Untangling the roots of change in Lebanon

The popular uprising is a reminder that the flames of hope have not been extinguished; far from it, the sparks of a new generation’s hopes have just been lit.
Sunday 16/02/2020
People walk past a mural painted by Lebanese artist Roula Abdo, in downtown Beirut. (Reuters)
Opening curtains. People walk past a mural painted by Lebanese artist Roula Abdo, in downtown Beirut. (Reuters)

The October 17 nation-wide protests, financial crisis and subsequent security incidents in Lebanon shook a 30-year-old status quo. Across Lebanon’s religious and political groups, new voices emerged, employing rights-based language and advocating for accountability.

The chorus of new voices included many who had long deified deep-seated feudal leaders, not just habitual protesters. Amid uncertainty and a new illegitimate government, the country can still avoid a wrong turn.

With public spaces open to community debates on a way forward, a vibrant youth movement surfaced, eager to reverse the narrative of an older and incapacitated generation. Among activists who often felt isolated, even from constituencies they fought for, coy whispers of change among angry howls turned into shouts of hope that drowned out the fury. There was even a much-adored rendition of “Baby Shark” that reminded us and the world of Lebanon’s spirit during times of adversity.

Inasmuch as the crisis did not discriminate along sectarian lines, those reacting to the crisis on the street found unity despite coming from diverse backgrounds. Each time the protests seemed to devolve into clashes — whether between citizens and security officers or involving armed groups bent on preserving the old system — Lebanon’s wise, including strong-willed mothers, reminded the new generation of the costs of war and called for reason.

Seeking justice and accountability is vital, not only to fight impunity but to revive transitional justice processes and reconciliation following years of conflicts and internal unrest. The crucial question remains the feasibility of the “All means all” slogan that the protesters are pushing for.

History shows that fragile and volatile societies, particularly those deeply divided by mistrust, have rarely been able to rely on conventional justice systems to try political leaders for their crimes and wrongdoings, especially when the leaders are the product of a power-sharing arrangement that mirrors the mosaic of the community.

It is inconceivable, both conceptually and logistically, to investigate all previous and current parliamentarians, prime ministers, ministers, senior bureaucrats and other potentially involved individuals, corporations and security apparatus within a realistic time frame. Lebanon’s court system is neither equipped nor perceived as independent or impartial and evidence is often inaccessible and unavailable.

On the other hand, show trials — mostly selective — that fail to uphold principles of due process (or no trials at all) risk replacing just accountability with a punitive and vindictive process. This would fall short of the goals of advancing justice, reconciliation and stability.

As there is no one-size-fits-all approach to implementing accountability, the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in the region shows that throwing a handful of senior leaders in jail (or exiling or executing them) does not in itself help reform the institutional legacies they created. Furthermore, this approach does not help mend distorted social norms, nor does it prevent future atrocities or corruption. If anything, regime decapitation often further polarises societies.

While Lebanon’s citizenry has showed resilience and evolution, a flimsy diagnosis blamed sweepingly the political party system and sectarian identity politics, overlooking the root societal causes of the problem.

Political expedience reigned, paving the way for a dismissive approach by the government. The establishment’s patronising response pays lip service to the demands of the people but does not commit to real change. Its ineptitude, matched only by shrewdness, generated fig-leaf solutions that preserved an ailing oligarchy.

Real change is not as simple as installing a government of “independent experts,” commonly called in Lebanon “technocrats,” particularly if those are beholden to political masters or hostages of the latter’s’ power dynamics.

Outrage against political parties is legitimate. Nevertheless, advocates of change should, rather than demonising them, call for new and reformed political organisations embracing realistic and measurable programmes that address actual problems and concerns instead of clinging to ill-defined conceptual narratives.

Political participation is the cornerstone of democracy and activism, including finding a group that represents one’s values, is a sacred political right. Such groups remain an important vehicle for change and a key stakeholder in the country’s social compact with the people.

The same is true of the undefined “sectarianism,” which means different things to different people, vilified to the extent of becoming a ghost enemy. Without proper definition, decrying sectarianism is smearing the basic concept of diversity as the source of all troubles in the country. To be sure, manipulating the fear of some religious or political groups and echoing the rhetoric of the civil war reinforces segregation and further empowers religious warmongers.

However, as fanciful and politically correct as it looks, overlooking that the Lebanese system reflects an entrenched individual religious identity projecting into the political realm is an abrupt assassination of diversity. More important, it will not address corruption, societal seclusion, discrimination — whether in laws or practice — or give equal right to non-religiously affiliated citizens to access power because it will lead to another form of populist authoritarian regime.

Even in the world’s so-called highly developed democracies, which either are or claim to be secular, discrimination and corruption can take root, societies can form fissures and social movements calling for changes to government do not always occur on the same timeline as elections.

For these initial tremors to lead to real and durable change, three critical outputs that require collaborative thinking and action among the different stakeholders should be considered.

First, come up with an electoral law that steers the various constituencies away from the overplayed sectarian politics but still recognises the diversity of identities and views them as the cornerstone of an inclusive citizenship. Such a law would assert the compatibility between multiple subnational and a single national identity. Such an effort has been initiated by the Adyan Foundation and is worth investing in.

Second, reform the judiciary. The newly established and promising Lebanon’s Judges’ Association put forward worthwhile ideas and the protest movement would benefit greatly by giving the lead on this matter to the association, while applying pressure as needed once the club starts pushing for policy change.

Third, and most pivotal, assess a workable solution related to the amount of losses resulting from the 30-plus years of corrupt and incompetent politics and force a fair burden-sharing scheme among the various actors — government, private sector, banking sector, Central Bank, taxpayers, et cetera. Obviously, the lesser burden should be borne by taxpayers while the heaviest by the banking sector and central bank.

This last initiative is the hardest and actors, such as banks, with a lot of leverage will resist. Therefore, the protest movement should focus almost exclusively on setting the agenda for this discussion, making sure it happens and weighing in on the outcome.

This popular uprising is a reminder that the flames of hope have not been extinguished; far from it, the sparks of a new generation’s hopes have just been lit.

However, sustainable change requires that the constellation of actors emerging from this organic movement work strategically and be driven by a focused agenda to address the pressing financial situation. Controversial social issues do need to be discussed but in a way that does not create exclusionary political and social practices under the label of a different political system.