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Lebanon's new civil-society groups challenge old parties

Some apolitical candidates running on anti-corruption platforms hope to challenge status quo
Lebanon votes for first time in nine years (MEE/Ali Harb)

BEIRUT- "Change" seems to be a universal campaign slogan. Calls for change in Lebanon, however, are usually met by an unyielding political system of sectarianism, clientelism and feudalism, among other inherent "isms".

Still, deteriorating state services and the decline of the economy make the need for reforms real, dire, and perhaps not impossible.

Proportional representation introduced in current election law has opened the door for new faces to reach parliament, allowing for the emergence of activist-type candidates in many districts where representation had been exclusive to established parties.

"We're here to offer another echo, a new form of representation," Karim El-Mufti, campaign manager for Kelna Beirut, a slate of independent candidates in Beirut's Second District, told Middle East Eye earlier this week.

Lebanon has long suffered from non-existent state services. Garbage has piled up in the streets repeatedly over the past seven years, infrastructure is crumbling, public spaces are vanishing, beaches and rivers are polluted and the air is turning cancerous from burning waste, all while taxes keep increasing.

Apolitical civil-society candidates focusing on improving state services and cutting back corruption have created an element of excitement in a race that is mostly dominated by traditional political forces. In almost every district there are lists running for office under the civil-society banner.

Still, these activists are criticised for failing to run under a unified front. And broad ideas like “fighting corruption” risk smashing against the hard reality of a Lebanese political system based on clientelism.

No one from this political class has truly carried the causes of citizens. So why would people re-elect these leaders again?

-Nariman Chamaa, Kollouna Watani candidate in Tripoli

For example, a minister hiring his partisans to work in government departments or a political leader funneling state resources to his supporters is nothing out of the ordinary in Lebanon, critics of the political establishment say. On the contrary, it is an essential part of how things work.

Citizens across the country have learnt to deal with the state through their local and sect leaders. What would be viewed as favouritism elsewhere is an acceptable sectarian allocation of resources in Lebanon.

Government posts are distributed based on the appropriations of political parties and religious denominations, not merit.

Ibrahim Mneimneh, a candidate with Kelna Beirut, stressed the need for a "direct relationship" between citizens and the state. 

He told MEE it is important to remind people that seemingly opposed elements of the political class are often linked by common interests at the expense of citizens.

Civil-society activism gained momentum in 2015, when thousands of people took to the streets in Beirut in response to a garbage crisis.

The Lebanese parliament stands in the Beirut's central Nejmeh Square (Ali Harb/ MEE)
Kelna Beirut includes an array of technical experts in education, transportation, medicine, urbanism and environmentalism.

Mneimneh said in spite of a lack of media coverage the "snowball is growing" and people are beginning to look beyond the usual politics.

"We try to explain to people that the solution to their economic woes is in reclaiming the state, because the resources are there in the state, where they are being stolen and distributed by political leaders to their partisans," Mneimneh told MEE after a campaign event on Monday.

"We have to reclaim these resources, and people's rights must reach them without any clientelism."

Nariman Chamaa, a civil-society candidate in Tripoli on the Kollouna Watani slate, said if it weren't for the participation of movements demanding change, the election would be nothing more than a renewal of the old parliament's mandate.

On Tuesday, she told MEE: "We are asking the voter, 'What has your leader done for you?' Over the past 25 years, what have these leaders provided to Tripoli and to Lebanon in general… No one from this political class has truly carried the causes of citizens. So why would people re-elect these leaders again?”

Candidates from Kelna Beirut discussing their vision for Lebanon in Beirut (MEE/Ali Harb)
Some established political parties have also framed their candidates as oppositional to the status quo. For example, the Phalangists, one of the oldest political parties in Lebanon, has presented itself as a reformist power in the face of the system.

The party remained as one of the few major political forces outside the government after the election as president of Michel Aoun - a Maronite Christian and founder of the Free Patriotic Movement - practically becoming the sole opposition party in the parliament.

Former justice minister Ashraf Rifi, who abandoned his alliance with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, is also presenting himself as an alternative choice.

The Rifi-backed slate in the capital is called "The Beiruti Opposition."

Lina Hamdan, who is running for the Shia with the Beirut Opposition list, said Hariri's Future Movement, which has represented Beirut in the parliament the past nine years, has nothing new to offer.

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Rifi has been an outspoken opponent of Hezbollah, calling its armed wing an illegitimate militia that operates outside the state's structure.

"Solutions are available, but they are not being executed because of lack of political consensus," Hamdan told MEE on Wednesday. "We are saying we want to change."

Still, some remain skeptical towards calls for reforms. While agreeing that the civil-society lists are creating a new discourse in politics, Rima Majed, a sociology professor at the American University of Beirut, said the candidates are not proposing anything radically different from partisan powers.

"Corruption is because of the system of clientelism. If you have one MP, he or she will be able to control a whole structure of corruption? It's not a realistic agenda… The day you stop corruption this whole system will crumble," Majed told MEE. 

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