Scarred by a bloody civil war that failed to make lasting changes, and occupied by both neighbours for long periods of time, the Lebanese put on shields that resisted upheavals. Most waited for better days, which arrived in 2005 with the Cedar Revolution that, regrettably, was hijacked by a corrupt political elite. Rather than heal the wounds of the past, correct socio-political errors, and forge nation-based programmes that aimed to create more wealth and diminish poverty, the Lebanese were habituated to hone their survival skills that necessitated cheating, lying, stealing and otherwise pretending that they got it all.
It would be an understatement to write that the people of this potentially dynamic society remain hostages to both political merchants as well as their own reluctance to assume the burdens of power. Like people everywhere, most are acculturated to throw their hands up, accept their fates, and grudgingly move along in an increasingly dilapidated country where electricity is a luxury and uncollected garbage, decoration. With the exception of the massive March 14, 2005, demonstrations — that assembled nearly two million Lebanese in central Beirut to oppose Syrian occupation — very few are now willing to rise against the establishment even when the latter openly steals, helps every community wallow in confessionalism and prevent the creation of a nation-state, in which, patriotism ought to be a badge of honour rather than a mere slogan.
That is until the May 2016 municipal elections, which stunned everyone, including many voters who awoke from prolonged slumbers, conscious that they could introduce meaningful reforms.
In summary, what poll results showed was that political parties were vulnerable and could be defeated, irrespective of confessional allegiances and — an important feature in this premier capitalist society — massive vote-buying incentives. Both Christian and Muslim parties suffered clear defeats and, in those instances where they won, could only achieve their goals via atypical alliances that targeted specific towns and villages. The Lebanese Forces (LF) aligned with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) in one village and fielded candidates against each other in another. They both welcomed the Phalange in one district and jettisoned the party elsewhere. Similar arrangements were made by the Future Movement, which hooked up with Islamist parties in a governorate, but opposed them in other places. Sunni and Shiite leaders welcomed alliances with avowed foes, yet distanced themselves from traditional allies, which was inexplicable. Even Hezbollah, allegedly the most disciplined political militia, entered the fray as it associated with its arch-rival, the Amal Party, in specific areas but run against it as necessary.
All of these machinations illustrated the fragility of the Lebanese political system, although, and this must be stated as clearly as possible, what truly stood out was the rise of civil society movements that build on public opposition. From Beirut to Baalbek, and from Nabatiyyah to Tripoli, voters opted for change. Sa’ad Hariri’s Future scraped the bottom in the capital and won against “Beirut Madinati” by a whisker, while Hezbollah nearly lost in Baalbek, where 49 per cent cast their ballots against it. The Lebanese Communist Party — yes, there is such a thing even if Communism is no longer in vogue — defeated both Hezbollah and Amal in the South and, of course, the bizarre Tripoli mix that assembled the city’s billionaires bowed to Ashraf Rifi and his impeccably run campaign. Rifi may have received the LF’s assistance in the North but even Samir Geagea was stunned by several setbacks in Mount Lebanon and in Akkar.
In short, what these polls revealed was that the Lebanese, or at least a growing number, were no longer willing to accept complacency. Along with civil society leaders, some demanded accountability, and while a good portion benefitted from prevalent corruption practices — for how can the phenomenon exist at the top when the mechanism requires acolytes at the bottom — others actually believed that they deserved better.
Ironically, and this is what will be revealed during the next several months, political leaders will probably resort to even more sectarian policies precisely to salvage what is left of their lingering authority. Regardless of religious affiliation, few members of the establishment are ready to endure the ire of the electorate during a scheduled 2017 parliamentary choices that could, potentially, record significant losses for current office holders. Under the circumstances, chances are excellent that this parliament will extend its own term in office for a third time in a row, for fear to lose out. In fact, smart money is on another extension for parliament, a risky proposition as time is not necessarily in favour of ageing office holders.
Whether such manipulation will accelerate the demise of the political establishment may be difficult to determine, although few ought to dismiss the building level of citizen opprobrium, which could, perhaps, see the Lebanese usher in a second Cedar Revolution to save their country.
Dr Joseph Kechichian is the author of the just-published From Alliance to Union: Challenges Facing Gulf Cooperation Council States in the Twenty-First Century (Sussex: 2016).