Lebanon can't rely solely on civil society to bring change in the country

With elections on May 15, it remains to be seen what gains civilian candidates make against the political class

Lebanese protesters during anti-government demonstrations on the outskirts of Beirut, on October 27, 2019. AFP
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Earlier this month, the deadline was reached for presenting candidate lists for Lebanon’s parliamentary elections on May 15. The main takeaway was that the opposition, mostly made up of civil society groups, failed to form unified lists, with one notable exception. That means opposition candidates will go into the elections divided, giving an advantage to the lists prepared by the country’s political leadership, which the opposition aims to unseat.

There had been much hope, both in Lebanon and abroad, that civil society would make gains against the corrupt political class. While opposition candidates, who were motivated to challenge established politicians in the wake of the popular uprising of October 2019, are likely to win some seats, this will be too little to change anything. The Lebanese political class is resilient, aided by the short memories of voters whom the politicians effectively robbed.

That said, Lebanese civil society is remarkable, both for its pluralism and energy. However, it would be a mistake to overstate its capacities. Pluralism also means fragmentation, reflecting the fundamental nature of Lebanon’s social makeup. Civil society groups that are expected to change the country’s social and political landscape also happen to be among the divided system’s most typical emanations.

Downtown Beirut, Lebanon, November 30, 2021. Lebanon has been suffering from a severe political and economic crisis for two years. EPA

The reason why civil society in Lebanon is so vigorous is that those pursuing political or social objectives have always had a strong impulse to circumvent the state and those who control it. Because the political class has resisted anything that might threaten its prerogatives and power, those wanting to achieve anything have done so outside the realm of state institutions.

This has been helped by a fairly liberal Ottoman law from 1909 that allows people to form associations without having to seek prior state approval. In a noteworthy case, in the early 1990s an election monitoring group, called the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (Lade), established itself under that law. The interior minister at the time, Michel Murr, tried to impose prior approval and block Lade. The group effectively ignored him and began monitoring elections anyway, winning that battle.

After the Lebanese uprising of October 2019, there was speculation that the traditional political leadership had suffered a decisive setback. This belief only hardened as the economic system collapsed starting that November, and declined further in the years that followed. Last year, the World Bank described the economic crisis as “likely to rank in the top 10, possibly top three, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-19th century.”

In this dire economic context, there was some confidence that civil society candidates would make a breakthrough in elections, given the potential for popular anger at the politicians who plundered the state and brought about the economic collapse. However, the traditional leaders also exploited this situation to use the crisis as a way of dispensing patronage and assistance to the vulnerable, thereby creating greater dependency.

This has been a major factor lowering the chances of civil society lists to make substantial electoral gains. Another has been the electoral law itself. Lebanon votes on the basis of a proportional law, with a threshold determined by dividing the number of votes by the number of seats in a constituency. That means that if there is a high number of voters in a voting district, the threshold can rise to a level that eliminates most independent lists.

The upcoming elections are also expected to give a better sense of how the Lebanese diaspora will vote. There are twice as many registered diaspora voters this year as in the 2018 elections. However, whether the diaspora is more likely to vote for civil society lists or party lists remains unclear. Certainly, some parties, such as the Free Patriotic Movement led by Gebran Bassil, expect a strong vote in their favour, but there is also much outrage overseas at the behaviour of the political class, so surprises are likely.

The problem is that by not unifying their efforts and forming joint lists, civil society groups have shot themselves in the foot. In several key districts, including Beirut I and Baabda, civil society lists will be competing against one another, which will only benefit the traditional political forces. The reasons for this inability to come together include clashing egos and the willingness of some groups, and the unwillingness of others, to form alliances with traditional political parties that had supported the 2019 uprising.

One civil society list that will be worth watching, however, is the list running in the South Lebanon III district, where the two major Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal, are dominant. This list alone unified all civil society groups active locally, in an area that has suffered greatly from the economic crisis. If voters are not intimidated, one can expect surprising breakthroughs. It would be an irony if civil society shows its true potential in an area where the established political parties may well use force to prevent them from gaining.

Published: April 13, 2022, 4:00 AM