Lebanese leaders can’t halt the oncoming electoral tsunami

We have run out of adjectives to adequately describe the rage and despair felt by ordinary Lebanese

  
A demonstrator carries a national flag along a blocked road, during a protest against the fall in Lebanese pound currency and mounting economic hardships, near the Central Bank building, in Beirut, Lebanon March 16, 2021. Image used for illustrative purpose.

A demonstrator carries a national flag along a blocked road, during a protest against the fall in Lebanese pound currency and mounting economic hardships, near the Central Bank building, in Beirut, Lebanon March 16, 2021. Image used for illustrative purpose.

REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

If we don’t believe in change, we will never witness it. One of the principal obstacles to the revolutionary transformations required for Lebanon to survive as a state is the cynicism that perceives real change to be impossible — that corrupt elites will always cling to power, and nothing can be done about Hezbollah’s traitorous agenda.

A symbolic blow was struck against this prevailing cynicism when Beirut’s Engineers Syndicate elected its general assembly. Despite supposed rivals such as the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the Future Movement, Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces collaborating in a ploy to retain control, they were swept aside, as nearly 80 percent of votes went to “Syndicate Revolts” candidates affiliated with the uprising. If the votes of 60,000 engineers from across Lebanon’s social spectrum can be replicated in national elections, the mind boggles at the implications!

We have run out of adjectives to adequately describe the rage and despair felt by ordinary Lebanese. All conventional factions have suffered crippling blows to popularity and credibility, and President Aoun, Gebran Bassil and the FPM have found that the depths of public enmity and loathing they command are practically limitless. Even Hezbollah and Amal, whose grassroots support was always taken for granted, have encountered unprecedented disenchantment. In an indication of how far the political class has fallen, investigating judge Tariq Bitar announced legal proceedings last week against a range of politicians, including acting Prime Minister Hassan Diab, over last year’s Beirut port explosion.

It is thus no surprise that established factions are keen to see elections delayed for as long as possible, despite intense popular demands that they should be held immediately, as possibly the only route out of the crisis. Experts fear there will be efforts to delay the vote beyond the constitutionally mandated date of May 2022.

Such logic is further proof of how dissociated from reality these mafia factions have become. Far from the protest movement running out of steam, as citizens become hungrier and poorer they will grow even further alienated from those who have hauled this nation into this entirely self-inflicted cataclysm. Tehran will see Lebanon shattered in the dust before it allows its proxies and puppets to relinquish their grip on power, yet all these efforts to preserve Hezbollah’s dominance have achieved is uniting the entire nation against it.

Every day sets new precedents in the disintegration of survivable normality. A few weeks ago we were grieved by fights breaking out at petrol stations; today we are seeing petrol stations destroyed or looted in their entirety. The endless queues for empty fuel tanks and grocery shelves are reminiscent of the final grim days of the Soviet Union. Unemployment is estimated at over 40 percent, and 77 percent of families can’t afford to adequately feed themselves — over 30 percent of children go to bed hungry. Incomes plunge as prices soar.

Despite the unforgiving heat of the Lebanese summer, the Rafik Hariri University Hospital no longer has the resources to operate its air conditioning; hospitals are receiving only about 2 to 3 hours of electricity from the grid. There is no fuel for generators, in part because so much subsidized fuel is smuggled to Syria. Priority life-and-death institutions are a step away from grinding to a complete halt. Critical electronic systems at airport customs, the Ministry of Justice and public security centers have failed in recent days, because of electricity and supply shortages.

In a sign of how dysfunctional the country has become, privilege in Lebanon today means being able to afford to pay someone else to take your car to sit all day in a miles-long queue for a few miserable liters of fuel, or flying to Jordan to stock up on baby milk and medication, or holding down three jobs in order to maintain a bearable standard of living.

Such is the hollowing out of Lebanon’s economy after decades of chronic mismanagement and systematic theft, that the nation is exclusively reliant on imports, resulting in this tiny country having the world’s biggest trade deficit. Yet the depletion of foreign currency reserves means that Lebanon can no longer pay for imports, as the domestic currency slides into hyperinflated valuelessness.

Without the generous support of Lebanon’s immense diaspora, the country would have long since starved. Organizations like the British Lebanese Association, Life and Impact have spearheaded commendable initiatives for making life more bearable. But if Lebanese overseas don’t want such dependence to become self-perpetuating, they must work together to exert their influence upon Lebanon’s political system, while incessantly reminding the world of Lebanon’s plight.

The intervention of Pope Francis means a great deal, including raising Lebanon with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The pope said Lebanon must not be exploited “for outside interests and profits.” Why is it that foreign dignitaries appear far better able to perceive the plight of the “disillusioned and weary” Lebanese people than our own heartless leaders?

We have experienced false hopes of the revolutionary potential of the ballot box in the past, only to wake up the next day and find that most votes went to traditional parties, with progressives, radicals and independents left out in the cold.

This time, everything is possible, but nothing can be taken for granted: Uprising networks must be organized and focused, working to raise awareness and show people that their only salvation is if citizens unite across traditional sectarian and factional dividing lines. Initiatives such as the “Towards One Nation” project have terrific potential to reinvent Lebanese models of political organization.

Each further day that Lebanon’s leaders delay their democratic reckoning only exacerbates the scale of the catastrophe awaiting them: A vote today may win them 15 percent, a ballot tomorrow may give them 5 percent. And if they torture long-suffering citizens by delaying significantly longer, it won’t be a question of what proportion of their revenues and privileges they can cling on to, but whether they can flee Lebanon in one piece!

  • Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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