’s traditional oligarchs in next year’s parliamentary elections.
Mark Daou is one of Beirut Madinati’s activists who plan to run for election in the spring. Daou identifies as secular but for election purposes is forced to run for a seat allocated to the religion he was born into: Druze.
“Competing for parliamentary seats allocated according to sect does not erase your political identity or hinder working for a civil state,” Daou said. “Each candidate of ours builds on grass-roots networks in their native region and electoral district as we all subscribe to a common platform that is national, rather than sectarian.”
Like Zwein, Daou takes aim at the ruling oligarchy, accusing it of “monopolising power and undermining the state, the constitution and the rule of law.” He said the oligarchy’s corruption has gone beyond government to the private sector.
However, whether Lebanon’s rising, modern and mostly young parties can break the oligarchy’s grip on power is open to question. “We think that the new (proportional election) law in 15 districts gives us a chance to win five to ten seats,” said Malek Mrowa, a member of the established Democratic Renewal party but supportive of the country’s new wave. Lebanon’s parliament has 128 seats.
Even though Mrowa is a Shia from southern Lebanon and stands for everything that Hezbollah is not, he prefers to identify himself by his nationality rather than his religion, speaking about the “National Civil Coalition” that he and the likes of Daou, Seven and Beirut Madinati have been working to put together.
“We have a dream team of candidates that we hope to assemble together,” Mrowa said in a phone interview. “These are mainly people who are known in their fields, such as (former Christian Minister of Interior) Ziad Baroud, (media figure) Gisele Khoury and (Shia activist) Mustafa Fahs, among others,” he said.
While Lebanon’s oligarchs depend on foreign governments for funding, alternative political groups employ an American fund-raising model based on private donations. Seven’s financial statements show that the party’s budget in 2016 was $113,000, a sum that an oligarch usually spends in two days.
Outnumbered, outmanoeuvred and out-funded, Lebanon’s rising alternative groups are not going down without a fight, as they gear up for the coming Beirut spring. “We might not win seats in parliament but we will win more hearts for the coming rounds,” Daou concluded.