Reformers in Lebanon face a difficult task


In Lebanon, the reformers have achieved a notable victory: They send 13 MPs to parliament while a Hezbollah ally suffered losses. A chance to lead the country out of the crisis?

Election workers shortly before their deployment in the village of Hula, southern Lebanon, May 2022

For them it is a triumph: Representatives of the opposition protest movement won 13 seats in Lebanon's parliamentary elections. In particular, they wrested this from the bloc led by the Shiite militia Hezbollah, which only sends 62 deputies to parliament. In the 2018 elections, he had won 71 of the 128 seats.

However, Hezbollah, which is closely linked to Iran, was able to hold its own seats. The losses were at the expense of their partners, particularly the Christian Free Patriotic Movement led by President Michel Aoun.

Overall, however, this means that the bloc around Hezbollah has lost its parliamentary majority. He is now facing increased pressure from other major parties, such as the Christian Forces Libanaises (FL) under Samir Geagea. Immediately after the election, the FL tried to present themselves as the most important force for reform with sometimes shrill slogans. They have long been part of the Lebanese power struggle – in parliament and formerly also as the civil war militia – and many Lebanese consider them part of the establishment. Above all, they do not belong to the camp of younger reformers.

Lebanese military patrol in front of Hezbollah posters, southern Lebanon, May 2022

Operation against “corrupt projects”

The young reform forces were formed in autumn 2019 against the background of a deep national crisis characterized by political stagnation, corruption and a massive economic decline. This is reflected, for example, in the fall of the Lebanese pound, which lost around 90 percent of its value. The crisis was exacerbated by the explosion of a granary in the port of Beirut in August 2020, killing over 200 people – in the eyes of many Lebanese a symbol of the incompetence of the established political class. According to the United Nations, three quarters of the Lebanese population now live below the poverty line. The 13 reformists elected to parliament now want to tackle these abuses. That's what they promised before the election.

“Look what they did to us: no electricity, no water, they took our money away from us, they buried us under the rubbish,” says chemist Najat Saliba, newly elected MP for the newly founded Taqqadum reformist party. (“Progress”), in an interview with DW. The  established politicians are failures in their eyes: “If they haven't achieved anything for 60 years, they won't achieve anything now either!” At the same time she promises:  “We reformers will appear in parliament as opposition – and we will veto all corrupt projects of the representatives of the old parties.”

Against the political establishment: Najat Saliba from “Taqqadum”

How united is the opposition?

However, it is unclear to what extent the 13 reformers elected to parliament could actually form a coherent opposition force and speak with one voice, says Heiko Wimmen, project director of the International Crisis Group for Lebanon, Syria and Iraq based in Beirut. “Because they have very different ideas on many things: What about cooperation with Hezbollah? For some in the reform camp, that might be conceivable, but others would have serious problems with it.”

In addition, the reformers are faced with another problem: Despite all the dissatisfaction, most Lebanese voters still voted for representatives of the established parties – and thus in fact, if perhaps unintentionally, voted overall for maintaining the status quo. This is not surprising, according to the political scientist. “One has to consider that the country is completely bankrupt.” Many people, including those in the public sector, have a very small income that is barely enough to survive.

Many people are primarily concerned with ensuring their economic survival. So they looked for political representatives whom they trust to protect at least some of their interests in the existing clientele system. “And of course they continue to trust those who are in power the most. Because in this position they can still do the most for their voters. You know the reaction and the performance of the established politicians – but those of the new ones are still known not.”

Protest rally against policies of Lebanese banks, Beirut, September 2021

< h2>Mobilization through distrust

Regardless of such difficulties, the reformers are resolute: “We need a financial and economic recovery plan to save this country, our economic crisis is very deep,” said Mark Daou, also a newly elected MP from Taqqadum. to DW. It is also important to get the problem of the many weapons in Lebanon under control, he says. This applies in particular to the Hezbollah militia, which is said to be militarily much more powerful than the regular Lebanese army. 

But even such commitment requires what is sorely lacking in Lebanon: the Lebanese's trust in their state. For a long time, the established parties in the confessional-divided country have therefore relied on what they see as a proven strategy, says Heiko Wimmen – namely, to stir up fear of the other. Some sectarian parties have continually scared their supporters of each other's claims to power, with claims such as that the Shiites want to turn the country into an Iranian colony, according to the International Crisis Group expert persuaded that the Sunnis and the Christians wanted to make a pact with Saudi Arabia and the USA in order to then hand the country over to Israel. This rhetoric is mobilized again and again – and it works,” says the German expert: “Tackling it is for the reform forces is now the central task, but one that is also very difficult to master.”

Editorial assistance: Razan Salman, Beirut


Watch the video 01:51 < h2>Crisis-stricken Lebanon elects new parliament