Lebanon elections: The enemy of the people remains

Lebanon elections: The enemy of the people remains
Whilst there were a few surprises during the Lebanese elections, including the victory of independent parliamentarians and the high turnout of expat voters, as the dust settles it is difficult to see any real change, writes Khalil Issa.
6 min read
17 Jun, 2022
The general elections in Lebanon took place on 15 May 2022. [GETTY]

When the only vocation of a ruling class concerned with reproducing itself at any cost becomes the perpetual waging of an economic war on its people, even at the risk of annihilating the very fabric of society, it will be incumbent on those who oppose this ruling class to take advantage from any miscalculation it may commit.

This is exactly the Lebanese case at hand.

Lebanese rulers understood the risk in allowing a parliamentary election to take place in the midst of a financial collapse. The zaïm guild - that is the informal institution controlled by the seven sectarian barons that organises and re-organises actual power forces in the country- chose to proceed with it, however.

The reality is that the de facto rulers were in dire need of financial aid in order to resuscitate a currently collapsing rentier economy that has been used to finance costly clientelism. They were eager to borrow money from the IMF and World Bank and the theatre of an election provided enough assurances of political stability for those potential donors.

''Other than Tripoli, a city trying to heal from a recent tragedy which left two dozen dead following the military capsizing a boat, there was no real abstention from the wider Lebanese electorate. Participation was almost identical to that of the 2018 election.''

Whether this gamble was worth it is yet to be seen as early signs raise questions about the progressive potential of independent candidates.

On 15  May 2022, parliamentary elections saw the win of a dozen or so independent parliamentarians out of the possible 128 seats. This was unprecedented since the end of the civil war in 1990. However, the regime of zaïms got what it wanted. It affirmed and renewed its legitimacy.

In order to understand why this election was detrimental to some groups of the ruling class, we should probably begin with Tripoli. It is, after all, the poorest urban conglomeration in the country - a city where one can easily see the bowels of the Lebanese regime out in the open.

A few hours after the last ballots were dropped, shooting could be heard all over the city. Faysal Karami, one of the pillars of the Tripolitan zaïm establishments, was on the brink of losing. A pro-Hezbollah politician whose father and uncle were both prime ministers, he watched as the votes slipped away from him.

His followers started to shoot AK47s into the air. This move, which terrorised the city’s inhabitants, was intended to put pressure on Bassam Mawlawi, the Lebanese interior minister – also a Tripolitan - to try to decide the results in the zaïm’s best interest. This, however, did not work in his favour because the next morning, an independent, left-leaning dentist Rami Finj won the seat.

Others adopted the same tactic of firing into the air with their high hopes of becoming part of the zaïm guild. This was the case for the ex-minister of justice who was also the former general director of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF), anti-Hezbollah hawk Ashraf Rifi. Despite describing himself in perpetuum as ‘a man of institutions and laws’ his followers behaved no differently than those of Karami.

Though Rifi, along with two others on his list, secured MP seats.

The final toll of that “democratic” night in Tripoli was a new set of parliamentarians, and the death of Hassan Rachidi, a citizen killed by stray bullets that had been shot. 

Indeed, discharging firearms has always been a ritaul in the zaïm regime. It doesn’t matter what the political leanings and stance of individual zaïms are either – you could be in total support of Hezbollah and the Assad regime, for example. The most important aspect is upholding the (largely patriarchal) status quo.

Tripoli chose to challenge the zaïms in a strange way, however.

This is where the highest abstention levels in the country were scored. But, whilst this massive ‘moral boycott’ by the city’s residents against their grim reality took place, there was a high turnout from Lebanese voters abroad, who waged a much more radical anti-zaïm vote and helped deliver Finj’s victory as the sole independent MP.

Other than Tripoli, a city trying to heal from a recent tragedy which left two dozen dead following the military capsizing a boat, there was no real abstention from the wider Lebanese electorate. Participation was almost identical to that of the 2018 election.

Another significant element, was the rumour that circulated of an order for abstention given by the heavyweight Sunni zaïm Saad Hariri to his followers. The son of Rafic Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister who was killed in a harrowing car bomb in 2005, Saad Hariri also previously served as PM for 8 years until 2020.

This “Hariri effect” was seen at play in participation levels in areas with a Sunni majority where the turnout was low compared to those of the 2018 election. However, this tactic ultimately backfired. Whilst Hariri’s most staunch supporters didn’t vote, the majority of Sunni voters- apart from Tripolitans- did.

In the end, the election has produced quite a small heterogeneous group of independent MPs who come from backgrounds as diverse as the left, NGOs, civil society groups, social media influencers, and activists of the 17 October protests. Some hold opposing positions regarding crucial political questions in Lebanon today: a way out of the current financial crisis and the ramification of Hezbollah’s regional politics.

A pivotal event that raised serious questions nevertheless, was the election of Nabih Berri as speaker of parliament, for the sixth time. As current leader of the Amal party, he is renowned  for his zaïm clientelism in the Lebanese Shia community. His parliamentary guards were also accused of attacking protesters in the 2019 demonstrations.

A simple calculation of the 65 votes he received meant that 6 votes came from allegedly ‘independent’ candidates. MPs who claimed to represent all those who oppose the Lebanese regime effectively consolidated a central pillar of this regime. The zaïm’s institutional power therefore remained unscathed.

Sun Tzu’s ‘know thy enemy’ couldn’t have been more true.

Perhaps if the rest of the country had followed the low participation seen in Tripoli, this would have sent a strong message that people seek to free themselves from the tentacles of clientelism. It could have also undermined the rulers’ legitimacy. However, we are beyond this now. New battles in an already unfinished war is promised to the masses.

Still, the enemy to the people remains the zaïm guild.

Khalil Issa is an independent researcher, journalist and political analyst who currently resides in Lebanon. 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.