A new hope

Small wins creating momentum

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For the first time in a very long time, I am hopeful that activism in Lebanon is opening up to new ways of mobilizing and engaging citizens in public life. I have been involved in a range of civil-society work for more than a decade. My PhD thesis addressed the challenges imposed by Lebanon’s political system on the ability of civil society to influence reform. I have designed and delivered a number of training sessions for civil society on how to advocate for policy reform, and I have come out frustrated and disappointed each and every time. Here is what I know to be true about what has held back Lebanese politics: Lebanese national institutions are the least important actors when it comes to decisions on public policy-making. In fact, many important policy issues are governed by a non-policy or by the absence of a clear policy framework, not the least of which is the case of Syrian refugees. I have also learnt that sectarian courts are incompatible with a rights-based approach to reform. Lebanese politicians thrive on polarization and the ineffectiveness of state institutions. And civil society’s demands are either neglected or co-opted by the establishment.

But today, I am hopeful because I feel that some activists are beginning to realize these truths and are adapting to them.

Historical constraints

“I don’t think anything is really ever going to change, but I still believe we need to do the things we’ve always done and hope for the best.” This is what one activist explained to me recently, during one of the many ongoing workshops put on by civil society in this country. In Lebanon NGOs continue to be sidelined from reform and policy making, and the national institutions actually responsible for reform and policy making are largely ineffective. Essentially, decisions over reform, or the lack thereof, are made outside Parliament, and even outside the cabinet, by a select handful of the political elite, whose grip over power can be attributed to a 1991 amnesty law that allowed warlords to return to power by taking legislative and executive seats.

This last year was not much different, with its spells of political deadlock, moments of consensus, and the creation of a new cabinet that is now a feather in the Saudi-Iranian winds. Meanwhile, the conflict in Syria is entering its seventh year, leaving over a million registered refugees in Lebanon with no access to basic rights and no government willing to regulate their legal status. In such a context, we cannot expect civil society organizations to be effective advocates for policy reform, as they remain the weakest players in the web of partisan interests and geopolitical commitments that Lebanese politics is so well known for. But that is not to say that there is no hope. If anything, 2017 has given birth to new and exciting avenues for mobilization. Here are some that are likely to meet ongoing success in 2018.

The Beirut Madinati effect

The unprecedented electoral battle led by the competent, hopeful, and visionary team and candidates of Beirut Madinati (My City) has created a ripple effect across the country. There is a new feeling among activists that can be explained as nothing short of “Yes we can,” which manifested in the momentum around the 2016 Beirut municipal elections—and could be poised to leave a mark on the upcoming parliamentary elections as well. In 2017, Beirut Madinati backed the Naqabati (My Syndicate) list, which put Jad Tabet at the head of the Order of Engineers and Architects, beating his establishment-backed opponent in a slender, but significant victory. Suddenly, activists felt that they did not need to remain within the confines of civil society activism, but could also propose their own solutions to vexing problems and push forward their solutions onto public opinion and electoral platforms. Myriad new reform platforms are working on concrete plans and advocating for solutions in newspapers and on political talk shows. It remains to be seen to what extent this experience can be replicated in parliamentary elections or even in other municipal elections, but for now 2017 is ending on a really high note. A shift in mindset from demanding solutions to offering solutions, and proposing candidates who can work on those solutions, is bound to result in a shift of  strategy by activists.

AUB’s Secular Club and independent student movements

Attention from media, political parties, and intellectuals across the country has focused on the success of the American University of Beirut’s secular club, which won a third of the seats of the elected student body in October 2017, as well as on independent clubs in other universities across the country, including Université Saint-Joseph and the Lebanese American University. In a country ripped apart by sectarian politicians, political parties have historically controlled student life, and even sports clubs. It is both remarkable and hopeful for a young group to have emerged as an opponent to politically affiliated clubs on campuses across Lebanon. These students have developed a new rights-based discourse that is focused on access to education, freedom of expression, and youth civic engagement. We have also recently seen the launch of the Mada network, a first of its kind youth-led political platform. For as long as I can remember, I have felt sorry for my students because once they leave the safety of their campus they have very little opportunity to get engaged in public life, aside from joining NGOs as volunteers or as staff. But this appears to be changing—a change that we also have to wait for 2018 to see come to life. 

We are finally on a recognizable path. Moving forward, the challenge will be to capitalize on these new mobilization platforms by adopting issues that civil society has been working on in Lebanon for decades. We need political platforms to address what civil society has been demanding for a long time. Hope is not created in the offices of NGOs or in civil society workshops, but in political decision-making circles where activists have finally earned their seat.

Carmen Geha is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the American University of Beirut