In Lebanon, a nascent reform movement faces a rocky road

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Ramy Finge, a dentist who spent two years braving tear gas and rubber bullets during anti-government protests, is one of 13 independent newcomers who won a seat in the last parliamentary election, speaks out during an interview with The Associated Press, at his home in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, Tuesday, May 24, 2022. The strong demonstration by civil society activists has given Lebanese people renewed hope that change is possible. But the reform movement is fragmented and the challenges it faces in the fight against an entrenched and sectarian ruling clique are enormous. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

PA

Ramy Finge spent two years braving tear gas and rubber bullets, sometimes attempting to scale the cement walls surrounding Lebanon’s parliament during anti-government protests.

Soon he will be able to enter through the front door. The dentist from the northern city of Tripoli is among 13 independent newcomers who won seats in parliament in elections on May 15, building on the protest movement seeking to break the long dominance of traditional parties.

The surprisingly strong demonstration by civil society activists has given desperate Lebanese hope that change in their ailing country is possible.

But the nascent reform movement is fragmented and faces enormous challenges in the fight against an entrenched ruling clique.

Many fear the new parliament could exacerbate polarization and paralysis at a time when the country is facing one of the worst economic collapses in history. It is hampered by divisions between the old guard and the newcomers, as well as between supporters and opponents of the powerful militant group Hezbollah.

As the elections approached, candidates from the protest movement formed in October 2019 ran on competing lists.

Overall, they share the view that the grip on power of Civil War-era warlords and sectarian political dynasties is at the root of rampant corruption, mismanagement, of the lack of services and the lack of accountability that have led the country to ruin. .

But in detail, they are divided on almost everything, from their approach to reforming the economy and restructuring the collapsed banking sector, to their views on Hezbollah’s weapons and whether disarming the group backed by Iran should be a priority.

Yet it is no small feat that they managed to break through despite an electoral law suited to a ruling class with enormous power. The elections were a setback for the Hezbollah-led coalition, which lost its majority in the 128-seat parliament, although it remains the largest bloc.

“This is the first achievement of the Thawra (revolution in Arabic) because we were able to enter,” Finge, 57, told The Associated Press at his modest home in the impoverished city of Tripoli in Lebanon this week.

“And from within, we will work with all our might and courage to…dismantle this corrupt ruling class, which is destined to fall no matter how long it takes,” he said. .

Like his colleagues in the protest movement, Finge has been subjected to all sorts of pressure and intimidation over the past two years. He proudly recalled the exuberant protests in Tripoli and Beirut that filled squares from late 2019, when police fired volleys of tear gas and pellets at demonstrators who often tried to scale the giant security barriers. around parliament.

In February 2021, he was summoned by security and questioned about a makeshift kitchen he had set up in Tripoli to distribute food to protesters and the needy. He called it Matbakh al Thawra, or the Kitchen of the Revolution.

The independents who won seats are a motley group of doctors, professors, professionals and activists from across Lebanon and from various religious sects.

Among them is Firas Hamdan, a 35-year-old lawyer and activist who was hit in the chest by a rubber bullet fired by parliamentary police during a protest. Eye surgeon Elias Jaradeh won a seat held for 30 years by a pro-Syrian politician. Najat Aoun, a chemistry professor and environmental activist, was one of four independent women to win, taking the number of women in parliament from six to eight.

The newcomers say they plan to form a unified bloc to boost their influence in parliament, but it won’t be easy given what they face.

Their mere presence in parliament is a good start, but the challenge now is to organize and implement a program, wrote Bilal Saab, senior fellow and founding director of the defense and security program at the Middle East Institute. , in an analysis.

“It will obviously be very difficult given the still considerable power of Hezbollah and its allies, and the upcoming presidential race in October will show the immediate impact of these legislative elections,” he wrote.

The first test will take place during the first meeting of parliament, scheduled for the next few days, when lawmakers will have to elect a president. The 84-year-old incumbent, Nabih Berri, has held the position for 30 years and is again seeking a seventh term, so far uncontested. The powerful Shiite militia leader Amal is seen by many as the godfather of Lebanon’s corrupt, sect-based and elite-dominated political system.

Independents and some of the Christian parties in parliament have said they will not vote for him, risking his re-election with a much smaller than usual majority coming mainly from Shia parties. Some have speculated that Berri may refrain from calling the inaugural session, which the constitution must take place before June 6, if he is unsure of the desired number of votes he will get.

“For us, it is clear that we will not elect any symbol of the ruling class, including President Berri,” one of the new independents, 46-year-old architect Ibrahim Mneimneh, told the AP. He acknowledged, however, that they have yet to develop a clear alternative course of action.

A bigger test will be the formation of a cabinet capable of winning parliament’s confidence on key issues such as an economic stimulus package, finalizing a bailout deal with the IMF, resuming the stalled investigation on the 2020 explosion at the Port of Beirut and how to handle the longtime Central Bank Governor. The big banker is under investigation locally and in several European countries for money laundering and embezzlement. Backed by the ruling class, he remains in office despite a financial collapse.

Finally, the new parliament will have to elect a new president when President Michel Aoun’s six-year term ends on October 31, with no clear successor.

Analysts fear that failure to agree on these milestones could lead to prolonged paralysis with disastrous economic and social consequences.

David Hale, former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs and former ambassador to Lebanon, had a gloomy outlook in a Wilson Center commentary titled “Lebanon’s Elections Offer No Salvation.”

“It is difficult to insert à la carte independents into a system favoring fixed price menus, especially if the independents do not form their own coalitions, as they have failed to do,” he writes.

Mneimneh said mainstream parties have many powerful tools with which they can lobby and obstruct. The independents’ most powerful tool is trying to rally the streets, he said.

“I think that’s the hardest thing today because there’s no balance between us and them.”

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