Since parliament failed to elect a president on the first round of elections on April 23rd, Lebanon has plummeted into a leaderless void. There isn’t a candidate both ruling political parties agree can lead the country through these trying times. This is not the first time Lebanon has faced such chaos. Since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, the country has endured one political and economic setback after another. The public, having years ago lost faith in their government, seem to believe that no matter who ultimately wins the election this year, the pattern will repeat.
Voters in Lebanon are split in three. The first faction consists of supporters of Hezbollah and their allies—the 8th of March Movement. This group also supports Hezbollah’s possession of weaponry and intrusion in the Syrian war on the side of Bashar al-Assad. The second faction consists of the 14th of March Movement. Contrary to the 8th of March faction, the 14th of March Movement opposes Assad and his oppressive regime because of Syria’s intrusions in Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War. The third and most important group is made up of independents, most of who have emigrated, while the rest are unemployed or working at a wage far less than the cost of living. The major problem with this picture is not that the first two groups divide the country with their sectarian ideologies, but also that the third is not represented in the Lebanese Parliament.
“Lebanon is structured in such a way that it divides people against anything and everything,” explains Assaad Thebian, a political blogger and activist. “The issue of Hezbollah’s weapons, the resistance, the International Tribunal, and, of course, and the elections” all factor into the divisive atmosphere, Thebian concludes.
Lebanon has regressed into civil war. Lebanese today experience extreme poverty and high levels of unemployment, with youth unemployment currently at a staggering 35 percent. Further, there is constant price inflation, electricity blackouts that are worse than Europe’s during the second World War, rampant corruption, instability due to the threats coming from Syria on Lebanon’s northern and eastern borders and Israel on the southern borders; not to mention suicide bombers who targeted random areas—sometimes as frequently as every week—for the entire 2013-14 winter.
The best way out of this morass is for the third section of the Lebanese community to stand up and be represented. Numerous high-profile activists—such as Khodor Salameh and Ali Fakhry—have a chance to be a part of the representative political community. Their voices are heard, their calls for demonstrations are answered, and so they have a chance to win elections. And yet voters don’t seem to be standing behind these independent voices. Why?
“Being loved is very different from being elected,” says Thebian. “Deep-rooted sectarian laws force the public to elect based on sect. With the Lebanese mentality, it is unlikely that they would prefer a young independent representative over an older, more experienced politician who has been in power for years.”
Independent Lebanese citizens, despite being tired of the whole situation and fed up with the futile promises of their leaders, are afraid to make change. “Sure they root for the young and hip activist, but when it comes for the elections, a Shiite activist is unlikely to win against a Hezbollah representative in a Shiite county; similarly an independent representative can’t beat a Christian Maronite leader for president,” adds Thebian.
Furthermore, there is a deep-rooted mindset among people that suggests that more powerful countries, such as Russia, the United States, or Iran, won’t allow for the political equation in Lebanon to change. “The United States has done everything in its power to ensure the crises it helped create remains unresolved by blocking and/or destroying national-unity governments and promoting factionalism and sectarianism,” says Amal Saad-Ghrayeb of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Yet, even when aware of this “divide and conquer” strategy, the Lebanese remain divided.
Unfortunately, it’s too late in the election cycle to make any substantial shifts in attitude. Perhaps the country will remain without a president until the time comes to elect anew the old members of the Parliament. Until then, several minor changes can be made, starting with the way independent leaders market themselves and push the community’s sense of urgency for change.
Lebanon’s parliament needs new blood. Maybe a few years down the road those few independent representatives who come from humble backgrounds and have experienced the pain of regular people will make major changes. For that to be achieved, however, election law must be altered. For one, it is nearly impossible for a Lebanese citizen to change the district they’re registered in; every district has a majority of one sect or the other. Instead of requiring citizens to vote in districts they no longer reside in, the new law could allow individuals to elect candidates in their area of residence. In that way, a candidate would have a chance of being elected based on merit, rather than sect.
“Instead of seeking our best interest as citizens, we pride ourselves with vain mottoes of tolerance,” Thebian concludes. “Not until this mentality is eradicated can the Lebanese people expect peace.”
Follow Margaret on Twitter @MargauxTweeted
Hezbollah, Lebanon, Middle East