Lebanon: the last conservative regime in the region?

Several Lebanese politicians and commentators have proudly presented the Arab revolutionary movements as an extension of the March 2005 uprising in Beirut. They are quite wrong.

What is happening in the Arab world is extraordinary and unprecedented. The revolutionary wave that has toppled two regimes thus far, and destabilized the status quo of others, is enjoying widespread currency among the Arab population, young and elderly alike. While Arab politics was often framed by a “what’s next” approach with reference to the atrocities of wars (Iraq, Palestine…), violation of human rights, and division of states (like the Sudan), today the question has dramatically changed to “who’s next?”. The candidates are numerous. Is Lebanon one of them?

In light of recent events in the Arab world, several Lebanese politicians and commentators have proudly presented the Arab revolutionary movements as an extension of the March 2005 uprising in Beirut following the dramatic assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri on February 14 2005, known as the Independence Uprising - Intifadat Al Istiqlal. They believe that the “Beirut spring” of 2005 has inspired Arab young people to revolt against oppression and take over the streets in order to claim back their stolen freedom. But the “05 intifada” in Lebanon, for multiple reasons, is far from being even an embryonic revolution. It is actually contrary to what a revolution should look like.

First, the uprising in Beirut was appropriately called from the outset ‘Intifadat al Istiqlal’ or the ‘Independence Uprising’. The word ‘revolution’ was only used when the American administration confidently praised the Lebanese and supported their “Cedar Revolution” (in a press conference on February 28 by US Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky). By contrast with the lack of influence the west appears to have over the revolutions unfolding in the Arab world, there was direct US interest in and support for the ‘Cedar Revolution’. In Lebanon, no calls were made to change the regime or to propose a reform project. The events in Lebanon were primarily driven by opposition to the Syrian presence in Lebanon and called for the truth behind the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The overarching objective of the mobilization was the withdrawal of the Syrian troops in Lebanon deployed since 1975-76.

The current Arab revolutionary movements have a clear objective: to topple an oppressive regime (Egypt, Libya, Yemen…) or at least pressure it to radically change its domestic policies (Jordan…). Societies are targeting their regime after decades of continuous oppression of society by the state. In 2005, the Lebanese did not protest against their regime, instead they protested with the regime (part of it at least) against another regime (the Syrian regime). The Future Movement (FM) and the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) who were the main leaders of the 2005 movements, were part of almost every post-war government in Lebanon since 1990.

Arab politics have been characterized by the ‘personalization’ of power: so recent movements have sought not only to change the regime, but they have also insisted on bringing down the head of the regime. Pictures of Husni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali became the focus of popular hate and anger, giving those movements a highly personalized dimension. In Lebanon, the protests were also personalized. Yet they were largely in favour and in defense of the ‘martyr President’ Hariri, whereas today’s protests are being made against the ‘murderer and corrupt’ persons of Ali Abdallah Saleh (Yemen) or Muamar El-Qaddafi (Libya).

True, the movements in 2005 and 2011 looked similar: protests and vigils were held in the main squares, namely in the Martyrs’ Square in Beirut and the Tahrir Square in Cairo. The similarities however, end here. Unlike today’s upheavals, the 2005 demonstrations were extremely slick operations. Its banners and slogans were in fact commissioned and meticulously designed by the advertising agency Satchi and Satchi. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were barely able to write their slogans and words on makeshift boards.

And what of the leadership of these movements? There was rather an absence of clear leadership in the revolutionary movement of Egypt. In fact, it was rare to see anyone taking the podium to address the public in Tahrir Square during those momentous days. By contrast, in Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut, nearly every single politician of the March 14 group was granted the chance to take the floor and give a speech in an astonishing ‘speech-sharing’ formula. As a result, Lebanon did not see the emergence of “young leaders” who perhaps could have generated a new political dynamic in the country. Lebanon instead saw members of the most dominant political movement(s) - the Youth branch of the FM and PSP, who had never previously mobilized against the Syrian presence in Lebanon (1990 – 2005) – take it upon themselves to speak on behalf of those young people who had been involved in contesting the Syrian presence in Lebanon, marginalizing them as a result. In Egypt, primarily through such virtual spaces of communication as Facebook and Twitter, several young people have been identified as leaders of the revolution and considered the vanguard responsible for breaking the grip of fear on the Egyptian population (Blogger Wael Ghonim is Egypt’s famous example).

In the light of these differences, can we say that Lebanon still needs its own revolution? Indeed, it does; but what kind of revolution? Against whom and for what?

For a long time, pre-war Lebanon was considered an ‘anomaly’ in Arab state typology. In fact, the Arab state’s reputation for its ‘hard and fierce’ character was only reinforced through the oppression of its societies and the elimination of all kinds of protest against its fragile legitimacy, through the use of state violence and coercion and the expulsion or imprisonment of intellectuals. Conversely, in Lebanon the army and/or the police have been generally regarded as neutral in dealing with society, and instrumental therefore in shaping the non-violent nature of the state. Lebanon has always enjoyed a vibrant civil society, regular elections, freedom of expression, free journalism etc. But this has proved insufficient to bring about a democratic system in Lebanon.

In the post-war period, Lebanon’s political life enjoyed a certain diffused authoritarianism whereby elections were little more than social events, since, except for a handful of parliamentary seats out of the 128 total, the names of the deputies were known beforehand. Syria monopolized Lebanese political life with the consent of the sectarian ruling Lebanese oligarchy.

In the post-2005 period, political life changed slightly, thanks to the Independence Uprising, which led primarily to the creation of a political public opinion. However, public debate is still trapped in broader issues, mostly in relation to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on the one hand and Hezbollah’s arms on the other. Talk of revolution against one of both would then simply feed the fire of civil war in Lebanon. In Lebanon, violence such as that in Libya directed against the regime’s oppression of society, would necessarily be turned into violence by one part of society against another part of the same society. Is it then impossible for revolution to take place?

Political debate in Lebanon, it has been argued, is intrinsically based on sectarian considerations, rendering all manifestations of democratic life subject to sectarian alignment. In 2010, issues such as granting civil rights to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon destabilized the hardcore political division between March 8 (led by the Shia’a group the party of God, Hizballah and the Christians Free Patriotic Movement) and March 14 (led by the Sunni Future Movement and Christian Lebanese Forces and Kataeb Party), and reshaped it in terms of sectarian interests. The lowering of the legal voting age from 21 to 18 produced similar effects since most of the 21 – 18 potential voters are Shi’a and this would have an impact on the current demographic balance between religious sects. Throughout the years, the political leadership has managed to link the interests of its constituencies to their religious identities. Revolting against Hezbollah’s arms would be interpreted as targeting the Shi’a community; toppling the President of the Republic would be interpreted as targeting the Maronite community (ie. the movement against former President Lahoud in 2005-2006). Thus, any momentum towards revolution (of any kind), is soon diverted and captured by confessional political groups who tend to absorb, assimilate and thus jeopardize its progress.

It seems therefore that any type of revolutionary transformation in Lebanon is already a lost cause before it begins. But this is not because Hezbollah is an unbeatable force, or because the economic policies of the government guarantee Lebanese stability. In fact, questions related to the socio-economic daily needs and interests of Lebanon’s citizens have been completely overshadowed by the polarization of political life that has led to the institutional deadlock of the country. One of the more successful strategies of the Lebanese political oligarchy has been its ability to keep a strong alliance going with civil society, whereby political society is at the same time part of civil society. Post civil-war politics has been characterized by the dichotomy between resistance (Hizballah’s arms) and the economy (reconstruction). As a result, revolting against socio-economic policies would immediately be considered an attack on the Hariri legacy, and vice-versa.

It is well known that the Lebanese suffer from a high degree of clientelism and corruption, degradation in services, such as electricity and water, as well as very expensive telecommunications, not to mention the recent steep rise in real estate prices. Can a solution be found in rebelling against the sectarian political system? Perhaps. However nothing would prevent one political group, explicitly representing a religious community, from joining the movement in order to challenge a rival political group. Perhaps the Lebanese should concentrate less on rebelling against their political system and more on the underpinnings of the oligarchy (the political elite). By learning from the shortcomings and pitfalls of the 2005 Independence Uprising, any future attempt by the Lebanese to change their socio-economic situation should begin by calling for a clear division to replace the blurred boundaries between the political oligarchy and the civil society. For it is only when the vertical coalition between the oligarchy and the society (part of it) based on sectarian belonging, is replaced by a horizontal coalition amongst the citizens themselves that any revolutionary transformation would likely become possible.

Lately, calls have been made advocating for civil marriage in Lebanon as an alternative to the only available ‘single-faith’ religious marriage. Advocating civil marriage in Lebanon might be compared to opposing Muammar Qaddafi the father but accepting Seif the son, or similarly, rejecting Husni Mubarak and accepting Gamal. It is the whole that needs to be reconsidered, not separate components of the political system.

Last Sunday, a group of young Lebanese launched a campaign to bring down the sectarian system, inspired by the recent fall of regimes in other Arab countries. In order for this movement to succeed it has to separate and protect itself from the oligarchy, against whom its goals should be directed. Until that day comes, the Lebanese can only look to the Arab revolutions with distant admiration, because it looks like their country will probably be the last conservative regime in the region. 

About the author

Jamil Mouawad is a PhD candidate in politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). His research focuses on the nature of the state in Lebanon.