Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 28 October 2020

Lebanon protests a step towards new future, says leading lawyer

Change will take time, Melhem Khalaf, head of the Beirut Bar Association, tells The National

Melhem Khalaf, head of the Beirut Bar Association, speaks to The National in an interview on October 15, 2020. Matthew Kynaston for The National
Melhem Khalaf, head of the Beirut Bar Association, speaks to The National in an interview on October 15, 2020. Matthew Kynaston for The National

The Lebanese must keep asking for accountability from politicians who have failed to defend their interests as the country sinks deeper in economic and political crisis, the head of the Beirut Bar Association Melhem Khalaf told The National.

The politicians have “failed, and they have to take the consequences of this failure,” Mr Khalaf said in an interview on Thursday.

“They [share] power between their hands for their personal interest. And not the public interest. This is the reality.”

Lebanese political leaders “should go rest for a little and let others discuss more seriously about what needs to be done to face the crisis,” added Mr Khalaf, who described Lebanon’s sectarian consensual power-sharing system as a “veto-cracy”.

“It’s a veto against another veto. This is how the political system is running,” he said.

The Beirut Bar Association will be announcing in the coming weeks a plan to tackle the crisis, incorporating never-implemented decisions of the 1989 Taif agreement that ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.

The plan includes the creation of a sectarian-based Senate, a non-confessional Parliament, a new electoral law and a unified personal status law.

Melhem Khalaf, head of the Beirut Bar Association, says the protest movement opens the door for change in Lebanon. Matthew Kynaston for The National
Melhem Khalaf, head of the Beirut Bar Association, says the protest movement opens the door for change in Lebanon. Matthew Kynaston for The National

“When [Greater Lebanon] was created in 1920, it was decided that citizens should be linked to the state via their religious community. Today, this system has failed substantially,” said Mr Khalaf.

“We need to rebuild power,” he said. “Today, parliamentarians are legally [elected] but not legitimate anymore.”

Widespread political corruption is blamed for pushing Lebanon into its worst economic crisis.

Lebanon’s main politicians, including several former warlords who have been in power for decades, have systematically refused to implement reforms to unlock international aid despite a deep financial crisis that became apparent last summer when banks started capping cash withdrawals.

Nationwide protests are expected on Saturday to mark one year since the beginning of the anti-government movement, but the lack of political progress and worsening living conditions have discouraged many who hoped for change.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government resigned on August 11, a few days after a devastating explosion in Beirut’s port that killed nearly 200 people. Diplomat Mustafa Adib, who was nominated to succeed him on August 31, stepped down three weeks later because of political infighting.

Earlier this month, former prime minister Saad Hariri publicly stated his desire to return to the premiership, only to be rebuffed by several parties last week.

“The revolution is not an objective,” said Mr Khalaf. “It’s like a step to build a new future for our nation. It’s a platform open to all the people to make a new Lebanon without any discrimination, and without any violence.”

Mr Khalaf was elected head the Beirut Bar Association on November 17, exactly one month after protests started, despite being an independent candidate with a grand coalition of political parties against him. His term last for two years. Local media reported that lawyers chanted “revolution, revolution” as the election result was announced.

Lebanon’s judiciary is widely known for having strong links to politicians, who often interfere to protect their supporters.

For the past year, Mr Khalaf has been a tireless supporter of protesters, visiting jailed activists late at night. More recently, he worked on the release of 780 detainees over five months in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in Lebanon’s overcrowded prisons.

Mr Khalaf recognised that the high hopes of change born from the October protests have yielded few concrete results.

“The reality is yes, it will take time,” he said. “We have to fight to make some progress.”

But the Lebanese must keep pressing for political change, he argued.

“Look, that’s how you move forward: with small steps. I think that the Beirut Bar Association’s plan will be well received,” he said.

“We are in a very difficult situation. We are receiving blow after blow,” he added. “But we are trying to help the Lebanese justice system recover its self-confidence, and also give confidence to citizens.”

Updated: October 17, 2020 08:25 AM

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