Program for a nation or national myth?

Can a phoenix rise from the ashes of the Lebanese state?

Illustration by: Ivan Debs

The egg as symbol of rebirth is powerful. It can inspire. In the case of Lebanon, the egg is more than a representation of fertility because it plays into the enduring myth that the constituents of this nation will rise from the ashes of their destruction. This myth also conceals a warning and question, however: Will the new be fundamentally different and better, or is there a danger that the new will be just as vain as the old? This question is rising to  an existential level for Lebanese democracy and its spectrum of — not yet fully formed — anti-establishment political movements, parties, programs, and coalitions.

Without assuming that any type of research, let alone journalistic, can provide more than a rough prediction of the winding story that might lead from the 2016 presidential election to parliamentary elections in the first half of 2018, it still is non-negotiable to try and put such a story together. It is a must-write because this story could turn out to be the largest game changer in the Lebanese state’s history. In other words, it could prove more decisive for the safe future and prosperity of Lebanon than the transition from the French Mandate of the 1920s to independence in 1943, more corrosive to legacy power structures than the upheavals of the 1950s, more advantageous to national wealth creation than the golden years of the 1960s, more confused than the multi-factional serial disputes of the 70s and 80s, and more pivotal than the incompletely implemented Taif Accord of 1989.

Speculatively, a successful 2018 tipping point leading to a sea of change in the Lebanese economic reality, political authenticity, and national identity could, in the hindsight of historic studies commemorating the Lebanese Republic’s 150th anniversary around 2070, be seen as the event that set society on a track of productive development. It would provide the possiblity to overcome and undo all the damage that external interferences, domestic assassinations, governmental vacuums, usurpations of power, and peaks of corruption  have brought upon Lebanon in the 28-and-a-half years between Taif and the 2018 elections.   

The counter scenarios can be as extreme. The elections might not move the status quo by even a single iota. In discussions with Executive, sentiments representative of the anti-establishment — the most politically engaged population group —  reflected the whole spectrum. We heard a view that this upcoming election was the chance — with poor odds of winning — of a century; we heard confident opining that the coming election would fulfill or exceed expectations for a productive change; we were also confronted with fears that any elected opposition would be wholly ineffective, or that the elections would be cancelled by existentially threatened leaders under any pretense or self-engineered threat. One opinion leader thought that, because of the deterioration of the Lebanese mindset into an extreme cynicism and acceptance of intolerable national circumstance, such cancellation would even go unchallenged in what he lambasted as a mix of over-assimilation and under-engagement in the majority of civil society.

Opportunity and threat

Ahead of — in the views of some more than in the views of others — an all-decisive election, the anti-establishment forces appear to be moving in three directions that may or may not interrelate productively. One activity that comes from new political movements is the building of election machines: the apparatus to campaign, draw in voters through participatory program-building surveys, fundraise and influence media, assess issues and election districts where majorities can be fought for with a reasonable chance of winning, etc.

The second sphere of activity is the development of political and economic programs, position papers, and codes of ethics. Today’s political aspirants are pursuing this road more than their predecessors, saying that detailed programs will be the only, or most important, competitive edge in the coming elections. The third sphere of activity is talk. A considerable number of hopeful politicos are busy with the perilous task of figuring out who they are and what they want. This is perilous because this still existing indecision and ceaseless debating among anti-establishment actors can turn into a spiral of unproductive introspection. On the other hand, it could provide the training to produce convincing arguments for the coming debates in front of the voting public. It could also help identify and energize people who can credibly sell the arguments of the anti-establishment in public debates. The outcome of the current introspection and retreats among civil society might hinge on one factor: Can this fragmented assembly of individuals overcome the barriers of self-interested competition among wannabe alpha animals that are unwilling to concede claims to top roles? Will some activists confess to, and implement, the will to be political water carriers in opposition campaigns, in exchange for being able to contribute to the campaigns behind the scenes and make an election victory possible?

All of this is in the realm of possibility and is not an exercise in rediscovering the gravity rules of politics. In reviewing scenarios and possible trajectories of Lebanese political and economic realities, one should perhaps resist the temptation to see Lebanon as a standalone case that is not influenced by political trends in Western democracies. It certainly seems true that the Lebanese case is an outlier of democratic societies and has one-of-a-kind aspects, such as institutionalized confessional structures that led to mutual paralysis. But, on the other hand, Lebanese political minds are clearly exposed to, and aware of, the deep changes in the old games of politics: changes that have germinated in the years since the great recession and marinated the populaces and politicians over several years. From changes in the scientific side of propaganda and manipulation of voting outcomes, to changes in the willingness to try out untested solutions. The political worlds tumbled in 2014, 15, and 16, and there is no reason to assume that these changes will be less radical in future — on the contrary, they might only be more pronounced in coming decades.

Non-traditional political actors

This international development is reflected in the names that influence and inform the thinking of local political actors (whether they are imbued with positive or negative connotations is irrelevant in this regard). Names and events, such as Trump, Brexit, Syria, Podemos, Five-Star, Le Pen, De Vos, and Macron made appearances in discussions which Executive had with Lebanese anti-establishment movements and their leading ideologues, or sometimes second-tier representatives.

As UK-based political commentator and journalist Steve Richards theorizes in his recent book, “The Rise of the Outsiders,” people from outside of the political mainstream in many countries have risen to more influence when compared with the pre-recession world. These outsiders “across the democratic world are intimidatingly strong, and yet transparently weak” in a confounding combination of winning power and bringing historic change while at the same time exhibiting silliness, inconsistency, and fragility that make them both vulnerable and dangerous.

This seems to be an apt description of the anti-establishment outsiders in Lebanon as it is for those in Europe. Outsiders are not necessarily elected, but they effect change even if they are kept at bay by mainstream parties. At the same time, they demonstrate the weaknesses, fissures, and fault lines that exist in mainstream parties.

The Lebanese political mainstream is in many ways an oxymoron because core components of the mainstream in Western democracies — institutional party machines and programs — are not among their props. People, specifically dynasties and tribal heirs with legacy communal obligations and loyalties, are. Thus, political programs and ideas are as unhelpful and counterproductive in the traditional political game here as skis on a cow and even political institutionalism only leads to disturbances when a dynastic pattern dictates that a nephew or grandson-in-law of the za’im become the helmsman of the machine.

At the same time, though, the narrative of outsiders versus establishment, of the politically inexperienced against the isolated and self-absorbed elite, with all its sub-plots and narrative twists seen in the admired democracies of the Western hemisphere, is very much the same narrative as exists in Lebanon. This country also has self-proclaimed outsiders taking on the political insiders whose power base is in a state of erosion from disenchantment. This could also be disenchantment with an undeliverable promise, such as full employment for all, reduction of immigration numbers in a country with open borders, or an end to refugee arrivals.

Whether the disenchantment is justified or not is secondary — most Lebanese will of course claim it is strongly justified, but so will protest voters in Europe and the US. What matters is the storyline. The storyline of disappointment with a government that cannot manage to deliver the possible or impossible and the simultaneous counter-story, on part of the outsider, offering an unambiguous improvement of a problem — but simultaneously camouflaging the real dimensions of the problem with bold rhetoric — is what is happening in Lebanon. Voting as means to express displeasure with the ruling elite is of course not new at all. But it is a dangerous gamble that can endanger the stability of a system. On the other hand, as the past few years have shown again from Western states, this gamble can result in fundamental, historic change.

Outsiders are not necessarily elected, but they effect change even if they are kept at bay by mainstream parties

Thus, with all the peculiarities, anachronisms, and insular behavior molds in Lebanese society, the dynamics of the outsider phenomenon and its impact of effecting fundamental policy change in countries like the UK and the US — there would have been no Brexit referendum without the rise of UKIP, suggests Richards — indicate that the 2018 elections will have a deep impact in Lebanon, even if perhaps in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways.

Even in the scenario with the most optimistic bent from an anti-establishment point of view, however, the essentials of leadership in human relations will not vanish like an anti-establishment party might rise in meteoric fashion and disappear nearly with equal velocity. As Richards notes, political parties only flourish when they have smart leaders, and no party will acquire momentum when a leader cannot lead.

Establishing leaders

What is required of a leader is more than what some executive training courses might be able to deliver over the course of a few weeks, as it includes some skills that need to preexist at least in basic form: a capacity to frame policies with wide appeal and assure that they are consistent with the party’s fundamental values, the skill to communicate these policies via media — and social media — to voters, the ability to unite and rally the party around those policies, and the skill to implement a program when in government while maintaining the flexibility to respond to unexpected events and win electoral battles.

The most daunting task of the anti-establishment opposition in Lebanon may well be to produce such leaders and, thus, the biggest danger may be that those leaders will either turn into the politicians they want to replace or are already dyed in establishment wool under their coats of anti-establishment identities (see leader on page 10).

Party programs, uncommon as they have been in the past, and election machineries are functions of two elements that the Lebanese have been known to mobilize — mind power and money power. It will be a demanding intellectual exercise to create platform and programs that have enough momentum to penetrate walls of disillusionment and cynicism in the Lebanese populaces on the one side, and dissolve traditional links of clientelism and short-sighted self-interest in other voter strata. But it does not look to be an impossible task, given the knowledge, rich heritage of designing concepts, and global reach that the Lebanese have.

Even the ability to coexist — which is the perhaps most enduring form of the elusive characteristic of unity — is strong in the Lebanese and well-trained, despite the country’s experiences with self-induced political paralyses. The idea of a strong unified anti-establishment program platform as the strongest argument and differentiation mark of the new opposition is hardly convincing — by countless foreign examples with desperate searches for unity in opposition movements. Winning elections without credible leaders, on the other hand, looks like mission impossible in a country that is so heartily attuned to the importance of good, old-fashioned identities.