Romanticism Vs Realism: A Complete Guide to Lebanon’s October Revolution

Saturday 2 November 201904:36 pm

In an unprecedented move, an estimated two million Lebanese have taken to the streets in nation-wide protests that cut across sectarian lines. Unlike neighboring countries that rose up against dictatorships in what was dubbed Arab Spring, the Lebanese have transcended their divides to call for broader demands for an overhaul of the regime. The popular mobilization, which some activists insist on it being called a revolution, has started with rage and anger over the rising living cost, unemployment and corruption. Soon after it has morphed into wider calls for the resignation of the government and the appointment of a technocratic government outside of the political establishment and culminating with calls for the downfall of the whole sectarian system.

The Lebanese political system has proved to be frail, failing to provide basic services to its citizens that often resort to their sectarian safety nets to meet their needs-a strong patronage system was developed at the expense of a strong state. The plundering of the public funds has led to an economic crisis with debt to GDP standing at 150%, one of the highest in the world according to the World Bank.

The prevailing concept is that the strength of these protests comes from being leaderless. The fact that it started and remains leaderless gives it legitimacy in the eyes of the Lebanese, a country that has long been mired in sectarian conflict since its inception. The protests from all sects have risen against their parties with slogans such as “all_means_all” breaking long-held taboos where leaders are idolized and often times worshipped.

However, a leaderless revolution can sometimes lead to the demise of the cause. Despite the symbolism of the Lebanese uprising where people from all sects broke the shackles of sectarianism that has long weighed them down, revolutions are seldom exposed and manipulated by more organized factions when it lacks an apparent leadership; something that Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has indirectly mocked the current uprising for.

It is not enough to call for an overhaul of the political system and an end to sectarianism without calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah. Anything short of that means idealism and realism will remain in a standoff in the Lebanese political discourse.
With Hezbollah’s political force and demographic sway, there’s no reason why they would oppose an end to a sectarian system. Question is whether an end to a system that guarantees all sects a share of power would guarantee the rights of minorities.
Putting the ramifications of the organic nature of the protests aside, calls for a regime change- one of the core demands of the protests- are at best an idealist demand that cannot be realized in the way hopeful protests are aiming for.
The root cause of the problem that stands in the wind of change is Hezbollah's antithetical ideology to the establishment of a secular state, a reality protestors are reluctant to call out. Hezbollah enforced itself as an unshakable part of the equation.

What has Arab Spring taught us about leaderless protests? A vivid example is that of Egypt’s 2011 uprising which was hijacked by the party that was mostly organized albeit in an rather underground manner-The Muslim Brotherhood- which led to the eventual military overthrow of their rule backed by a popular uprising and the return to a dictatorship under the Sissi rule.

Putting the ramifications of the organic nature of the protests aside, calls for a regime change- one of the core demands of the protests- are at best an idealist demand that cannot be realized in the way hopeful protests are aiming for.

The common demands of the protestors reflect the long-awaited awakening that has been simmering under the flames of clientelism, patronage and nepotism. Protests have spread like wild fires from the Sunni strongholds of Prime Minister Hariri with slurs hurled against him to the Southern stronghold of Hezbollah that also saw banners of Hezbollahs ally Amal being taken down.

Lebanon has long been ruled through consensus politics. The power-sharing system, a non- written agreement attached to the constitution, was the agreed upon equation that upheld the Lebanese political system in 1943 known as the National Pact- three years before the independence from the French rule. Through this sectarian split of power the President is Maronite, Prime Minister is Sunni and the Speaker of the parliament is Shiaa. It is argued that sectarianism was further entrenched in post-war Lebanon in the Taif agreement that put an end to Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990) with an equal split of parliament seats equally between Muslims and Christians so that no sect can solely take power or eliminate other sects.

In the midst of an entrenched sectarian system that has been in play in every aspect of the Lebanese day-to-day life where people have to go through their sectarian networks to ensure access to education, employment and healthcare, calls for a breakthrough seems inconceivable.

Protest hopefuls that are calling for constitutional reforms that eliminate sectarianism seem to ignore the fact that it took the formation of the previous government where all sects had a stake almost nine months. Provided that a technocratic government was appointed, these new anti sectarian laws need to be passed in the parliament. The current parliament is a reflection of sectarian parties whose leaders themselves were warlords who assumed power following the end of the civil war which would form an oppositional block to any laws that would threaten the sectarian power sharing system. A prompt formation of technocratic government seems far fetched, let alone constitutional reforms that put an end to sectarianism, a revised electoral law and early elections.

In the middle of an entrenched sectarian patronage system that has been in play in every aspect of the Lebanese day to day life where people have to go through their sectarian security nets to ensure access to education, employment and healthcare, calls for a breakthrough seems inconceivable. A neat passage to a secular regime might not guarantee the rights of the minorities given that Hezbollah’s power outweighs all other sects combined. It is important to note here that Hezbollah’s rule has been granted the political legitimacy it needed and a Christian cover through a strategic alliance with the Christian Maronite party of the President, the Free Patriotic Movement, in a memorandum of understanding in 2006. Hezbollah has never minded a constitutional change to end sectarianism as it is reiterated by its ally, the FPM, that has long called for the end to the TAIF agreement that was accused of stripping the presidency of its executive powers and flared sectarianism despite the fact that an end to the sectarian system was one of the points on the agenda of the agreement that was never tended to.

Amid an imbalance of power, calls for an end to the sectarian power sharing system that guarantees the rights of all sects, albeit not equally in practice, might push minorities to further withdraw into their own patronage system making them more prone to sectarian prejudices in favor of the established political parties that keep reinventing themselves in the name of what they package to their audience as an “existential threat” in an attempt to consolidate their grip on power.

Despite a modest voter turnout of 49.7% in May 2018 elections, only one candidate out of the 124 was able to secure a seat from outside the political establishment as the rest of the parliament reinvented itself. We now hear calls for early elections. As the protestors accuse the political class of not hearing them, they act to annul the voices of those who still believe in the establishment and with the help of whose voices traditional parties came to power just a little over a year ago.

Protest hopefuls calling for constitutional reforms that eliminate sectarianism seem to ignore the fact that it took the formation of the previous government where all sects had a stake almost nine months. Provided that a technocratic government was appointed, these new anti sectarian laws need to be passed in the parliament. The current parliament is a reflection of sectarian parties whose leaders were warlords who assumed power following the end of the civil war, which would form an oppositional block to any laws that would threaten the sectarian power sharing system. A prompt formation of a technocratic government seems far fetched, let alone constitutional reforms that put an end to sectarianism, a revised electoral law and early elections.

Regime change involving the establishment of a secular state, an end to sectarianism and decentralization in the absence of an ideological transformation would only replicate the same political class. Reforms to the constitution do not guarantee a change in practice. A structural change needs to take place at a societal level with debates that tackle the vestiges of war that openly challenge sectarianism. It starts with a national dialogue in a public sphere that shares the lessons learned from the Lebanese civil war while laying the groundwork towards the realization of a truly Lebanese identity through a tough and honest discourse. A change of heart is necessary and any talk of change that doesn’t include a structural change at the heart of institutions is void of any real power.

Given the stated obstacles to the establishment of a secular state, calls for real change seem ambitious at best as the Lebanese have been forced to look the other way, shying away from addressing Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon and beyond. It is not enough to call for an overhaul of the political system and an end to sectarianism without also calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah coupled with educational workshops to nip sectarianism in its bud starting today. Anything short of that means that idealism and realism will remain in a standoff in the Lebanese political discourse.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Raseef22

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