North Africa, West Asia

Lebanon: reflections on acts of refusal as antidote to post-election hangover

The refusal to be complicit in the state's self-preservation attempt is one of the few acts of resistance the working class could engage in without fear of vengeance by the state and its militias.

Lara Bitar
16 May 2018

Elderly woman walks past electoral campaign posters of Lebanese parliamentary candidates, in Beirut, Lebanon, 03 May 2018. Picture by Marwan Naamani/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved. “Those who did not vote in the election have lost their right to object,” asserted Lebanon's Interior Minister Nohad el-Mashnouk, who doubled as both candidate in and overseer of the recent parliamentary elections, and came out victorious on both counts — by his own account. Across the political spectrum, this sentiment is echoed amid frustration and anger at the low voter turnout in the long-awaited elections, which many hoped would create a break with the past.

In the five years since the Lebanese parliament's mandate expired in 2013, members of parliament illegally voted themselves back in three times, despite sporadic contestation from the public and opposition from grassroots initiatives like "Take Back Parliament.” Some of the pretexts for these extensions include security considerations stemming from the war raging next door in Syria and parliamentarians’ own inability to agree on a new electoral law. When one was finally approved in June 2017, the process was rushed and disregarded procedure, leading experts at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) and the Lebanese Association Democratic Elections (LADE) to conclude that the electoral law “effectively qualifies ... as a decree” that had been “imposed on voters.” 

The law, based on a system of proportionality aimed at reducing sectarian division, lacked fundamental democratic safeguards, including an independent electoral body and a campaign spending ceiling, and facilitated de facto vote-buying. And while the odds were stacked against independent candidates running in the face of opponents with their own media outlets and vast financial resources, many believed the reformed law would give independent nonsectarian parties a chance to elevate a handful of candidates willing to meet people's aspirations.

The results, however, prove that the traditional ruling class, entrenched in the political landscape for over three decades, made use of the elections to simply re-establish its legitimacy. The electoral spectacle allowed it to reassert its domination over everyday life, to then introduce new forms of control over the country's resources and population.

The bizarre alliances that were formed between old rivals on lists across the 15 electoral districts foresaw the end of alignements along the March 14 and March 8 blocs. Far from signaling a change in conditions for the majority of the population whose needs are disregarded regardless of affiliation, this shift is a routine restructuring necessary to maintain the delicate power-sharing agreement establishment parties have maintained since the end of the civil war, which also perpetuates their hold on power. 

For all the aforementioned reasons, we should not see those who withheld their participation in a deeply flawed process as apathetic and passive, but view their act of refusal as a vote in and of itself. Slightly over 50 percent of eligible voters refused to grant legitimacy to the next parliament and to the electoral process itself. In this instance, non-cooperation and the refusal to be complicit in the state's self-preservation attempt is one of the few acts of resistance the working class could engage in without fear of vengeance by the state and its militias.

In the aftermath of the elections, LADE verified hundreds of documented violations as videos of irregularities spread across a number of online platforms and more than 7,000 complaints were filed with the Interior Ministry. Civil society activists even accused the interior minister of electoral fraud, after candidate Joumana Haddad’s seat was allegedly stolen. At the behest of Haddad’s Koulouna Watani, a national coalition of independent candidates, a few hundred people protested in front of the Ministry of Interior. Despite boisterous demands for the resignation of Mashnouk and threats to hold their ground until Haddad’s seat was reinstated, when the rally’s organizers gave the order to vacate the street with a pledge to refer the case to the proper legal channels, the protesters had no choice but to disperse.  

It is worthwhile exploring the potential of a collective “No” that builds strategic refusal to engage with an unjust system. 

Independent anti-government demonstrators and civil society actors have long engaged in temporary, sporadic, and non-threatening action on the street. But what if they engaged in prolonged and sustained non-actions instead, to express dissatisfaction with the current social and economic realities and push for social transformation? Instead of shaming election abstainers and blaming them for maintaining the status quo, this act of non-compliance could be strengthened and extended to other realms. It is worthwhile exploring the potential of a collective “No” that builds strategic refusal to engage with an unjust system.

There is no doubt that there is genuine desire to overthrow the current establishment, but at the same time, there is also intentional avoidance and understandable fear of direct confrontation with the capitalist system and its political regime. Nowhere is this more visible than the disapproval of even symbolic disruptions to the flow of traffic, a frequent point of tension between non-violent and more militant protesters.

A strategy of tactical refusal, however, would require blocking circulation of all kind, namely that of capital. Organized political refusal to submit to oppressive conditions can be expressed through somewhat less visible but powerful collective work slowdowns, mass debt strikes, and the daily withholding of cooperation with institutions and systems built on coercion and exploitation.

In acts of refusal, we can start locating power from below while creating networks capable both of permanent disruption and of solidarity necessary to sustain the movement. At dissenters’ disposal are powerful and successful historical precedents and forgotten histories of boycotts, work stoppages, and economic shutdowns. In the 1920s, students, merchants, and activists boycotted the Beirut tramway system in protest against the fare price. Then again in the mid-1930s, they sustained a six-month boycott of both the tramway system and the power company, despite their reliance on both, to damage French economic interests.

Such memories can and should be deployed and mobilized to plant the seeds of a powerful act of non-compliance, the general strike, that would allow openings for material concessions by the political class and a disruption to the violent mode of governance currently in place. This is the only way I know of that could project us into a future of our own making. 

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