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Lebanese elections bring change

Paul Salem
President

Paul Salem

Election results show that voters dealt a serious blow to Hezbollah’s political allies, favored their opponents, and brought a higher-than-expected number of new civil society candidates to parliament.

Despite a low voter turnout of 41%, significantly lower than the last elections in 2018, and despite great division among civil society ranks that failed to put together unified “revolutionary” movement or national lists, new candidates from these disparate lists made breakthroughs over established parties and politicians in 14 seats. Although this is still a modest fraction of the 128 seats in parliament, it shows that change is possible, that a significant number of voters will vote for change if given a viable alternative, and that the established parties and politicians are vulnerable.

In a more traditional calculus, the elections weakened the pro-Hezbollah alliance in favor of its opponents. Hezbollah and its allies ended up with a minority of only 60 seats, while their opponents of various stripes occupy a majority of 68 seats. In the Christian community, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gibran Bassil, which is allied with Hezbollah, saw their parliamentary bloc shrink to 17, and now take second place to the staunchly anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces party, which secured a bloc of 19. The pro-Hezbollah and pro-Assad leader in North Lebanon, Suleiman Frangieh, also saw his influence shrink, failing to secure a majority even in his own hometown of Zgharta. Both Bassil and Frangieh can no longer claim to represent a dominant political trend in the Christian community, nor do they have a strong case to be considered for the presidency.

In the Druze community, long-time pro-Hezbollah and pro-Assad politicians lost to reformist civil society candidates; several pro-Hezbollah Sunni and Christian candidates in the Hezbollah strongholds of south Lebanon also lost. In the Sunni community, the previously dominant leader Saad Hariri sat these elections out, and the Sunni vote was distributed among a wide array of anti-Hezbollah or reformist lists. Sunni allies of Hezbollah and Assad did very poorly.

Hezbollah and Amal maintained their sweep of the 27 Shiite seats in parliament. But Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah had made it clear in recent speeches that Hezbollah’s goal in these elections was to make sure its allies in other communities did well. In this, it has failed. The decline of the FPM to minority status means that Hezbollah has lost a strong Christian cover — especially after President Aoun’s term ends at the end of October. It has lost key allies in the Sunni and Druze communities, and has lost the majority it previously could count on in parliament. Of course it remains the dominant party of the Shiite community and an extremely powerful armed group that does not hesitate to use force inside, and outside, the country to pursue its or Iran’s goals.

It is fair to say that the results of these elections came as a surprise even to civil society and reform groups, which had begun to lose hope in the possibility of change. It shows how much elections still matter, and how much political mobilization and voting can bring about change, even in a dysfunctional and militia-dominated country like Lebanon.

In the weeks ahead the parliament has first to elect a speaker. Amal leader Nabih Berri has been speaker for the past 30 years, and might be so again, but the election results make his road to victory more challenging. Next, the president must engage in parliamentary consultations to designate someone to form the next government. The current Prime Minister Najib Mikati fared poorly in these elections, but it’s not yet clear who might emerge as an alternative. The naming of a prime minister and the process to form a government might not even come to fruition before the next big political milestone, which is the presidential election that should take place before the end of October. Hezbollah’s original plan, to try to get one of its close allies, Bassil or Frangieh, into that position, is no longer viable. As electing a president requires a two-thirds quorum in parliament — a ratio that no political coalition has — the country might be bound for a presidential vacuum of extended duration.

Indeed, the country is in desperate need of a new government that can work with the new parliament to implement the urgently needed economic reforms to secure an IMF rescue package and begin reversing the socio-economic collapse. Although these elections have brought significant and positive political change, they leave the political road ahead still very contested and unlikely to produce sufficient political consensus to undertake the necessary major reforms. But the elections do give hope that change is indeed possible in the country, and that efforts to bring about more lasting and widespread change deserve to be redoubled.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in MEI’s Monday Briefing on May 16.

Follow on Twitter: @paul_salem

The beginning of the end of the Doha consensus

Fadi Nicholas Nassar
Contributor

Fadi Nicholas Nassar

In a world threatened by rising authoritarianism and growing worries over democracy’s retreat, a message of hope has emerged from Lebanon reminding those who need to hear it most that democracy still matters and is worth fighting for.

Echoing electoral results in Iraq, Lebanon’s parliamentary contest has proven to be a decisive blow to Iran’s allies, exposing the increasing vulnerability of its strategic position, the growing rejection of its regional project, and the expanding limits of its coercive abilities to dominate formal political processes.

More specific to Lebanon, however, has been the rejection of the 2008 Doha Agreement that positioned Hezbollah as the country’s dominant power broker following the turning of its arms toward local opponents. As I have written about in more detail elsewhere, the consensus that emerged in the aftermath of Doha Agreement was that Hezbollah was not a state within a state; rather, it eclipsed the state. All other actors and stakeholders were suspended in its orbit, competing over whatever fell outside its strategic interests. But the false stability of this illiberal status quo was never sustainable, and ultimately made the state fail.

It is this appeasement and acceptance of political violence, enabled by corrupt and broken elites and brokered with the tacit consent of international actors, that Lebanon’s opposition, and the electorate that voted them in, have now challenged. From the right-wing and center-leaning traditional parties to the emerging anti-establishment independent groups in the new parliament, those outside Hezbollah’s axis have chosen confrontation, not compromise. This comes after more than a decade of living with the consequences of impunity and inaction in the face of Hezbollah’s use of — and monopoly on — political violence, including the assassination of dissidents at home and participation in mass atrocities abroad in Syria.

In the battle between independent parties for who gets to represent the October 17 Revolution in parliament, groups that de-emphasized Hezbollah in their campaigns, framing the militia as merely facilitating pervasive corruption rather than being chiefly responsible for battering the state and leveraging its arms to maximize its position and suppress dissent, were soundly defeated. Independent actors that did not take a clear position on Hezbollah failed to win a single seat, whereas groups that refused to compromise on Hezbollah in their revolt against the establishment made breakthrough victories across the country, underscoring the impact that taking a confrontational position on Hezbollah had on voters’ trust. This current was also exploited by traditional parties campaigning on an anti-Hezbollah line, like the Lebanese Forces, to mask their own role in cementing the status quo, further highlighting that this election was in many ways a referendum on Hezbollah.

But what the uncompromising spirit of this new anti-establishment movement draws to light is that the struggles against corruption and political violence, though different, are connected and in Lebanon’s case, one cannot be resolved without addressing the other. That this movement will inevitably find itself in a hung parliament is not necessarily a weakness. If navigated carefully, this can even be used to pressure established parties to compromise on critical reforms that would make it easier to strengthen the integrity of core state institutions and work toward addressing systemic issues like elite capture, mismanagement, sectarianism, and clientelism. To be sure, the road ahead is perilous given the large representation of parties that were part of the former government. That same government deliberately failed to enact any critical reforms throughout the country’s debilitating economic crisis that would have placed significant losses on influential elites and institutions rather than the general public.

Yet none of this can happen without security for reformers from political violence.

It is here where international support is most needed, in reining in the capacity of local and regional actors to operationalize such violence without consequence and reducing their margin for maneuver.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a global consensus is emerging that authoritarianism — and the moral compromises that sustain it — is an existential threat. Confronting it requires doing away with instrumentalizing the vague language of compromise to mask impunity for infringements on core freedoms in exchange for unchecked corruption.

While the Biden administration appears to have prioritized established democracies in its flagship Summit for Democracy, it is in small states like Lebanon, where the battle between democracy and authoritarianism is neither won nor lost, that solidarity is most needed.

Fadi Nicholas Nassar is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution at the Lebanese American University. His research focuses on international humanitarian and relief interventions in fragile and conflict settings, popular uprisings and social movements, US foreign policy, and Middle Eastern politics.

Follow on Twitter: @dr_nickfn

An unprecedented awakening, but what comes next is up to us

Carmen Geha
Contributor

Carmen Geha

I was wrong. That is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the election results that came out of Lebanon. For over a decade, I had tried to change, influence, and break the system, but to no avail. It’s not just me either; there are countless others who have tried and we kept hitting a wall. Things just kept getting worse, and even after Beirut’s port exploded in August 2020, the warlords seemed to be able to revive the system again. These elections were no different, or so I thought. After all, we were playing by the rules of the corrupt warlords who have ruled, impoverished, and destroyed Lebanon for 30 years. So I left, I immigrated for the first time, maintaining my commitment to Lebanon but choosing to relocate to Barcelona to work on diaspora activism. I was right to do this for personal reasons — Lebanon is unlivable right now at all levels — but even though my personal choice is right, I was wrong about the collective. An unprecedented awakening and political confrontation has started, and we must all rally to support it for three reasons.

First, over 80% of people in Lebanon are reeling under poverty. With the national government in utter failure and the international community’s historical complicity, it is up to us as people to stand up and advocate for those who are under-privileged and discriminated against. The political order is an exclusionary one: It excludes non-loyalists, non-nationals, women, youth, the elderly — basically anyone that is not loyal to or benefiting from the establishment of violent mafia rule. This needs to change and now that we have a large group of revolutionary reformist parliamentarians, we have the opportunity to support this change.

Second, Lebanon’s traditional political leadership is evil. As a political scientist I wrote about the sectarian system for so long, arguing that it is the root of all of Lebanon’s problems. I was wrong again. I don’t think that Lebanon’s power-sharing system is necessarily to blame. I think it is the handful of politicians who led the war and governed through impunity. They are the problem. Their arrogance, corruption, violence, and disdain for their own people is truly perverted. A group of men who cannot even manage garbage collection and who leave explosives at the port cannot be trusted with reform.

Third, there is power in the collective. We learned this in the revolution that began in October 2019 and even experienced it in mobilizing for justice after the port explosion. We cannot leave the new members of parliament to do the work alone. We must rally around them and the more of us who volunteer to help, advocate, serve, and uplift, the more these new parliamentarians can have the security and support to continue confronting an evil political class that has survived on blood and impunity for way too long.

I think both realities are true: Many of us need to leave for our survival but at the same time many of us can and should help. Politics, like life, can be a complexity of emotions. Today in Lebanon, both statements are true: The country has never seen such hopelessness and hopefulness co-exist. What we do next is up to us as these election results have proven.

Dr. Carmen Geha is an activist, scholar, and consultant with more than 15 years’ experience working for international organizations across the MENA region with expertise in governance and institutional reform. She is currently a senior member at the Inter-disciplinary Research Group on Migration at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain, and has been awarded the prestigious Maria Zambrano fellowship by the Catalan government.

Follow on Twitter: @CarmenGeha

Lebanon’s new parliament undercuts Hezbollah’s ruling recipe

Bachar El-Halabi
Contributor

Bachar El-Halabi

While on paper Hezbollah lost its parliamentary majority in the elections that took place last week in Lebanon, precedents and realpolitik prove that a parliamentary majority is not the criterion for ruling under the country’s sectarian power-sharing formula. The lesson to be drawn from the election rests elsewhere, a point missed by the majority of reporters from international media outlets in Beirut, who rushed their editors to run pieces headlining: “Hezbollah lost its parliamentary majority.”

Over the past 15 years, three main events contributed to Hezbollah’s ruling recipe, cementing the paramilitary group’s status as Lebanon’s powerbroker. The first was the 2008 Doha conference, which came against the backdrop of the group’s military incursion into Beirut and Mount Lebanon, officially giving Hezbollah veto power within government. The second was the ouster of Saad Hariri from the premiership in 2011 while he was meeting with then U.S. President Barak Obama, knocking out the working framework of the so-called “national unity government.” In practice, the group has retained the upper hand in governments ever since. The third event was the “presidential deal” that installed Michel Aoun in Baabda Palace in 2016 as part of an expansion of Iranian influence following the nuclear deal with the U.S. and the conclusion of wars in Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah proceeded to win a clear majority of seats in the 2018 parliamentary elections and reinforced its grip on power.

The emerging parliament today, with its diversity and uncertainty regarding a clear-cut majority, undercuts Hezbollah’s ruling recipe and offers heightened polarization that could result in protracted deadlock, at a time when the country is dealing with one of the worst economic meltdowns in documented history. This polarization was the result of Hezbollah’s unwise decision to frame the election as a referendum over its weapons. The group knows that no majority in parliament can carve out a policy that targets its security concerns, and it plans to capitalize on the lack of unanimity among so-called independent and opposition MPs to weather the election results in a similar fashion to what the pro-Iran Coordination Framework is attempting in Baghdad. However, one unmistakable conclusion from the elections is the huge reduction in support among all other sects for parties or personalities close to Hezbollah, an indication of the increased isolation of its policies and narrative within Lebanon. A clear majority of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s allies lost as well, dealing a blow to his aspirations for a renewed role in Lebanese politics.

Meanwhile, there is enough reason for the Iranian regime to be concerned over its regional influence and expansionist plans. The outcome of the Iraqi and Lebanese parliamentary elections, coupled with Assad’s growing need for Iranian support as Russia takes heavy losses in its badly calculated invasion of Ukraine, presents Tehran with growing challenges. Moreover, the lack of news from Vienna and the bottleneck facing the nuclear talks do not instill confidence in Iran’s allies and proxies in the region.

On the flipside, Saudi Arabia’s role and influence in Lebanon have been reinvigorated with the Lebanese Forces (LF) winning a majority of seats within the Christian constituency. Riyadh, under the new leadership, has replaced its longtime ally Saad Hariri with the head of the LF, Samir Geagea. From a Saudi perspective, Geagea is a bulwark against Iran’s growing influence in Lebanon and remains an endorser of the Taif Agreement, until further notice. As such, Lebanon today can become an item on the agenda of the Baghdad dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran. With balance seemingly restored, at least in parliament, Riyadh and Tehran can either find a cohabitation arrangement that helps lift Beirut out of its misery, or push the country toward its breaking point.

Bachar El-Halabi, LLM, is a Lebanese activist and an energy market reporter and analyst. His published work focuses on Lebanese politics and regional geopolitical-related developments.

Follow on Twitter: @Bacharelhalabi

Lebanon’s election offers cause for both optimism and pessimism

Bilal Y. Saab
Senior Fellow and Founding Director of the Defense and Security Program

Bilal Y. Saab

The electoral outcome in Lebanon has given both optimists and pessimists enough reason to deepen their convictions. The optimists will point to the unprecedented victories of new faces, many from civil society, who long for systemic change in the country, and concurrently, to the defeat of traditional politicians and sectarian chiefs who support the rotten political status quo and are allied with Hezbollah and loyal to the Syrian regime.

Despite a global pandemic, dreadful economic circumstances, intimidation and possible fraud in some districts, and an electoral law that to a large extent favors the old guard, there were significant electoral breakthroughs. And in a country awash with weapons, small and heavy, not one person was killed in this monumental national event. That’s worth noting. Kudos to the Lebanese army for providing security.

The pessimists will argue that precisely because these elections were being held under historically bad economic conditions, political collapse, and massive societal depression, many more people should have voted for change (most from the Sunni community even boycotted!), civil society should have found a way to unite, and a much larger number of reform candidates should have won.

You can pick either narrative and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. More than two years ago, I wrote that getting even a small number of change candidates represented in the next chamber would constitute a decent start to the long and arduous journey of political rehabilitation. This goal has been accomplished, no doubt, which is a big deal. This constituency now exists, no matter how small and fragile it is. 

The challenge now for the honest voices who won is to get sufficiently organized inside the next parliament to implement what they have been calling for. This obviously will be very difficult given the still considerable power of Hezbollah and its allies and the next presidential race in October will show the immediate impact of these parliamentary elections.

It’s not too late for the change candidates to unite to amplify their numbers and influence inside the next chamber, but it won’t be easy given the significant differences they have on priorities and the sequencing of reforms. The Lebanese Forces, which won big and will form the largest Christian bloc, have not only an opportunity but also a responsibility moving forward: to refuse any bargaining with the status quo powers, which they didn’t do when they signed off on Michel Aoun’s terrible presidency, and form a bond with as many independents and reformists as possible to introduce some much-needed change into the system.

This piece originally appeared in MEI’s Monday Briefing on May 16.

Diaspora voters help tilt the balance in favor of alternative parties

Georges El Khoury
Contributor

Georges El Khoury

On May 6 and May 8, Lebanese citizens around the world exercised their right to participate in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections. In most nations, expat voting is commonplace. But for the Lebanese diaspora, the road to the ballot box has been hard-fought and far from straightforward. 

The primary reason for this struggle comes down to Lebanon’s 2017 electoral law, which gave Lebanese diaspora voters the right to elect a mere six members of parliament (one MP per continent) rather than the full 128 members. With a diaspora estimated to be twice as large as the actual population within Lebanon — and often displaced by necessity rather than choice — it’s easy to see why this law was controversial. The diaspora wanted a voice in the country they were forced to leave, and they were willing to fight for full electoral rights. Months of international and domestic pressure and campaigning led to parliament eventually caving and amending the 2017 electoral law — gone were the paltry six seats previously allocated.

After this initial success, the fight then centered around ensuring that elections were actually held on time. In the run-up to May 2022, the Lebanese government had expressed concerns about the financial costs and operational complexity of organizing diaspora elections in a country already gripped by multiple crises. While this rhetoric might sound plausible given the circumstances, it was not lost on most diaspora voters that such excuses were merely tactics to avoid shaking up the domestic political status quo. The political establishment was undoubtedly aware of the threat that significant diaspora mobilization would pose to their rule and was keen on retaining their tight grip over parliament. Despite incessant rumors of cancelled elections that continued up until a few days before the vote, Lebanese expats finally went to the polls in unprecedented numbers.

Participation in the 2018 diaspora elections, the first time voting was allowed outside Lebanon, was limited, but in 2022, the Lebanese came out in droves to register for their right to vote from abroad.

From an estimated 1 million Lebanese citizens eligible to vote from abroad, fewer than 10% registered to vote in 2018 (82,965 voters). In contrast, around 24% registered in 2022 (244,000 voters). In 2018, 46,800 voters actually followed through with their vote, whereas more than three times that number — 142,041 expats — showed up to vote this time around. Significant participation, averaging more than 70% turnout, was recorded in countries like France, the UAE, the U.K., and Canada. 

This considerable surge in voter registration and turnout abroad can be attributed to the increase in political awareness among Lebanese expats, their disillusionment with the current establishment, and their ability to distance themselves from the day-to-day struggles of Lebanese life. Devastating incidents such as the 2020 Beirut port explosion as well as all-encompassing financial and social crises have fueled a desire for change, particularly among expats who have spent the past two years watching their home country sink deeper and deeper into the abyss.

In the build-up to elections, opinion polls had estimated that registrants from abroad could provide enough votes to secure 8-10 new seats in parliament for alternative candidates not affiliated with establishment parties. In this week’s elections, diaspora voters did not disappoint, making a considerable difference in a number of electoral districts.

For example, in the electoral district of South 3, which encompasses the Lebanese regions of Bint Jbeil, Nabatieh, and Marjeyoun-Hasbaya, the diaspora vote helped break through decades of entrenched voting patterns by securing two out of 11 seats for alternative candidates. This may sound small but is in fact a huge breakthrough in a district historically under the thumb of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. Similarly, Yassine Yassine was the first alternative candidate to secure a seat in Bekaa 2. In the electoral district of Beirut 1, two alternative seats were also secured and, in the case of Cynthia Zarazir, only after diaspora votes were added to the final tally. The same is true for Waddah El Sadek, a candidate in Beirut 2, who was also able to secure a third alternative seat for the district once diaspora votes were counted. The diaspora votes also favored the alternatives in North 2, where Ramy Finge, a candidate from Tripoli on the list Intafid, was able to snatch the seat from the grip of the current establishment.

It is critical to keep in mind that such breakthroughs were not a product of luck. Diaspora voters actively and unequivocally played a role in tilting the balance in favor of alternative parties and creating surprise victories across many of Lebanon’s 15 electoral districts. In total, voters both in Lebanon and abroad secured around 13 seats for alternative parties in parliament this year, compared to only one in 2018. A feat once considered impossible has now happened, and expats, as well as their families and friends in Lebanon, have played an integral role in making 2022 an election year to remember.

Georges El Khoury is a graduate student at London Business School and a founding member of Sawti, a global initiative aimed at informing, engaging, and mobilizing Lebanese citizens abroad with the intent of increasing civic participation and voter turnout in the Lebanese elections.

America’s opportunity to shift its focus to directly engaging the Lebanese people

Brian Katulis
Vice President of Policy

Brian Katulis

Lebanon’s imperfect democratic elections were nevertheless significant: They weakened Hezbollah, strengthened the proponents of state sovereignty, and brought in a significant group of new political representatives from civil society. It is also noteworthy that the elections were held on time and produced results that did not go the way entrenched powers wished them to go.

These election results don’t immediately change the bigger picture inside of Lebanon’s political system, as the new parliament will be split among many groups. Most analysts expect gridlock to set in once again. It will be difficult to form a government in the next few months, and the country may be looking at another long period without a president after Michel Aoun’s term runs out at the end of October.

Nonetheless, the extended period of political negotiations that likely lies ahead offers an opportunity for the Biden administration to shift the focus of U.S. policy more clearly toward the needs and concerns of the Lebanese people. This means looking for new avenues to provide direct support to the most vulnerable without enabling the corruption and political gridlock that have become far too common in Lebanon.

The first step in crafting a new approach that directly engages the Lebanese people is building a diplomatic coalition with countries such as France and key partners in the Arab world that are looking for ways to avoid the past mistakes of underwriting a political system that doesn’t respond to the people. Some key figures in the Biden administration have set out more modest goals for America’s approach to the Middle East, saying it should go “back to basics” and avoid having more failed states in the region.

Lebanon teeters on the edge of becoming a failed state, and it’s a good place to dedicate more diplomatic attention. Food insecurity, already a problem over the past year, has become a bigger challenge with the recent spike in food prices due to Russia’s war in Ukraine. The broader economic problems linked to years of mismanagement and corruption won’t be fixed overnight — and that’s why new avenues of providing direct support to the Lebanese people through the World Bank and other international organizations should be developed. The Biden administration should also take more steps to hold corrupt officials accountable.

The Biden administration has serious bandwidth challenges in its foreign policy. Russia’s war in Ukraine and the broader effort to compete with China in the world dominate the time of President Joe Biden and his most senior officials. That’s why the Biden administration should empower a team of U.S. diplomats to work more closely with partners in Europe and the Middle East and international organizations to find ways to directly engage the Lebanese people and create incentives for the country’s newly elected leaders to respond to the needs of those they represent.

But the elections also showed that change is possible, as a significant number of new civil society groups unseated long-established politicians. This new group in parliament should be encouraged. The U.S. should also continue to help civil society further strengthen and coordinate its efforts to provide a better alternative for the desperate Lebanese people.

The elections in Lebanon resonate with the broader threat that democracy is facing in Ukraine and around the world. Lebanese voters, despite the deepest economic depression in living memory, a port blast that devastated the capital, and a militia-dominated political system, came out to vote and spoke out in favor of democracy, sovereignty, and reform. That should count for something in the U.S. foreign policy agenda.

Follow on Twitter: @Katulis

Photographer: Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg via Getty Images