Lebanon’s last chance?

The upcoming elections are make-or-break

Washington Watch

The Lebanese people are going to the polls in just a few weeks. Without exaggeration, what will be decided in this election is whether their country has a chance to survive. Lebanon has been in an economic tailspin and unless drastic reforms are implemented, it will be bankrupt by the end of this year. The country is also in a state of political collapse, with the vast majority of Lebanese no longer having confidence in the traditional sectarian parties or the political system that has been in place for three generations.

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Finally, and most importantly, the Lebanese people are both frustrated and exhausted. Our polling shows that record numbers are struggling simply to make ends meet. It’s deeply disturbing that in the country that elevated the preparation of food to a high art, our polling indicates that food insecurity and even outright hunger are widespread. And the country that has boasted some of the region’s finest centres of learning is now witnessing a hemorrhaging of its educated youth. Once again, our polling data shows significant numbers of young people, having lost hope in their future in Lebanon, are expressing the desire to emigrate.

Our polls also point to what the Lebanese people want. They want a government that’s responsive to their needs: the creation of jobs, social services, national unity, and security. They also want an end to corruption and nepotism and the sectarian system of patronage that has drained the country’s wealth and resources to serve the interests of a handful of feudal lords.

When more than a million Lebanese from all segments of society took to the streets in October 2019 chanting, “All of them must go,” and “When we say all, we mean all of them,” they were expressing, in a nutshell, the deep frustration with the decadent old order that had brought the country to its knees.

If these elections produce nothing more than the “same old, same old,” then as I’ve said before, Lebanon, which for years has been on the brink of breaking, will most likely be broken.

The problem, of course, is that the representatives of the ancien régime are not willing to let loose their reins of control. And so, they continue to act like Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned. To make matters worse, they are backed by the armed presence of Hizbollah— which acts as the praetorian guard protecting, with force of arms, the corrupt sectarian system from which they derive significant benefits.

What we also have learned from more recent polling is that for the first time, the Lebanese are reporting that they are slightly optimistic about the future, in part because of the hope generated by the mass civil society-led protests, and the belief that elections may bring about real change.

The problem is that the way elections are structured in Lebanon favours the entrenched, traditional sectarian parties. Even if the electoral process is deemed “free and fair” by outside observers, the elections are structurally rigged and almost guaranteed to bring back to power many of the same failed leaders who have brought the country to the brink of collapse.

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There are, however, a few hopeful signs. The overwhelming majority of Lebanese clearly recognize the problems facing their country and their political system. And they want change. Eighty percent have lost faith in the traditional parties. One-half have no confidence in Hizbollah, and two-thirds want the arms of this group to be brought under the control of the official armed forces— the most supported institution in the country (with the confidence of nine in 10 Lebanese).

While the system is rigged against them, representatives of the progressive opposition feel that if they can win just 12 to 15 seats (out of the 120 seats in Parliament), they will have enough leverage to block the “same old guys” from forming the next government. They would be in a position to push instead for a government that supports at least the modest reforms needed to prevent total collapse.

If a new government can be formed that can make the changes required by international investors and financing institutions and restore some degree of confidence and stability in Lebanon’s currency, and negotiations can be completed to secure Lebanon’s drilling rights to offshore gas reserves, then Lebanon will be able to avert a meltdown.

Much more will be required. Accountability is needed for those who have been responsible for the billions drained from the country by corruption, for the devastating bombing of the Port of Beirut, and for the assassinations of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, members of his cabinet, and supporters in parliament and media. And Hizbollah will still need to be brought under control of state institutions.

We should not be under any illusions. Though absolutely necessary, none of this will be easy to accomplish. If, however, these elections produce nothing more than the “same old, same old,” then as I’ve said before, Lebanon, which for years has been on the brink of breaking, will most likely be broken.

Dr James J Zogby
Dr James J Zogby
The writer is President, Arab American Institute.

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