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Lebanon heads to polls amid fear and hope

  • Priyanka Navani
  • 14 May 2022

A crucial election in the cash-strapped country offers hope of a recovery for the battered economy. But some voters fear things can get even worse.

A host of independent candidates are vying for parliamentary seats in a challenge to well-established political players. ( AP )

Lebanon is gearing up for crucial parliamentary elections on May 15, amid a reshuffling of the traditional voting scene that does not include veteran politician Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, but does include several independent candidates who hope to bring much-needed change to the country. 

The country has undergone dramatic changes on the political and economic fronts since 2018, the last time elections were held. 

Popular anti-government protests in 2019 forced large segments of the population to rethink their faith in the ruling political class, many of whom have ties to the country’s 1975-1990 civil war. 

The Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies currently hold a parliamentary majority after winning 71 of 128 seats in 2018, but voters hope to replace them with independent candidates who they believe will be able to steer the country towards, at least, some stability that hasn’t been seen in years. 

Following the protests, the local currency lost value, and Lebanese banks restricted dollar withdrawals, leaving many to cope with deteriorating living conditions with no safety net. This—coupled with drawn-out IMF negotiations and a precarious security situation—has forced the Lebanese to rest their hopes solely on elections for a chance at change.

For Beirut resident Tariq—who wants to be identified only by his first name—this election is a conundrum: he has a lot at stake, and yet he feels there’s little left to lose. 

Tariq was only 17-year-old when he left Syria, where he was born to Lebanese expats, to test his luck in Lebanon. The year was 1977, and though he had never lived in Lebanon, the market looked promising. 

“I was looking forward to it because although there was a war here, I was under pressure from my family to run my father’s business [in Syria]. So I came here to continue my studies and to work,” Tariq says.

Working during the war was anything but easy—security checkpoints made getting around difficult, and rocket fire could be heard for days on end—but it didn’t matter. He was young, fit, and armed with a certain smugness that made  failure, in his mind, impossible. 

Perhaps it was due to that confidence—and a self-confessed love for adrenaline—that he decided he could make more money selling cigarettes. 

At the time, it was rare to trade tobacco between a predominantly Christian East Beirut and a mostly Muslim West Beirut. After all, the risks were high: if it was found out he was Christian in a Muslim area—particularly the Palestinian camps he was doing business in—he could easily be killed by gunmen. Or they could have robbed him and held him a hostage.

Still, it was more money than he could make elsewhere, so he spent three years between 1979 and 1981—the very height of the war—peddling between distributors and clients. 

“At that time, I had no fear. If I die, I die. I didn’t have a wife or kids. If they take my money, I’ll make more. But I knew that after I got married, I would think three times, ten times, before anything like that. But when you’re in your early age, you don’t have fear,” he says. 

The job paid off in the long run. A friend saw the street-smart work he was doing and recommended Tariq to a multinational company, where he would spend the next 40 years travelling and doing business across the world.  

However, for Tariq, now 64, Lebanon has always remained home, and memories of the country’s civil war are still haunting. And they’ve gotten worse in the last three years. 

“When I see political parties shouting and screaming about other religious parties in places like Ain al Romeneh—where the war started—it makes me worried about what’s to come. Any tension that happens between any two religious sects—Sunni or Shia, Christians or Druze, Muslims or Christians—it reminds me of the war, and it makes me afraid it will start again.”  

Though he has only voted a handful of times in his life, he’s turning up for this year’s elections, if only to clear his conscience. 

"Honestly, it took me a long time to decide if I'm going to vote because those of us who don't have strong political ties don't really think about it. But how can I say, 'oh the country is in shambles' and then do nothing? There's less opportunity now than there was during the (civil) war. Then, we didn't have security. Now, there's no money,” he adds. 

A nation divided 

Lebanon’s unique political structure stipulates a sectarian power-sharing agreement wherein the parliament, and other government offices are distributed on religious grounds: the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament Shia Muslim. 

The system is apparently aimed at preserving a balance between factions that have taken up arms against each other in a country where Sunnis and Shia account for just under a third of the population each. Christians make up an estimated 40 percent. 

While the agreement precedes the civil war, this confessional system of power sharing—and the warlords it arguably helped to produce—survived the war, further codifying its existence in Lebanon’s future, despite its obvious limitations. 

The years between the end of war in 1990 and 2019 saw nearly thirty years of shifting alliances and all-around political gymnastics between the country’s major political parties. 

But it did little for Lebanon’s economy or its infrastructure, which was in shambles and needed repairs. By October 2019, Lebanese took to the streets to protest the ruling political class that they accused of decades of mismanagement, nepotism, and corruption. 

Saad Hariri, prime minister at the time, stepped down to make room for a more technocratic government. But it was too little too late: the local currency had already begun to lose value, the government was stifled by political redlining, and then there was the explosion.  

In 2020 Lebanon saw massive street protests and demonstrations.(AP)

In August 2020, a massive amount of ammonium nitrate exploded at the Port of Beirut, leaving over 200 people dead, and thousands more injured. The protest movement, which had been gradually moving into the shadows, came back with renewed vengeance, demanding accountability and justice for those killed. 

After a few months, protesters once again retreated: both the lack of progress and aggressively deteriorating economic conditions in Lebanon, made it difficult to continue. Around 80 percent of the population has fallen below the poverty line. 

Still, election chatter was never far away, and the millions of Lebanese living in the diaspora began organising like never before. 

Back on the homefront, it wasn’t only the economy in flames, but also sectarian tensions: in October of 2021, a protest over the handling of the Beirut Port blast investigation turned deadly, with 13 people dying in a flareup of violence between Hezbollah and the Christian Lebanese Forces party—something that the city hadn’t seen in a decade. 

In April, the moment Lebanese had held their breath for years: the electoral lists of the potential candidates were published - it was a sneak peek into the independent candidates who could make an impact in parliament. 

That left much to the imagination: opposition candidates had largely failed to unite, leaving voters both equally disappointed and confused. Some independent candidates had chosen to run with traditional political parties in order to tackle issues that they deem most important, like disarming Hezbollah, for example. 

But others steered clear, saying every political party was responsible for Lebanon’s decline, including and most pressingly, the decline of the currency; the lack of fuel and electricity; and the fact that citizens’ savings are currently frozen by the banks.

Independent candidates aren’t the only wildcard in these elections. The Future Movement, a popular Sunni bloc party headed by Saad Hariri and founded by his father, the assassinated ex-PM and billionaire businessman Rafic Hariri, is boycotting the elections, throwing into question where hundreds of thousands of Sunni votes might go. 

Plus, there are the Lebanese expats, who had cast their votes on May 6 and 8, and came out in three times the number they did in 2018, which, given Lebanon’s size, could also impact the end result. 

Looking ahead

Many Lebanese citizens are feeling the weight of the situation in Lebanon, and say they, too, fear unrest. But they’re also divided on the way forward. 

"Most young people have only heard stories about the civil war from our parents—this dark period in Lebanon where people were walking on unsteady ground. Yes,  it feels like that now, but I don't see that changing from elections," says Sara, a Beirut resident who has decided not to vote in this year’s elections. 

But others, like Tariq, say voting is the only way. 

“I don't think you can find one person that is happy that this is the outcome of years of revolution. There's not one person you can look at and say, 'they're clean’. But in the end it’s the lesser of two evils,” says Marc, who will vote in the Metn district. 

For professor and political analyst Dr. Makram Rabah, tempers are running high but that doesn’t mean an armed conflict is imminent. “Definitely tensions do exist, however regional investment and the dynamics are different because, contrary to what was the case in 1975, the different Lebanese factions are not armed, or at least they are not as well-equipped as the Iranian militia Hezbollah,” he says. 

He also notes that the position of Lebanon now versus pre-civil war is also drastically different: put simply, the region just isn’t as invested as it used to be. 

“There is always fear of sectarian violence but a civil war requires another level [of tensions] which does not exist at the moment.” 

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