New election law, third extension of Parliament draw ire

Opposition mobilises against pro-establishment political settlement

Gulf News

Beirut: Civil society groups, led by ‘You Stink’ [Til‘it Rihitqum] and ‘We Want Accountability’ [Badna Nuhasib], promised to confront the current political establishment at the ballot box, rejecting the third extension of parliament’s term as “hijacking the popular will”.

On Sunday, leaders of the group held a news conference to lodge formal protests to the violent attack near Nijmeh Square on Friday, when several members were beaten up by men in uniform as deputies gathered to debate and vote on a new electoral vote.

“We will not back down, we will remain strong,” said an activist as ‘You Stink’ leaders asserted that the third extension of parliament’s term was unconstitutional. A female activist told reporters that “staging elections does not need parliament to agree on procedures since that duty falls to the Ministry of the Interior”, which deputies, according to this interpretation, usurped.

Establishment elites reached a deal on June 1, 2017 at Baabda Palace, when President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Sa‘ad Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri sealed a deal on a new law. While the conclusion of an accord was long anticipated, and irrespective of the mechanisms involved — that is now based on proportional representation in 15 districts — civil society activists insisted that citizens were allowed by the constitution to express their opinion and to voice their anger at what many perceived as secret and undemocratic arrangements that favoured the same leaders and parties.

Protesters had gathered in front of Beirut’s imposing Ottoman-era-build municipality building at the entrance to Nijmeh Square, as representatives convened for an afternoon session that barely lasted four hours and that determined the fate of the country in coming years and decades.

Although the Speaker allocated each deputy 5 minutes, and while many failed to exercise that privilege, there were a few strong moments, including when Sami Gemayel (Phalange Party) delivered a highly critical soliloquy about the law, which upset Sa‘ad Hariri who left the hall in anger, only to return after Gemayel ended his speech.

Nijmeh Square is a security zone and access is carefully monitored though an initial claim that protesters “hurled stones, eggs and tomatoes at a number of deputies’ passing convoys” belied the facts. Videos of security forces beating protesters were posted on various social media outlets for all to see highlighted a disproportionate use of force by law enforcement personnel.

You Stink activist Assad Thebian told reporters that “confrontation is coming and accountability will be in the ballot boxes”, as he called citizens to join in fresh protests starting on Tuesday June 20, when the current Parliament’s term ends. Thebian declared that the weapon of choice for now are “rotten eggs” to remind politicians what they represent even if the deal reached by political tenors ignored civil society forces.

On Friday, lawmakers approved the country’s first proportional vote law with an overwhelming majority, but without actually voting. The voice call was theatrically imposed on parliament as the Speaker lifted the session by 6pm. The draft law includes an article that calls for an 11-month “technical extension”, which means that the next elections will be between March 20 and May 19, 2018.

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