Ri Insights

A Golden Opportunity for Lebanese Secular Groups

paul gadallaBy Paul Gadalla

Rai Insights Contributor

BEIRUT: Sectarian feudal lords, mafia bosses, and warlords have long dominated Lebanon’s political scene. Secular civic movements seemed confined to a handful of protests and protesters. But now the results of the Beirut municipal elections could be the political upset that Lebanon needed.

For decades political pundits scoffed at Lebanon, believing its sectarian system had become so well engrained in society it would never change or praising it as a system that would preserve its diversity.  Indeed Lebanon has been ruled by confessional politics where every major religious sect and their political leaders are represented in government under the slogan of “no victor, no vanquished” instead of a traditional majority and opposition. This has led political parties to treat the Lebanese state as a pie to be sliced up instead of attempting to build a strong state with functioning institutions.

But it seems the 2015 trash crisis, which was prolonged by Lebanese political parties wrangling over the spoils of trash collection contracts, was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Beirutis.

Feeling the pressure from civil society activists who led last year’s protests during the garbage crisis, the government surprisingly called for municipal elections although parliamentary and presidential elections seemed to be off the table. Already the traditional elite were up to their typical political engineering. To ensure their victory in the elections in Beirut, which all sects and parties are present, they formed one large electoral alliance in which they would all run together. This would ensure enough votes to squash any opposition.

Indeed many thought no one could challenge such a list, but activists in Beirut took the political class head on by forming Beirut Madiniti,  a secular civic group which literally means “Beirut, My City” and would field its own candidates in the elections.  True, many thought they stood a small chance but when the dust settled Beirut Madiniti’s list captured 40% of the votes in Beirut and shocked the Lebanese political establishment.

Already the tremors have been felt. Political leaders were quick to say they had made a clean sweep in the elections although within a couple of days began trading blames over why their list had performed poorly. There was hundreds of election violations Beirut Madiniti had documented in which it seemed even the security forces were complicit in attempts to sway votes.

The biggest blow was to Christian parties, all who had candidates on the Beirutis list.  Beirut Madiniti won an outright majority in Christian neighborhoods, meaning their grand alliance with each other was not enough to captivate Christian votes. This could mean that the Christian community, at least in East Beirut which has a long been battleground for Christian support, has given up on its traditional leaders and has opted for secular candidates.

For Beirut’s Muslim districts, Beirut Madiniti managed to gain 30%-40% of the vote, upset to the Future Movement which longs to dominate the Sunni vote along with the Islamist Jamma Al-Islamiya.

Unfortunately since Lebanon’s voting system is first past the post, meaning to gain a seat you must garner more than 50% in a district, Beirut Madniti is officially not part of the municipality. But where do we go from here?

First and foremost civil society groups must now do two important things in order not to lose this historic momentum and major shift in Lebanese politics.

Beirut Madiniti were not the only ones to run a civic list. Ex-labor minister and respected academic Charbel Nahas also ran a list of his own although it fared poorly compared to the rest. It would better serve the purpose of civil society groups to coordinate together instead of run against each other, which would split the opposition and give the mainstream parties a chance to divide and conquer.

Second, for Beirut Madiniti to continue to stay relevant they should form a shadow municipality and act as a true opposition in a country where parties will burn tires when wanting to oppose something. They must continue to meet with ordinary citizens to address their problems and lobby for reforms that Beirut desperately needs. By showing that they can be a civil opposition that does not rely on sectarian rhetoric or arms to accomplish its goals, it could become an even larger contender.

Even outside of Beirut traditional parties have been losing ground in areas where they once had vast support. This shift in politics could mean Lebanese are no longer willing to rely on feudal lords to get services but finally demand true proper public servants that they will hold accountable.

*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon

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