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Antoun Issa

"The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say."
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Lebanon’s Liberals Must Take Advantage of Orthodox Electoral Law

Posted By antounissa on February 22nd, 2013

Roughly 50 people turned out to protest the proposed Orthodox Gathering’s Electoral Law on Tuesday, which had just won approval from a parliamentary committee earlier that day. The law further entrenches Lebanon’s sectarian political system by restricting voters to electing representatives within their religious sect (Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Shia Muslim, Sunni Muslim, Druze etc.).

In such a tense climate where our neighbour is slowly disintegrating along sectarian lines, Lebanon’s political leaders thought adopting an even more divisive electoral law would calm the hot waters (a no brainer, right?).

Importantly, however, the new uber sectarian law also includes proportionality, and rids Lebanon of its contentious electoral districts, with now only one-district for this tiny mountainous country of 4 million people.

The inclusion of proportionality, ironically, makes it easier for smaller parties and factions of society to get represented in parliament, as noted by political blogger Elias Muhanna in this post in January.

Proportionality essentially means every vote counts, or as summarised on Wikipedia in its most basic form: “if 30% of voters support a particular party then roughly 30% of seats will be won by that party.”

Despite the overt sectarianism the new law espouses, it actually provides secularists, leftists and liberals their first real opportunity to participate in Lebanon’s political system – long suffocated by sectarian elites, factions and warlords.

How can Lebanon not have a political liberal voice?

It is Lebanon’s greatest irony that as the most liberal country in the Arab world, it is one of the few Arab states without proper liberal, secular or leftist representation in its political affairs – in contrast to Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Palestine and even Jordan and Kuwait.

But what are Lebanon’s secular options for like-minded voters in the current political landscape?

  • Traditional secular parties: SSNP, Communists – remnants of an old Lebanese political order, and although they had popular appeal pre-1975, they’re highly unlikely to gain much traction in today’s fight for the secular vote.
  • Recent secular parties: FPM, FM – while the two parties offered hope for a fresh secular approach to Lebanese politics (the FPM in particular), both have been swallowed up by the sectarian ambitions of their leaders, and indeed the sectarian nature of the political system. The FPM, which championed the secular banner in Lebanon only 8 years ago, was the main force behind the most sectarian electoral law yet.

Not much on offer for secular hopefuls in Lebanon, it seems.

Outside of the traditional political class is a small, but eager civil society that is scrambling to find a way to transform its rampant activism into concrete political action. These include the likes of Take Back Parliament, initiatives by leading feminist activist Nadine Moawad, among others.

In addition, there has been an increase in workers strikes, one of which is currently ongoing, and a push for unions to re-enter the political landscape, the most high profile of which was the case with the Spinneys supermarket chain last year.

The new proposed electoral law, which is still to be voted on by parliament, provides an opportunity to these fringes to push for the political and economic change they have been demanding.

And now comes the most difficult process: transforming from a protest movement against the system, to using the system to achieving your goals.

The 50 that protested and blocked a road in Downtown Beirut on Tuesday are the same 50 you would normally find at most pro-secular rallies. You can also spot many of them in cafés and bars in Hamra and Achrafieh, railing about all the injustices prevalent in Lebanon.

Failed secular movement – so far

Eight years since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, which seemingly rejuvenated Lebanese politics with the withdrawal of Syrian forces, Lebanon’s secular movement has failed to make inroads among the Lebanese public, or gain any wide appeal, even among the youth.

Indeed, if you followed Lebanon via Twitter, you would get an entirely different impression. Liberals love Twitter, but acquiring thousands of followers in North America, Europe or other parts of the Arab world still translates to zero political influence in Lebanon.

Unfortunately, Lebanon’s secular activism is restricted to an elite of enthusiastic, educated individuals that are too connected to social media and too disconnected from the realities and concerns of everyday Lebanese.

This disconnect was not made more evident than this week, when two simultaneous protest movements that should be coordinating together were miles apart. Hundreds of public employees have been on strike for days, shutting down government offices, but not a single workers movement representative was present at Tuesday’s secular rally pioneered by liberal activists.

And we return to the age old problem facing secularists: liberalism vs socialism – can they work together?

Liberals too Western, not enough Lebanese

Lebanon’s liberals have done an excellent job at promoting rights-based discourse in the country. Women’s rights, gay rights, and domestic workers rights now make their way into mainstream Lebanese media courtesy of the tireless efforts of liberal activists and civil society. But it is significant to note that this rights-based approach to addressing Lebanon’s woes is an adaptation of Western liberalism, and not necessarily mindful of local challenges. Adopting a Western liberal narrative to a non-Western context always has an air of arrogance and naivete.

This was made clear in the secular rally on Tuesday when young activists were calling for the downfall of the sectarian system, instead of developing strategies to push the secular agenda in a sectarian society. Blind calls against the system fail to acknowledge Lebanon’s present reality: it is a sectarian state, and its society is incredibly sectarian, regardless of the historical justifications for its emergence. The sectarian system won’t disappear because 50 activists blocked a road in Downtown Beirut demanding as such, and neither will it fall on the heels of a rights-based approach to addressing Lebanon’s problems.

What are urgently needed are a reassessment of the secular strategy in Lebanon, and a merger of this strategy with the pressing needs of ordinary Lebanese. While gay rights and domestic workers rights are indeed important, a poor father in Hermel or in Safarand is not going to respond to the needs of homosexuals or domestic workers when he stresses 12-16 hours a day on how to feed his family in the evening.

Lebanon’s sectarian powers succeed in this regard where secular, liberal hopefuls glaringly fail: connecting to the needs of the people (albeit in a corrupt and abusive manner). While liberal activists wave banners for domestic workers, the sectarian powers in this country continue to weave their patronage networks to ensure the masses remain under their thumbs. The masses are not going to rise up against the hands that feed them. Bridging this tremendous gap between Lebanon’s liberals and the masses it purports to represent is the first essential step towards achieving secularism in this country.

Removing the air of Beirut elitism is perhaps one good initial step at achieving this. Last summer’s burning tyres protests were yet another example of how disconnected Beirut’s urban liberals are from the needs of the country’s masses. Protesters frequently blocked major highways and roads last summer across the country in protest at continued long electricity cuts, leaving many to suffer in the sweltering heat. Instead of joining in sympathy with such protests, Beirut’s secular urbanites largely scolded and dismissed the protesters as a public nuisance in typical elitist fashion.

If liberals really hope to produce a secular system in Lebanon, then it must reconnect with Lebanon and the needs of the Lebanese people (which involves work outside of Twitter). Giving the public workers currently on strike a call is probably a good start.

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5 Responses to “Lebanon’s Liberals Must Take Advantage of Orthodox Electoral Law”

  1. Habib says:

    This post scolds young activists for being elitist and out of touch, yet it makes claims like “Lebanon’s society is extremely sectarian” and “the masses are not going to rise up against the hand that feeds them.”

    Aren’t these statements a mirror of the rhetoric used by elites to make their claims for ruling Lebanon, i.e. the people are “too sectarian” or “uneducated” to desire change or participate in democracy?

    What is the claim that Lebanon is “too sectarian” based on? Most people I’ve spoken to– rich or poor– seem very dissatisfied with that type of rhetoric.

    • antounissa says:

      Habib,

      I didn’t “scold” activists, I applauded their enthusiasm and endeavour, while criticising their approach and lack of strategy, which I believe has resulted in a major disconnect with society’s needs and Lebanon’s reality.

      The major parties in this country are not simply sectarian because they simply hold a gun to everyone’s head. They maintain their popular support because, yes, sectarian identity supersedes any other identity in this country, least of all a collective national identity.

      A secular movement automatically addresses this notion by at least downgrading sectarian identity. But by doing so it is also elevating a collective identity, one that they have yet to articulate.

      The liberal activist movement is currently primarily based on rejectionism. Rejecting the current order, systems, what have you. It’s important to diagnose an illness, but ultimately pointless if you don’t find a cure. The cancer still spreads. This country needs solutions, it needs thinking, not placards and slogans.

  2. Habib says:

    Of course more needs to be done, more always needs to be done, especially coordination with other groups and I think activists are working on that; we’ve seen some of that today and will see more of it tomorrow.

    Still, I don’t understand blanket statements like “sectarian identity supersedes any other identity in this country.” Based on what? The patronage networks of a dozen or so major parties? How wide are those networks exactly? Do they encompass 4 million Lebanese? If so, I’d love to see figures on that if you have access to them. Even then, to what extent are they unbreakable or enmeshed in one’s “identity”?

    And what uprising is not based on rejection of the rulers, with rallies and placards and slogans? Can we imagine Tahrir without placards and slogans like “iskat el nezam”?

    And why not reject tire burning? It’s a public health hazard that hurts the protestors more than the regime.

    Constructive criticism is very useful but among the critics I’m also hearing little detailed analyses and yet a lot of cynical, monolithic and condescending statements of the kind that have empowered the current power structure and the public “hopelessness” that has sustained it.

    • antounissa says:

      Habib,

      Most analyses and academic papers I’ve read on Lebanon have concluded that sectarian identity supersedes any other identity, and detail the extent of patronage networks. Check out the work of Are Knudsen.

      I’m not quite sure how you can argue that sectarianism and clientelism are not as strong as they are in our society? What exactly are you basing such a denial on?

      Identities aren’t unbreakable, they’re social constructs. Sectarianism is a social construct, and not that old of a phenomenon in Lebanon.

      Egypt’s a perfect example to counter the very argument you’re making: rejectionism with no solutions, and that’s the only card the opposition is playing at the moment and is at the core of the criticism levied at them.

      Burning tyres is a health hazard? So you dismiss and ignore the concerns of the people over their method of protest? You’re actually reinforcing my argument, liberal elitism aloof to the concerns of the underprivileged. Well the underprivileged outnumber the liberal elites, which is probably why Hezbollah get 500,000 to a protest, and liberals get 50.

      You finish by welcoming constructive criticism, only to have spent the previous four paragraphs dismissing it as “condescending” and “monolithic”.

      At the end of the day, it’s about results: what has the secular movement achieved in Lebanon to date? Nada, nothing, rien. To not ask questions and offer criticism is to be completely delusional and in total denial.

  3. [...] was reading with interest Antoun Issa’s post about the Orthodox gathering’s election and how Lebanon’s seculars and liberals can [...]

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