North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

The dilemma of Lebanese expats: to vote or not to vote?

The shrouded line between casting a vote for change in Lebanon’s 2022 election or boycotting the system altogether

Jeffrey G. Karam
12 November 2021, 12.01am
Damaged buildings in Beirut's Gemmayze district seen from behind a pile of twisted metal in the capital's port on the one year anniversary of the Beirut blast
Elizabeth Fitt / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

On 20 November, the deadline for expats to register to vote in the upcoming Lebanese elections will pass. Around 400,000-500,000 Lebanese people have escaped the severe crises in the country over the past two years. What role will the diaspora play in the elections? And what particular challenges and issues do expats face?

On 19 October 2021, days after deadly clashes in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon’s parliament voted to bring forward elections planned for May 2022 to 27 March . The decision came at a time when the investigation into the Beirut Port explosion, led by judge Tarek Bitar, had come under attack from the political establishment, most notably Hezbollah, the country’s strongest political group and key guardian of the status quo.

It’s important to note that the ongoing discussion over the parliamentary elections has unfolded simultaneously with the recent diplomatic scuffles between Lebanon and several Gulf states – especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait – following criticism of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen by George Kordahi, Lebanon’s information minister. The recent diplomatic row threatens the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Lebanese who work in the Gulf states.

Since the outset of the 17 October revolutionary uprising in 2019, many opposition groups have repeatedly called for early elections. But will any of them succeed in presenting a viable alternative to the existing political regime amid an economic meltdown that has seen the Lebanese pound lose over 90% of its value and almost 75% of the population in Lebanon living below the poverty line?

Given that a growing number of Lebanon’s people are fleeing the country in search of new opportunities due to economic stagnation, inflation and unemployment, will the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese expats settling in new countries even exercise their right to vote in the upcoming elections? And can they assist in sparking the much-needed rupture in the everyday politics of dysfunction, cronyism and patronage that has allowed the same political class to maintain the status quo and withstand revolutionary waves?

Can we expect that most expats will revolt against traditional politics, entrenched in the sectarian allocation of seats across government and patronage networks?

Both those who stayed and those who left the country are divided as to whether it’s best to take part in the electoral process – whether by curating lists in different districts or forming short-term alliances to reach office, or by voting – or whether it’s better to simply boycott the elections. While blank vote remains a choice for many to signal disaffection, the low turnout in many electoral districts within Lebanon and in the diaspora in the 2018 elections suggests a conscious dissociation from electoral politics in a democratic process that has authoritarian facets, especially in the way that it limits effective and inclusive participation for individuals and groups outside the traditional circles of power.

For many expats, the issue is further complicated by guilt and distance, and could simply lead to a sense of disillusionment with the imagined possibility of change and reform that surfaced in October 2019 after decades of dysfunctional politics and corrupt governance.

Expats under pressure to be agents of change

The armed clashes in October 2021, the ever-growing economic crisis, the rounds of conflict between the political elite over the investigation into the 4 August explosion, the government’s persistent and intentional political unwillingness to introduce serious reforms to unlock billions of dollars in aid and loans, and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families could underscore the importance of elections and the possibility of much-needed change.

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However, can we expect that most expats will revolt against traditional politics, entrenched in the sectarian allocation of seats across government and patronage networks? Will they seek to challenge the reality of the political economy of sectarianism and patronage, given that it remains one of the reasons their loved ones are still able to survive and secure basic medical supplies and fuel needs, or simply maintain some part of their livelihoods?

In discussions with expats, many doubted that genuine political change would materialise through electoral politics in the short term. Recent drives on social media by activists – including comedians, scholars and artists – to encourage expats to register and vote are important. However, this creates pressure on expats to serve as the instigators of the much-needed change, pressure often exacerbated by the self-imposed feelings of guilt, distance, and despair that so many in the diaspora wrestle with, because they fled ‘home’ searching for a degree of normality. Many who fled after the beginning of the October uprising and amid the deepening economic crisis find that discussions about the election and the possibility of reforming the status quo trigger past traumas and memories of unmet expectations about political change.

Many expats view the run-up to the election as a process of reliving a persistent feeling of disillusionment in a chain of defeats, bolstered by the reality that the political regime has been propped up – and is still backed – by regional and international powers that will not simply vanish overnight.

Bringing everyday humiliation to the ballot box

For many expats, the choice to flee everyday political violence and humiliation at gas stations, supermarkets, hospitals and elsewhere does not necessarily translate into an immediate change in political views and affiliation. It is important to remain cautious as to whether expats are united in their disdain of the political class, especially given that they are not now facing everyday traumas and are living with some degree of normalcy and dignity.

There is the threat that conscious and unconscious notions of guilt, despair, and defeat could translate into a conviction that change will never be brought about through the ballot box

It’s clear, however, that many in the diaspora are exhausted by the perpetual cycle of reactionary strategies from groups that seek to challenge the existing political regime without offering realistic political programmes to dismantle the patronage networks that have become a fabric of society and a source of income for hundreds of thousands of Lebanese. This is not a criticism of the collective labour of the many groups that have dedicated time and energy towards finding an alternative in the last few years. Rather, it seeks to gauge whether the large and diverse expat community is convinced of the possibility of imagining a new political order that materialises from an electoral system that has routinely served the interests of the ruling class.

During the 2018 elections, almost 83,000 Lebanese expats registered with their respective embassies, and approximately 47,000 cast their ballots. According to Sawti, a platform dedicated to increasing civic participation and voter turnout among Lebanese expats, it seems that one million Lebanese expats are eligible to vote in the upcoming elections. At the time of writing, more than 109,000 expats have registered to vote. If the election is held as scheduled, will there be an increase in turnout? Will more expats feel compelled to vote, given the 2019 uprising and the small wins of alternative movements across university campuses and professional syndicates?

A new dawn of hope?

The expectation of a united opposition list against the existing political class is fundamentally unrealistic. From the outset of Lebanon’s revolutionary uprising in 2019, many opposition groups have held opposing views on calls for early elections and whether the existing political order must be reformed or completely replaced. The current tension between opposition groups rests on differences over whether elections in a sectarian and corrupt political system can spark a new dawn of hope.

The diaspora is at the same crossroads. However, many expats remain immensely active in various ways. They have established transnational networks of solidarity, staged protests outside Lebanese embassies, provided material support, such as food and supplies, to many needy families, and lobbied governments abroad to pressure the political class into introducing serious reforms.

The loss of momentum and political mobilisation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the inability to achieve immediate results after pressure in the streets, have created the same dilemma for Lebanese both at home and abroad. It seems likely that a combination of the protests, the massive Beirut port explosion, and the deepening crisis may galvanize the diaspora to take part in the elections and vote against the ruling class.

On the other hand, there is the threat that conscious and unconscious notions of guilt, despair, and defeat could translate into a conviction that change will never be brought about through the ballot box.

Time will tell what role the expats will play in the electoral process. In a global neoliberal order, the focus is on the merits of civic participation, elections, and non-violent forms of dissent, rather than other forms of mobilisation, including armed struggle and violence, that have characterised other revolutionary episodes across the globe in the recent past.

The road to effective change is marked by defeat. The elections, if and when they occur, are bound to be a source of confusion for Lebanese expats. But change may have to begin at the ballot box, even if the results are likely to be a mostly refurbished, rather than removed, status quo.

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