'Ballot stronger than the bullet': Lebanon's civil society groups seek to oust political elite
In 2018, Lebanon went to the polls. It was the first parliamentary election in nine years and there was one question on many observers’ minds: was it to be politics as usual, or would growing concern over the country’s myriad problems affect the outcome? There was at least a hint of change in the air. For the first time a grassroots movement known as the Civil Society Coalition was fielding candidates against Lebanon’s long-established sectarian parties.
But apathy was the biggest winner – voter turnout was less than 50 percent. Despite general disgust over spiralling unemployment and faltering basic services, it seemed very few Lebanese believed the route to solutions lay through the ballot box.
Since then Lebanon’s distinctive and dysfunctional political set up, which has resisted change, has continued to erode every part of Lebanese society. Over the last two years since the election, those in power have been responsible for economic failure, medical crisis, an explosion that devastated the capital and the collapse of the country’s entire banking system.
" Despite general disgust over spiralling unemployment and faltering basic services, it seemed very few Lebanese believed the route to solutions lay through the ballot box"
Today, it would seem hope has returned once more, this time promising a better outcome – perhaps this is in part down to the role the diaspora has played as well as the resilience and perseverance of civil society groups on the ground.
During the last elections only some 82,000 people living abroad registered to vote. Out of that number only 50 percent made it to the ballot. But today up to 210,000 people have registered to vote – though not a staggering number a substantial increase nonetheless, which could be an indication that the tide might finally be turning.
To understand what this all means, we spoke with 26-year-old George Khoury who moved to the UK from Lebanon amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Having worked as a consultant in the Middle East, George decided to continue his education in London leaving behind his family in the seaside town, Damour.
“I miss my family and the Lebanese hospitality but although with a heavy heart, it was time to go”.
Unable to leave Lebanon behind, George began volunteering with Sawti – one of Impact Lebanon’s initiatives. “I believe there’s a lack of access to information that is transparent and accessible for people who are not politically active and Sawti is trying to be a resource for people to access such information to learn more about politics in Lebanon and to learn more about who the political parties are. And prior to now no such thing existed, which compelled me to join the team”.
“In terms of latest stats, […] we’ve seen more than double the number of people who registered in 2018. Now we are hoping that most of these people will actually vote.”
“This is the first election happening after such major events,” George said. “So we’re hoping that this election will actually be different in terms of people being more aware of what’s happening on the ground. People are more engaged and active in wanting to do change. And this is why we’re trying to raise awareness as much as we can so people know they have a voice and the right to use it”.
To achieve real change, Sawti is keen to see change in parliament and new parties gaining seats.
“We’re trying to get people to vote for the alternative political parties because we know for a fact that we only need ten MPs to be able to appeal any law that might be proposed by the traditional parliamentarians and this is why we believe in the importance of having alternatives present as it’s crucial if we want a new wave in Lebanon,” he said, adding that if this is achieved, it will mark “the greatest modern victories in our country’s recent history”.
Uncertainties and doubt
“We were doing a joint effort working together as much as possible to mobilise people to come and register,” George said. “And this for me is what made the success of this campaign and made it go viral. It’s by no means one group or individual effort – it’s an alliance, a collaboration, a unity of like-minded people wanting to see change and understanding we must be the change”.
Despite all this, there has been some uncertainties and doubt, with some diaspora communities refusing to register to vote.
“[Some people have] lost hope and question why bother, for what purpose, can change really happen in a country where the tribal leaders have ruled for generations,” George said. “So why vote for a corrupt system. All understandable concerns. And so our job was to enlighten them that there are actual alternative political parties and we can’t lose hope and I found many were unaware of these parties so part of our work on the ground wasn’t limited to getting people to register but informing them that there are efforts happening on the ground and alternative parties worth registering for – after all, enough with the traditional political system that has only regressed us”.
‘Ballot is stronger than the bullet’
Dana Trometer is a filmmaker and mother of two, who is a member of The Lebanese Diaspora Network founded several weeks following the October 2018 uprising. Her husband is French – meaning that under the current system her children aren’t eligible for a Lebanese citizenship.
Yet her love for her home country is found in possibly every aspect of her life. And so it is of little surprise that we find Dana running a marathon for Lebanon in a final push to raise awareness and encourage people to register to vote. From a leafy town in London she told The New Arab why all this is so important.
"We know that democracy may have failed in a lot of neighbouring Arab countries and that changes take years to happen, but each little step leads to bigger steps and we can teach people to have a national identity and belonging"
“We are a bunch of people from all over the world getting together to do something to help Lebanon – from helping initiatives on the ground to raising donations. And now we’re working on the elections,” Dana said.
“We believe that being a large diaspora of expats living all over the world we can influence change if we help get people registered. We recently fought to change the rules which were otherwise limiting us in how and who we can vote for,” she said, referring to a recently adopted amendment to the electoral law that allowed expats to vote for candidates in all 128 parliamentary seats, instead of six.
“This was a small victory and we hope it will stand,” Dana said. “What it means is that the diaspora’s right to vote for 128 parliamentary members has been restored by the parliament, and each voter will be able to vote according to his/her electoral district.”
Dana stressed the importance of voting to bring about the change people desire.
“People need to realise that elections are a big deal and the ballot is stronger than the bullet. We cannot continue to live under the law of the jungle. We know that democracy may have failed in a lot of neighbouring Arab countries and that changes take years to happen, but each little step leads to bigger steps and we can teach people to have a national identity and belonging,” Dana said, adding that the diaspora can now have a stronger voice to offer a new vision.
She believes that civil society groups will be the only way to achieve change in Lebanon and to dismantle the current political system that benefits no one, except those in power.
“Even if [we are not successful] in this election, we will continue on our path and we will eventually arrive to our destination of a liberal secular democratic Lebanon that serves its citizens and is not divided along sectarian lines”.
Nada Issa is a filmmaker and senior journalist.
Follow her on Twitter: @Nada_Mai_Issa