BEIRUT: Fueled by anger at the Lebanese state’s failures and emboldened by a new electoral law that gives them a fighting chance, independent groups are getting ready to contest established parties in this year’s parliamentary elections. Many of the traditional politicians and heads of parliamentary blocs have described the coming elections as “crucial,” “decisive” and “not like [in] previous years,” sparking rumors they fear potential losses.
For many of the independent groups, the road to Parliament began almost three years ago with the garbage crisis, while others have been confronting the state and pushing for accountability for much longer.
“Our [parliamentary] list was formed during the movements, in Riad al-Solh, in Martyrs’ Square,” independent candidate for one of Baabda’s two Shiite seat Olfat El Sabeh told The Daily Star recently.
Sabeh, a university professor, is running under the banner of New Page for Lebanon, a Baabda-focused electoral group.
Sabeh was married at the age of 16, and said her path from a middle school dropout to a professor at the Lebanese American University, all while raising three children, has taught her the importance of education and social justice – now at the heart of her platform.
She said she wanted to see more women in leadership roles and supported a quota for women in Parliament in order to dispel notions that “women compromise the future of their children to be successful.”
Sabeh is also committed to combatting “violence against women, which includes early marriage [and] being deprived of education.”
While many groups like Sabeh’s are gearing up to confront the rooted parties on a local level, a bold alliance of at least 11 groups from across Lebanon is forming a unified front.
The recently formed alliance, dubbed Tahalof Watani (My Country Alliance), is a “group of groups” that offers an alternative to parties defined by clientelism, nepotism and sectarianism, according to a member of its political committee, Wadih al-Asmar. Asmar is also a representative of the You Stink movement that was forged out of the 2015 protests over Lebanon’s garbage crisis.
“It’s a political alliance,” he told The Daily Star recently. “The goal is to unite the opposition forces that are not tied to parties of the state, nor sects, nor the regional disputes.”
The alliance has a Board of Directors composed of 14 voting members – one male and one female for the seven founding parties. It also has a General Assebmly comprised of 11 voting representatives - one from each party within Tahalof Watani - who have the final say on all decisions.
To ensure independent groups don’t split votes by running against each other, all candidates will be decided on through internal deliberations and all will run on a unified parliamentary list.
United for Lebanon, a conglomeration of civil society groups that work toward accountability and against waste and corruption in state institutions was a founding member of Tahalof Watani. Its spokesperson Bilal Mahdi said the idea behind the alliance was to bring together the street-level movements with new and existing independent civil society and political forces.
“Some of the more organized groups didn’t have the pulse of the street, so the street and the organized parties met and unified,” he told The Daily Star.
Most recently, United for Lebanon uncovered alleged waste of resources and corruption in the National Social Security Fund, and have taken cases to the judiciary.
He said United for Lebanon itself was, so far, looking to field two to three candidates in Beirut’s first district and Baabda, but would likely announce more in the south.
Mahdi explained that any participants in Tahalof Watani would need to have a clean corruption record and must be committed to a civil state, stripped of political sectarianism.
Each group maintains its freedom of expression and strategy, but must conform to the alliance’s rigorous rules. For example, once candidates for specific seats are decided by Tahalof Watani, any member of the alliance forfeits their right to run against that candidate.
So who makes up the alliance? Several groups will focus on local issues-based movements, while others with national ambitions have committed to fielding candidates across Lebanon. In the eastern city of Baalbeck, there is Tajamou Abna Baalbeck, an outgrowth of 2016 independent municipal elections group Baalbeck Madinati that won 46 percent of the votes.
Youssef Mourtada, a writer and member of the group’s political committee, said Tajamou Abna Baalbeck would focus on the region’s longstanding lack of security, under-development and poverty.
“What has the Shiite duo here done for us?” he said to The Daily Star in reference to Hezbollah and the Amal Movement who control seven out of 10 seats in the Baalbeck-Hermel region, while their allies control the remaining three.
“[There is] absolutely nothing, no water, no electricity, they failed in representing the people.”
The group is calling for the formation of a committee for the development of Baalbeck-Hermel.
It also supports a general amnesty for roughly 30,000 outstanding arrest warrants in the region, many of which relate to drug crimes, and also calls for commuting the sentences of those imprisoned for such crimes.
“There is no work here, so it makes sense that people turn to the drug trade,” Mourtada said of the region’s production and trade in hash.
Amid rumors that the amnesty will be passed by politicians before elections in an effort to secure popular support, Mourtada warned that an amnesty should to be tied to development and job creation, lest “everyone ends up back in jail again.”
Tajamou would push for investigations into corruption at the state level, he said, lamenting the State Ministry for Combatting Corruption’s “uselessness.”
“They haven’t prosecuted a single case, though we know of massive corruption, and we know of its impact in Baalbeck,” he said. “Look at Israel, they’re about to throw [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu in prison.”
To distinguish themselves from the political class, who have a reputation for nefarious campaign contributions that contravene Lebanese law, all members of Tahalof Watani that The Daily Star spoke to have committed to full financial transparency. This will reportedly be done through independent audits that will assess all campaign contributions and monetary dealings.
More than this, Beirut-focused member of the alliance LiBaladi (For my country) has committed to revealing the individual finances of all of their candidates.
The group is staffed with many former candidates from Beirut Madinati, a group that contested 2016 Beirut municipal elections and won 40 percent of votes.
One of the group’s founders, Gilbert Doumit, said people running with LiBaladi had, over the years, done the real behind-the-scenes work on public policy, laws and legislation, but had become tired of the distortion and nonimplementation of their work.
“[Our candidates have] worked on the budget, on the access to information law, an illicit wealth law, public space and oil and gas legislation,” he told The Daily Star. “[Politicians] either throw [the laws] in a drawer or if they adopt them, they destroy them for their own interests.”
Doumit said he was a “potential candidate” for the Maronite seat in Beirut’s first electoral district, adding that the group was looking to run for “most seats” in both of Beirut’s districts.
While some civil society groups have shied away from broaching the controversial national issue of Hezbollah’s arms, Doumit said it was obvious a civil state could not properly function with the current reality.
“The question is how we deal with it, and I think we do it by increasing the [Lebanese Army’s] capacity, becoming less economically dependent on [other countries in the] region, and creating socioeconomic loyalty to people living on our borders,” he said.
One of the independent groups most prepared for elections, by its founder Jad Dagher’s own admission, is Sabaa, an independent party formed last year.
“We understood early on that doing politics professionally requires money,” he told The Daily Star. The group is one of the few who have already posted a complete account of their finances for the first half of 2017 on their website. The second half of the accounting, Dagher said, would be coming in March.
Dagher said Sabaa would be looking to field several candidates for each region across Lebanon, focused on, but not limited to, “citizen related issues.”
Sabaa received a boost recently when Paula Yacoubian, one of Lebanon’s leading media personalities, joined the group after resigning from her position at Future Television, an affiliate of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement.
Though Yacoubian was affiliated with Future, Dagher said she had never sold out. “This is the first time she has registered in a political party, her show has been quite objective and we haven’t seen her as part of a propaganda machine,” he said.
He added that almost all media in Lebanon was tainted by political control, and that anyone working in that profession was forced to deal with that reality.
Several representatives of various groups in Tahalof Watani, including Dagher and Doumit, complained they were having trouble receiving media coverage unless it was considered “election spending,” for which they must pay.
Another member of Tahalof Watani, Lika Al Hawiya wal Siyada, (Identity and Sovereignty Gathering) is set to field three or four candidates, including for one of Kesrouan’s seven Maronite seats, and two for Beirut’s Orthodox and minority Christian seats.
Its founder, Youssef Salameh, said he would be running in Kesrouan.
“The crisis Lebanon has been experiencing for decades is all about our sovereignty and our identity,” he told The Daily Star. He said the group differentiated itself from the political class through its drive for accountability and dissociation from regional alliances.
Though Salameh was a minister of state for one year in 2004, he said he had “never been part of the ruling political class.”
“I was brought in by [Former Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah] Butros Sfeir during exceptional circumstances when we were under Syrian occupation, in an effort to free Lebanon,” he said. Salameh did not belong to any political party at the time, and has not occupied any government position since.
In the Chouf and Aley region, Li Haki (For my right) – another alliance member – is priming itself to contest all the region’s 13 seats. To get one, the group needs roughly 7.5 percent of the vote.
Political activist with the group, Maher Abu Shackra, said the new electoral law gave Li Haki a “real chance” of achieving this.
Lebanon’s first elections since 2009 will be held under a law based on proportional representation – with Lebanon divided into 15 electoral districts. The law replaced a controversial majoritarian system.
“The soul of our battle pits us against the authorities, whether it’s about the random waste dumps, poor infrastructure or lack of support for small businesses,” he said.
Abu Shackra said small to medium-sized family businesses were formerly a “cornerstone” of local residents’ lives, but that the absence of basic services and state support, such as tax incentives, “has destroyed that.”
In nearby Metn, Harake Metn al Aala (the Upper Metn Movement) has kicked off its campaign with local environmental issues at the forefront. The group was forged through protests surrounding the Naameh landfill, which was shut down by activists in 2015 after successive governments extended its operation for 17 years.
The landfill was supposed to operate for six years, and receive 2 million tons of waste, but had received well over 15 million tons by the time it was closed.
The group’s founder, Abdelnasser El Masri, a former educator and head of a beekeeper’s cooperative, said it was unacceptable that “most of our underground waters are completely polluted by sewage and garbage.”
“There is administrative corruption to the level that we have but one basic sewage treatment plan for the entire region, in Araya [in Baabda] ... so it all goes down to the aquifers and rivers, and ends up in our bottles and in the sea,” he said.
Masri said he personally would not be running, but that “the hero of the Naameh battle,” activist Ajwad Ayashe, who led movements against the landfill, would likely run. He added his group supports New Page for Lebanon, even though it is not part of Tahalof Watani.
“If one of us wins, we all win, and if one of them [established politicians] loses, they all lose – ‘all of them means all of them,’” he said, repeating a slogan of the 2015 protest movements.
Running outside of Tahalof Watani is Muwatin w Muwatinat fil dawle (Citizens in the State), an independent group founded in 2016 by former Labor Minister Charbel Nahas to contest municipal elections.
The group fielded candidates across Lebanon then, and a member of the group’s elected council of delegates, Mounir Doumani, said they would do the same now.
“It’s a political confrontation in every realm, wherever there’s the possibility,” he told The Daily Star.
Doumani said the group is funded solely by Lebanese, via a proportional tax on the income of all its members. It is firmly fixated on Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence from regional power play, he said.
“The basis of a state is that you deal with everyone outside as an outsider, there’s no ‘brotherly nations’ or any of that,” he said
“We don’t accept foreign funding, not that they would be interested anyway,” he added with a laugh.
Doumani said the group had chosen to remain outside of Tahalof Watani for various reasons, including maintaining their own strategic freedom and the fact they have questions about some groups on the alliance’s ticket.
He said the alliance’s reliance in some cases on using political forces that were established in certain regions mirrored the tactics of the parties in power, and was at odds with the idea of creating a civil state.
“It’s regrettable not be together,” he said, “but we found that there is no way for us to be fully involved in the alliance because we [believe] that political confrontation [should] not be by area, or through people who have certain local influence.”
Despite disagreements, Doumani said there would be room for alliances in specific areas when all candidates become clear. He added that relations between the groups remain good.
He also maintained there was the possibility of allying with the Lebanese Communist party, but that no agreements had been made yet.
In the fight for a civil state, Doumani said, “[we know] we are not talking to all Lebanese, just those who are ready for change.” Accordingly, Citizens in the State, is readying itself for an open-ended engagement extending far beyond these elections.