Beirut port blast 2 years on: Lebanon’s political system lacks a unified strategy

Beirut port blast 2 years on: Lebanon’s political system lacks a unified strategy
6 min read
04 Aug, 2022
Two years on from the Beirut port blast, Joseph Daher argues that life in Lebanon has become even more difficult for the people. The outcomes of Lebanon’s elections in May, a key event since the tragedy, failed to provide any meaningful change.
The Beirut post explosion which took the lives of over 200 people, injured many and destroyed several parts of the city, has left a long-lasting trauma among the people of Lebanon. [GETTY]

Two years since the Beirut port explosion, which killed 218 people, all aspects of life in Lebanon have only worsened, with poverty dramatically increasing. Meanwhile, the investigation of one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history has achieved nothing because of the constant interference by the country’s ruling class.

To add insult to injury, some of the former Lebanese ministers charged in the probe were actually re-elected to parliament in the national elections that took place in May. Despite this, and Lebanon’s continuous plight, regional and international press welcomed, with great enthusiasm, the results of the May elections. Namely, the election of 13 “opposition” MPs, (out of 128 in total), who were considered to be affiliated with the Thawra or the Lebanese uprising of October 2019.

However, this so-called major “breakthrough” did not shed a light on the major shortcomings of this new opposition.

Traditional ruling parties re-legitimised

Undeniably there are some results that should be celebrated. Opposition candidates were elected in almost half of the 15 constituencies, several ‘new figures’ like Ibrahim Mneimné in Beirut, and Marc Daou in Aley, gained a significant number of votes. At the same time, major personalities affiliated historically with the Syrian regime and corruption practices have lost their seats in parliament. However, to describe the event as a major change in the Lebanese political landscape is far-fetched.

''The second anniversary of port’s explosion should be a reminder of the necessity to build a truly counter-hegemonic project rooted in the country’s working classes and in coalition with independent social forces like trade unions, feminist and anti-racist organisations. In the end, pressure from below through mass mobilisation is the only path to radical change.''

Except former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement Party that decided to boycott the elections – in spite of which some of its MPs ran as independent and were elected, the traditional ruling political parties largely maintained their domination on the political scene.

The duo Hezbollah and Amal remain in control of the totality of the 27 Shia seats in parliament, while the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) dominate the Christian political scene. All of them have already used these “democratic” elections to reaffirm their legitimacy in the national and international political scenes.

The main shortcomings of the opposition is not its limited number of MPs, however, but rather in its lack of unified and clear political program, and above all in its strategy which remains solely based on change within parliament.  

The absence of a radical strategy

In reality, there is no shared, common political vision or platform. The abolition of the sectarian system and an alternative to the neoliberal system are two main issues in which no consensus exists. Incredulous really, given what has happened in the last two years alone.

No measures have been put forward to deal with the current economic and social crisis. Most of the opposition concentrated on supporting temporary measures that target extreme poverty in the short-term, such as cash grants to the most impoverished sectors of the population. Far from the necessary systemic reforms to address deep inequalities, or promote productive sectors of the economy.

The views held by newly elected Nadine Saliba from the Chouf district, that a universal health coverage isn’t necessary, is the perfect example. She argued, “the wealthiest companies should pitch in to support the vulnerable and revamp the medical system”. Either she is unaware or choosing to ignore the fact that half of the population residing in Lebanon have no health insurance and work in the informal sector.

The minor attempts of offering an ‘alternative’ includes calls by Taqadoum – one of the opposition parties which now has two elected MPs – for the elimination of corruption. Suggested measures included lifting bank secrecy, a forensic auditing, capital controls and the restructuring of the banking sector.

This too, is ignoring Lebanon’s reality.

The roots of the current crisis are indeed to be found in the country’s political economy and the way it has developed since the end of the civil war. These neoliberal policies have reinforced certain historical features of the economy: a development model focussed on finance, real estate and services, in which social inequalities and regional disparities have become pronounced.

These policies have accentuated spatial and social divides and are closely linked to the heavily financialised nature of the country’s political economy and the marginalisation of important sectors such as agriculture and industry.

Elites across sectarian communities benefited the most from these policies through the various privatisation schemes and the clientelist allocation of state contracts. The ruling elites in turn depended on a sectarian political system and the country’s liberal economics to expand their own power.

Where do we go now?

The only path to change presented by the far majority of the so-called opposition is through parliament. Certainly the institution is important in that it provides an opportunity to engage with a considerable portion of the population, sharing  political positions and demands – some based on mass mobilisations – more widely.

However, a future majority of opposition MPS in parliament alone would not be capable of changing the social power relations in the country.

In reality, if the underlying problem is not ripped out from its roots, we will simply see a replay of what has taken place in recent years, during which despite rage and mobilisation from the 2019 uprisings, to the response following the Beirut port blast as well as the recent boat tragedy, no radical alternatives has come through and ceased the reigns.

Not to mention, focusing strictly on institutions ignores that a significant part of the voters do not vote – particularly among the working classes and those deprived of political rights, like migrant workers, Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

This only stresses the importance of thinking beyond the current power structures as a means of channelling transformative action.

The second anniversary of port’s explosion should be a reminder of the necessity to build a truly counter-hegemonic project rooted in the country’s working classes and in coalition with independent social forces like trade unions, feminist and anti-racist organisations. In the end, pressure from below through mass mobilisation is the only path to radical change.

A regime overthrown through massive pressure from below that forces the entire current neoliberal economic system to be dismantled, are really the only means of doing any justice to those killed, and those who continue to be the target of state failures and violence.

Joseph Daher teaches at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and is an affiliate professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where he participates in the "Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria Project." He is the author of "Syria after the Uprisings, The Political Economy of State Resilience".

Follow him on Twitter: @JosephDaher19

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.