Lebanon's opposition today: A story of perpetual crises

7 min read
04 January, 2023

On 15 May last year, Lebanon held its first general parliamentary elections after the 17 October uprising of 2019. Accordingly, the country’s anti-establishment movement won 13 seats in an unprecedented advancement for non-sectarian forces.

Hezbollah and its allies had lost their majority, the MPs which formerly constituted the traditional ‘March 14’ bloc are no longer a coherent entity, and the population had new faces to anticipate.

However, since then, most opposition MPs have not been able to forward a coherent program or discourse. Specifically, the 13 MPs within the so-called ‘Change Bloc’ couldn’t agree on one particular name to back for the presidency following the end of Michel Aoun’s term.

Some went further to espouse support for typical establishment figureheads, such as Michel Mouawad, who has had close links with powerful financial institutions blocking an economic rescue plan.

"Lebanon's 17 October revolution was a product of diverse and conflicting conditions, including the efforts of a few thousand activists who constituted the country's 'secular community' over the years"

The elected opposition’s lack of political cohesion is simply one illustration of the crisis faced by the country’s progressive non-sectarian movement more generally. Besides that, emigration became a reality for a large portion of Lebanon’s political activists and organisers. Overall, a sense of fatigue, disappointment, and disenchantment became the norm for most participants.

But explaining the elements of this crisis and the methods through which it can be resolved requires going deeper than the current moment.

In 2011, significant demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring strengthened the case for a secular country and sparked the gradual build-up and institutionalisation of a variety of alternative parties and groups. Success and failure start here, and the agency of those involved ought to be considered.

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Accumulative growth since 2011

Lebanon’s 17 October revolution was a product of diverse and conflicting conditions, including the efforts of a few thousand activists who constituted the country’s ‘secular community’ over the years.

Following the polarising events of 7 May 2008, during which pro- and anti-Hezbollah militiamen fought between Beirut and Mount Lebanon, a revived oppositional consciousness started to take shape against the sectarian system and parties which took part in its contradictions and contestations.

From the protests calling for the fall of the “sectarian regime” in 2011 to the marches rejecting a parliamentary term extension in 2013 and the larger demonstrations in response to the garbage crisis in 2015, Lebanon’s anti-establishment movement seemingly grew as a reaction to numerous regime crises.

Afterwards, a more organised opposition front took to the ballot boxes in the 2016 Beirut municipality elections, the 2017 engineering syndicate elections, and the 2018 parliamentary elections. Despite mainly ‘losing’ in absolute numbers, progress was being made.

Lebanon protests - GETTY
People took to the streets across Lebanon in 2019 to call for the downfall of the entire political and economic power structure. [Getty]

On the student level, the Secular Clubs in several universities have been competing against sectarian parties since 2008, achieving significant electoral wins in key private institutions, despite immense limitations in the public Lebanese University.

In parallel, several left-leaning and grassroots feminist organisations and spaces also emerged and developed between 2015 and 2022, centring the interests of marginalised groups and a progressive economic agenda as their primary focus. On the other hand, the question of how to tackle and analyse the role of Hezbollah’s arms remained a source of dispute.

The ‘17 October’ uprising, which witnessed the organisational capacity and micro-leadership of several faces within this diverse ‘secular community’, changed the equation, and the discourse put forth since 2008 had gradually become mainstream.

"Amid major crises since 2019, secular and alternative forces have made significant yet fluctuating gains in student elections, syndicate elections, and parliamentary elections"

Limited accomplishment in the face of enormous challenges

Despite clear challenges, the non-sectarian movement played a crucial role in creating a ‘third way’. Also, in the presence of a 13-member parliamentary bloc, they contributed to blocking Hezbollah and its allies’ capacity to hold a parliamentary majority.

In the past three years, Lebanon has faced enormous challenges under the Covid-19 pandemic, a collapsing currency, hyperinflation, the Beirut port explosion, increased use of repression and political violence, and emigration. The last factor heavily affected large parts of the country’s youth and professional labour force in their ability to mobilise on the ground.

Amid these difficulties, secular and alternative forces made significant yet fluctuating gains in student elections, syndicate elections, and parliamentary elections.

Their elected representatives within these various institutions also demonstrated more seriousness in terms of tackling matters which matter to the population, such as fighting for affordable health and education, challenging bank owners’ moves to block an economic rescue plan and sound fiscal policy, and starting a conversation about the future of the country’s sectarian political system.

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On a practical level, they played an important role in establishing rescue teams amid the state’s inability to ‘manage’ the aftermath of the port explosion in 2020. Similar funding initiatives of various kinds contributed to the creation of a parallel service economy.

Most importantly, the active participation in many of these groups, projects, and electoral milestones created a new community of activists who have gained action-based political experience, learning the basic tools of how to deal with power, influence, strategy, and basic organisation.

Many 'startups' but few sustainable political projects

A lot was achieved, nevertheless, many initiatives were launched and operated by specific individuals and their direct circle of activists. Very few sustainable institutional frameworks were formed in the process. Instead, opposition organisations took the form of ‘startups’ with a much less ambitious trajectory in terms of ideological cohesion and financial/material capacity.

In this sense, there’s a clear contrast between Lebanon and other cases in the region. While ‘traditional’ non-sectarian parties in Lebanon such as the Lebanese Communist Party and the National Bloc play a role to this day, they noticeably lack the popular mass found in movements like the Iraqi Communist Party.

In Sudan, established professional associations played a leading role in organising dissent, while newly established alternative syndicates in Lebanon faced enormous continuity challenges.

Beirut's Port Blast symbolises the murderous incompetence of Lebanese administration
On 4 August 2020, a huge explosion in the Port of Beirut killed 218 people and injured over 7,000. [Getty]

Besides that, instead of actively recruiting, activating, and conversing with new social groups, these ‘startups’ also regularly competed for a larger share amongst the same crowd of non-sectarian activists.

Consequently, list formation during the past elections indicated competing alignments which constituted different ‘activist startups’, each of which had its ‘star candidate’ and borderline individualistic priorities. These priorities hindered their incentive to propose concrete policies and form alliances which challenge the regime’s neoliberal setup.

While relatively new progressive political parties and grassroots movements with some legacy showed progress, internal disputes, limited reach, and bad strategy continue to be obstacles

Citizens in a State, an opposition party led by economist Charbel Nahhas and established in 2016, implemented an ambitious plan to run in almost all districts in the election under the banner of a “comprehensive political-economic project”. However, the party leadership’s inability to achieve favourable outcomes and mediate internal structural matters led to many recent public resignations.

On the other hand, more flexible and horizontal left-leaning movements such as the ‘Mada Network’, which constitutes more than 15 youth-led secular clubs across various spaces, raise legitimate questions about the shortcomings of ‘leaderlessness’ in youth movements given the magnitude of both the obstacles and ambitious political objectives put forth.

"While relatively new progressive political parties and grassroots movements with some legacy showed progress, internal disputes, limited reach, and bad strategy continue to be obstacles"

The quest for leadership and political maturity

It’s crucial to position the successes and faults of Lebanon’s opposition as a product of the decisions, strategies, and labour of its primary leaders and participants.

Accordingly, the solution to today’s crisis amongst progressive and democratic new movements in Lebanon has many parallels with their counterparts in other Arab countries following the 2011 uprisings.

Most importantly, intellectuals cannot stand on the margins as discursive critics; their involvement is crucial for the strategic development of the movement’s political and economic projects and theory of change.

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In other words, transformative processes require power, leadership, and action. ‘Leaderlessness’ was tactically celebrated during the initial phase of the uprising, but organisers soon noticed it produced a detrimental situation in which loud voices held power and ‘structurelessness’ killed sound decision-making and strategy.

Finally, political ‘startups’ cannot compete forever. Historical moments require the unification of forces which hold similar objectives in the pursuit of creating solid, ambitious political parties.

Karim Safieddine is a political writer based in Lebanon.

Follow him on Twitter: @safieddine00