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What is happening to civil society in a disunited Lebanon?

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Most popular frustration is aimed at the nexus of corruption between political elites, party militias, and the legal system in Lebanon. A lack of confidence in the judicial system is attracting much activism online onto facebook pages and twitter. 

Helen Mackreath
9 July 2013

The Lebanese citizen is stuck in the middle of a maelstrom of disputes. Aside from propelling violent skirmishes across the country, the situation in Syria is misbalancing the country in far more deep-rooted ways, and shaking the already wobbly confidence in the Lebanese state to its fundaments. Whilst sectarian tensions exist, they are not uniform in their distribution or extent. The national political vacuum is percolating down through directionless MPs, increasingly prompting questions about the depth, role and freedom of an equally inchoate civil activism.

National political impasse

As questions abound about when (not ‘if’) the Syrian conflict will lead to more large-scale violence in Lebanon, the country is still meandering along with no government. Nor is there much optimism that a new government will be formed soon - all parties are continuing to put obstacles in the way of Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam carrying through the cabinet formation process.

The hierarchy of power in the country is already turned on its head (Hezbollah is arguably more powerful than the state and has been for a while, and the phenomena of weak centre and strong peripheries is nothing new here), but the layers of organization which exist beneath the government are also displaying a lack of direction. The Sunni population remains leaderless, the Lebanese Army has very scarce funding, and civil society has too many quibbles to forge an effective group.

Sectarian politics, though messy and blurred depending on where you are in the country, are up until now manifesting themselves in largely self-contained skirmishes. Tripoli, always prone to tension, is caught up in broadly sectarian warfare between Sunni fighters, the army and pro-Assad gunmen, but which is being waged more accurately, by uncoordinated private militias. The gunfight in Sidon two weeks ago between the Lebanese army, probably assisted to some degree by Hezbollah, and supporters of fiery Sunni Muslim Sheikh Assir, was condemned by the Sunni population, not necessarily a unified body at the moment.

Challenges to civil society

Unsurprisingly Lebanese civil society remains in confusion over its identity, partly apathetic owing to deepseated disillusionment with national politics, partly too complacent - too used to appeasing permanent conflict with rituals of normality, and partly overtly frustrated. However, channelling discontent remains a problem owing to the lack of clear and identifiable people to blame.

Most popular frustration is aimed at the nexus of corruption between political elites, party militias, and the legal system in Lebanon. A lack of confidence in the judicial system is attracting much activism online onto facebook pages and twitter.

The most recent civil demonstrations against the extension of Parliament, held in Nejmeh Square towards the end of June had an identifiable goal, and impassioned and determined supporters to broadcast it. But they also only attracted a few hundred people at most which, given the level of popular discontent against the government, seems scant. Maybe, writing in a week when many millions of Egyptians have been protesting both for and against Morsi, prior to the military coup, activism in Lebanon is bound to seem not a little tame at first glance.

But it would be a mistake to label Lebanese civil society as ‘weak’. Lebanon has a history of one of the strongest civil societies in the world, demonstrated by the million protestors (a quarter of the population) who rallied against Syrian intervention in the country in ‘The Cedar Revolution’ in 2005, and the demonstrations in Downtown in 2007 and 2008.

What is certainly true is that activism is less obvious on the streets today, and is operating through alternative channels such as online. It also remains largely piecemeal, coalescing around individual events rather than around a single, tangible cause.

Last Friday witnessed a feminist group embroiled in an unprovoked run-in with the bodyguards of an MP, while the peaceful demonstrations in Downtown against the extension of parliament are still fresh in the memory. The assault on the feminist collective, Nasawiya, by the bodyguards of the parliamentarian Nadim Gemayel catalysed protests of a dozen or so activists, orchestrated by social media. Following confusion around the three-car convoy parked illegally outside the group’s office, bodyguards beat up the collective and activist supporters. The next day five Nasawiya supporters were detained without charge in the local police station, leading to further protests.

Lebanese citizens are taking matters into their own hands to try to hold government officials to account when they break the law, but only in a reactive and individualistic manner. This incident also illustrates the paranoia and heavy-handedness displayed by MPs, which are further blighting public confidence and hindering any collective political strategy towards state rebuilding.

Whilst it is true that Lebanese civil society is strong and multifaceted, seeping through various channels of the free press, unions, syndicates and university clubs, the majority of it is still operating online rather than on the streets. The disunity displayed within the top political echelons, within the population (with well over a quarter of the population currently consisting of refugees), within sectarian divisions, is making for a potent yet directionless voice, increasingly frustrated yet equally hamstrung.

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