Lebanon's new opposition MPs swim against tide of established parties

After their symbolic win, 13 politicians will need to push for real reform, but experts say the legislators face an uphill battle

Lebanese newly elected MP Ibrahim Mneimneh addresses journalists in Beirut. The opposition movement born following the 2019 uprising managed to obtain 13 seats in the first parliamentary elections held in the country since the October Protests of 2019.  EPA
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Many of Lebanon's 13 newly elected ‘Change’ MPs arrived at parliament either on foot or in inexpensive cars on Tuesday, in contrast to those from established parties who traveled in blacked-out luxury SUVs.

The parliament was holding its second session after the May 15 elections.

“It looks like MP Michel Douaihy’s wife dropped him off,” a local anchor on the sidelines commented on live television. “This modesty is what makes these MPs so appealing to people, in contrast with the establishment parties.”

They were elected on the premise of change, justice and opposition to Lebanon's entrenched sectarian political parties.

But in a country facing problems caused by economic collapse, a regional battle for power and a corrupt, entrenched elite in place since Lebanon’s civil war, 13 activists-turned-legislators must now participate in the very system they were elected to change.

In Tuesday’s parliamentary session, the 128-member legislature was expected to nominate and elect members of its parliamentary committees — which play an important role in forming Lebanon’s laws by negotiating and approving bills before they go to parliament.

It is a vital opportunity for the 13 politicians — popularly referred to as the ‘Change' MPs — who hope to exert influence from within the committees.

Still, in the new parliament, they have found themselves in a tenuous position, given Lebanon’s ideologically divided political landscape: they neither support the Iran-backed Hezbollah nor its opposition, the Saudi-aligned Lebanese Forces, who represent the two largest opposing parliamentary blocs.

Mass anti-government protests erupted throughout Lebanon in October 2019, when signs of economic collapse first began to show. Since then, life in Lebanon has been defined by what the World Bank calls one of the worst economic crises in history. Poverty and economic hardship, shortages of basic goods and services, and an enormous explosion in Beirut's port have compounded the small Mediterranean country's troubles.

The 13 independent lawmakers acknowledge they are embarking on an uphill battle to try to bring about badly needed reforms.

“My worst fear is ending up with blockages and stalemate in governance,” says MP Marc Daou, who unseated Druze establishment figure and parliamentary veteran Talal Arslan in last month’s elections in a stunning upset.

“That’s my biggest fear because it would further destroy trust in our political institutions.”

He was talking about the lack of an absolute majority in Lebanon’s new parliament — a marked departure from the previous one, in which Hezbollah and its allies held the majority bloc. With no coalition holding a clear majority, experts fear deadlock will impede decision-making.

Effectively, this leaves the minority of Change MPs caught between the agendas of Lebanon’s established parties, while attempting to pursue their own policies.

Will internal divisions stand in the way of reform?

“All together they’re 10 per cent of parliament,” says Mohannad Al Hage Ali, a political analyst and research fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre. “It’s not really a decisive block, despite a hung parliament.”

The 13 MPs agree that Lebanon’s current ruling class — many of them sectarian former warlords, holdovers from Lebanon’s brutal 15-year civil war — are responsible for driving the country to ruin through corruption, negligence and mismanagement.

But they remain ideologically divided on a number of issues: from civil marriage, to the details of a vital economic recovery plan.

“I don’t think they’ll stay a unified group and expect about half will go towards other alliances,” said Mr Hage Ali.

Cracks in the loose coalition have already begun to show.

Last week, the first parliament session was convened to elect a Speaker of Parliament, Deputy Speaker and parliamentary bureau.

It was widely expected that the Change MPs would attempt to establish some leverage by nominating a candidate to run for the post of Deputy Speaker. But no such nomination came.

A source close to some of the 13 lawmakers said internal divisions obstructed any potential nomination.

He said MP Milhem Khalaf, who rose to fame in 2019 when he defeated establishment parties in the elections to head the Beirut Bar Association, was the top choice among the reformist lawmakers.

“Had they been able to propose his name and negotiate with other parliamentary groups they would have had a real chance to get him elected,” said the source, who declined to be named out of concern it would affect his relations with the MPs in question. “But some of them were reluctant to negotiate with other blocs [to garner votes], which paralysed the initiative.”

Ultimately, it came down to two options for the post of Deputy Speaker: Elias Bou Saab, supported by the pro-Hezbollah bloc, and Ghassan Skaff, backed by the Lebanese Forces-led camp.

The pro-change legislators voted for Mr Skaff — but even that vote was a test of their unity.

“It was the lesser of two evils,” said Mr Daou.

Lack of experience

In the eyes of some in the Change bloc, negotiating with establishment parties is a non-starter. Others see such alliances as a pragmatic means to an end.

Mr Hage Ali said: “There is a readiness by some of the MPs to enter into alliances with some establishment powers and to intersect when it comes to certain causes.”

He gave a warning that such alliances may have a polarising effect in parliament.

Last week, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea told Reuters that the new reform MPs would have little influence if they did not align with his party.

The Lebanese Forces (LF) began as an armed militia during Lebanon’s civil war and have remained as a political party ever since. Although they have styled themselves as Hezbollah’s greatest political opposition, many critics see the group as an extension of Lebanon’s civil war-era oligarchy.

An LF representative echoed Mr Geagea’s comments: “The new Change ministers should think strategically and be careful not to split votes. That will only benefit the established powers.”

Naji Abou Khalil, a member of the National Bloc — a decades-old secular party that ran in last month’s parliamentary elections, told The National that the Change coalition needs a unified but tangible strategy.

Although the National Bloc didn’t gain seats in last month's election, they maintain good relations with some MPs in the Change coalition.

Mr Abou Khalil, who is on the executive committee of the political party, told The National that the National Bloc would support the Change camp.

“We are working on providing technical assistance on drafting legislation, putting laws together, and so on,” he said.

The Change MPs are aware of their relative lack of experience in the parliamentary landscape, Mr Daou told The National. He said the MPs were — individually and as a group — meeting with various experts, former MPs, and NGO lobbies to hash out strategies.

“It’s just about organising our structure,” he said. “And aligning our MPs together despite our different perspectives.”

In contrast to last week’s parliament session, where most of the Change MPs ultimately voted for veteran politician Mr Skaff, the bloc entered Tuesday’s parliamentary session with a clear message.

Several MPs made public assurances that there would be no negotiation with establishment parties in exchange for seats at parliamentary committees.

“We are trying to change the status quo where ministers agree in dark rooms under the table,” MP Waddah Sadek told the press before entering the parliament building. “We want people to be elected to committees based on their experience, not on their political party affiliations.”

But the session to elect members of the various committees could last days, and it remains to be seen whether the reformist lawmakers will get sizeable roles in them.

In the meantime, Mr Hage Ali maintains it is too early to know how these 13 legislators will perform.

“The question is this: Where can they deliver? And if they don't deliver what will happen? It would be quite easy for people to go back to the traditional establishment.”

Asked by The National if the Change bloc felt the weight and hope of a collapsing nation on their shoulders, Mr Daou replied: “Yes.”

Updated: June 09, 2022, 9:48 AM