Lebanon protests one month in: Demonstrators score electoral win but politicians still deadlocked

Independent Melhem Khalaf elected to lead Beirut Bar Association as uprising enters its second month

Protesters gesture as they wave flags at a demonstration during ongoing anti-government protests in Beirut, Lebanon November 17, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
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As Lebanese politicians seemed to be caught in a disastrous deadlock on Sunday, the anti-establishment protest movement scored its first electoral win, voting in an independent to lead the Beirut Bar Association.

Melhem Khalaf won by a comfortable margin against Nader Gaspard, a candidate backed by the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanese Forces, Progressive Socialist Party and the Future Movement.

Pierre Hanna, previously backed by the LF, PSP and Future Movement, withdrew his candidacy in favour of Mr Gaspard to try to secure his win.

“We hope this day will renew democracy within Lebanon’s institutions,” Mr Khalaf said in his victory speech.

Until now, the Beirut Bar Association had not taken a formal stance on the month of mass protests against corruption, poor governance and a crumbling economy.

epa08004125 Lebanese protesters light up their phones, shout slogans and carry the national flags next to a fist-shaped banner reading 'Revolution' during a protest call The Peaceful Challenge, in Martyr Square, downtown Beirut, Lebanon, 17 November 2019. Protests continue in Lebanon since first erupted on 17 October, as protesters aim to apply pressure on the country's political leaders over what they view as a lack of progress following the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on 29 October.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH

But as Mr Khalaf’s name was announced, many in the crowd of lawyers at the tally cheered and broke into chants of "thowra", or revolution.

Meanwhile, a plan by parties to form a new government to tackle the dire economic situation and address the demands of protesters appeared to fall apart.

Two days after he was chosen by Lebanon’s most powerful political parties to be the country’s next prime minister, veteran politician Mohammad Safadi withdrew his candidacy on Saturday evening.

As the country faces a possible “total economic meltdown with potential violence”, its political system is “completely paralysed” by the mass protests that started on October 17, analyst Imad Salamey said.

After resigning on October 29, caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri had reportedly agreed to meet protesters half-way by forming a small government of technocrats.

An apolitical government is one of the key demands of protesters. Triggered by a suggested tax on WhatsApp calls, the protest movement quickly became a rejection of the entire Lebanese political system, based on sectarianism.

But Mr Hariri’s proposal was reportedly dismissed by President Michel Aoun, who wants politicians to be part of the new government.

epa08004127 Lebanese protesters shout slogans and carry the national flags during a protest call The Peaceful Challenge, in Martyr Square, downtown Beirut, Lebanon, 17 November 2019. Protests continue in Lebanon since first erupted on 17 October, as protesters aim to apply pressure on the country's political leaders over what they view as a lack of progress following the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on 29 October.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH

In a meeting on Thursday evening, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement  founded by Mr Aoun, Lebanon’s two Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal, and Mr Hariri all agreed on Mr Safadi’s nomination.

Lebanon’s prime minister must be Sunni Muslim, according to the country’s sectarian power-sharing system.

But picking Mr Safadi, 75, a billionaire with strong ties to the country’s elite, to lead a government that would include other familiar politicians was a slap in the face for protesters, who rejected the proposal.

Mr Safadi, an MP for 18 consecutive years, held key ministerial positions between 2005 and 2014. Like Mr Hariri, he made his fortune in real estate.

Adding insult to injury, it was caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the most unpopular politician with protesters, who said parliamentary consultations would begin on Monday and would confirm Mr Safadi’s nomination as new prime minister.

Mr Bassil, who has aspirations to succeed his father-in-law as president, is regarded by protesters as representative of one of the worst aspects of Lebanese politics: nepotism.

Mr Bassil took over leadership of the FPM from the president in 2015.

But nepotism is not limited to the FPM. Mr Hariri inherited his position from his father, Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.

Parliament is made up of political dynasties, long-time politicians and their relatives.

Mr Bassil's announcement immediately led to attacks from Mr Hariri’s party, the Future Movement, which accused him of overstepping his powers.

Parliamentary consultations should normally be announced by the country’s president, not a caretaker minister.

Mr Bassil's office argued that local media had distorted his words, the Lebanese daily L'Orient-Le Jour reported.

Analysts have suggested that choosing Mr Safadi in a closed-door meeting was unconstitutional, although opaque procedures are standard practice in filling top posts in Lebanese politics.

A Lebanese anti-government protester shakes hands with another supporter from a "revolution" bus on a cross-country trip from the north to the south of the country, as it was met with counter-protesters in the southern city of Sidon on November 16, 2019. The "revolution" bus took off in Tripoli in the north of Lebanon on a coastal ride towards the south, and is partially aimed at countering the stigma surrounding an attack on a similar bus in 1975 in Beirut's Ain al-Rummaneh area that is said to have triggered the Lebanese civil war which fragmented the country. / AFP / Mahmoud ZAYYAT

Even Ibrahim Al Amine, editor in chief of Al Akhbar, a newspaper close to Hezbollah, which has accused protesters of receiving funding from abroad, questioned the FPM and Hezbollah's agreement in an article on Saturday titled: "Those who thought of the Safadi option, suggested it or accepted it, are crazy."

By Saturday evening, Mr Safadi had withdrawn his candidacy.

He said it would be “difficult to form a harmonious government supported by all political sides that could take the immediate salvation steps needed to halt the country’s economic and financial deterioration, and respond to the aspirations of people in the street”.

Mr Safadi also said he hoped Mr Hariri would return as premier to form a new government.

As politicians bicker over power, others have used the threat of a new civil war.

Mr Hariri condemned the FPM, saying Mr Safadi’s name had not been used as a pretext to build support for him to return as prime minister in the next government.

“Prime Minister Hariri does not manoeuvre and does not seek to limit the possibility of forming a government to himself,” his office said.

“He was the first to present alternative names to form a government. He was clear, from the first day of the government's resignation, with all the representatives of the parliamentary blocs, that he does not evade any national responsibility.”

Mr Hariri also said Mr Safadi’s name had been put forward by Mr Bassil, whereas the prime minister was pushing for Nawaf Salam, a judge at the International Court of Justice and formerly Lebanon’s ambassador to the UN.

Caretaker Defence Minister, Elias Bou Saab, said on Thursday that the country was in a “very dangerous situation”.

But protesters refuse to back down.

“Politicians love saying how dangerous the situation is because they want people to be too afraid to protest,” said Alaa Sayegh, an activist from the LiHaqqi political movement created in 2017.

“They want the situation to go back to what it was like before October 17, but there is no bigger danger than the same political parties staying in power because they brought Lebanon to economic ruin."

The source of Lebanon’s deadlock is the dichotomy between Hezbollah and its allies’ strong grip on local politics resulting from the 2018 parliamentary elections, and the country’s economy that relies on Arab and western support, Mr Salamey said.

One of the most indebted countries in the world, Lebanon needs international help as it faces imminent economic collapse.

But donors would be reluctant to help a government dominated by Iran-backed Hezbollah, designated a terrorist group by the US.

Lebanon is suffering from a liquidity shortage that has led to banks limiting daily withdrawals, causing difficulties for importers.

As a result, there is a shortage of basic goods such as fuel and medication, and prices in supermarkets have increased in some areas by up to 20 per cent.

Mr Salamey said the only solution for Lebanon was to establish a “new political formula” that is not beholden to the outcomes of the elections in 2018.

“The situation hinges on Hezbollah and the FPM’s willingness to make serious concessions in that direction,” he said.

But on Sunday, Hezbollah signalled that it was not yet open to concessions.

“There are those who deliberately lay mines in the path of forming a government and whose goal is to change the political equations between the country’s main forces,” said senior Hezbollah official Nabil Qawouq.

“Lebanon will not be a government of American dictates."