Establishment parties reclaim control of Beirut Bar in blow for opposition groups

Lawyer Nader Gaspar voted head of the powerful union

Lebanese judges and judicial employees shout slogans as they take part in ongoing anti-government protests in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, October 26, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
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Lebanon’s established political parties have regained control of Beirut Bar Association, in a shock result about two years after the lawyers’ union was won by independent candidates in a wave of anti-establishment sentiment.

Nader Gaspar, who was backed by the Future Movement, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement, was elected president in the vote on Sunday afternoon, securing about 1,530 votes.

All nine people elected to the bar association's council of representatives were from established political parties.

The election of independent candidate Melhem Khalaf in 2019 was welcomed by anti-establishment groups and activists across the board, with many suggesting it could be indicative of wider political change.

Yet the scenes from two years ago of thousands of lawyers triumphantly chanting "thawra" – revolution – were not to be repeated, as it became clear that a lack of unity had marred opposition efforts to keep control of the Bar.

The battle for Lebanon’s powerful unions and syndicates is widely seen as a precursor to parliamentary elections due in March.

Although opposition coalitions have scored major victories, such as a landslide in the syndicate of architects and engineers in July, their efforts to maintain control of the Beirut Bar Association were marred by infighting.

An indication of better co-operation among establishment parties came when the Kataeb-backed candidate Alexander Nader withdrew before the final round of voting for the Bar’s president, in an apparent bid to avoid splitting the vote.

In contrast, opposition groups struggled to agree on candidates to back in the run-up to the vote.

Last month, independents suffered a similar setback in elections to the student council at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, losing five seats.

The Bar has a potentially significant role to play in the investigation into the Beirut port blast, as it must rule on whether or not its members can be prosecuted.

In Lebanon, lawyers enjoy immunity from prosecution, which can be lifted only by the bar association.

While some being pursued by investigating judge Tarek Bitar have immunity from prosecution as serving parliamentarians, at least one, Youssef Fenianos, is protected only by the immunity granted by the Bar Association to its members.

The next major union to hold elections is the syndicate of dentists on November 28.

Updated: November 21, 2021, 7:28 PM