Lebanese National Dialogue Must Include the Popular Movement

Lebanese protesters wave national flags during a demonstration denouncing Lebanon's stagnant political system, that has becom
Lebanese protesters wave national flags during a demonstration denouncing Lebanon's stagnant political system, that has become the target of demonstrations following a trash crisis, on September 20, 2015, in the capital Beirut. AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO (Photo credit should read ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)

Two years ago, as my eight-year old niece prepared for a school project that involved interviewing an elderly person, she asked my grandfather, who died at the age of 99 in 2013, what had changed in Lebanon over the course of one century.

"Nothing!" he replied emphatically. And he had nothing further to say.

"Nothing has changed" and "nothing will change" are phrases we hear constantly in Lebanon. It reflects the feeling that there is constant paralysis on social issues, including the current garbage crisis, electricity, water, education, health, telecommunication services and safe roads.

I have heard the same words in relation to the garbage crisis in Beirut: "Yes, we agree that the situation stinks, but no one will listen and nothing will change." This reflects the views of many Lebanese citizens who are supportive of the popular protests, but who are nonetheless unconvinced that the street is the solution.

The reality is that most of us do not believe that the street has the potential to break down the very strong wall of political hegemony and shared interests among the leaders who benefit from the status quo, as long as they remain in power.

There was indeed a short-lived moment of euphoria and heightened expectations for change following the withdrawal of Syrian troops in Lebanon in April 2005. Even after the 2005 elections and the re-election of mostly familiar faces, the expectation was that the managing of public policy in the country will be more transparent as those in office would be free from Syrian interference and would be able to carry out their reforms. Also, the involvement of hitherto exiled or imprisoned leaders was meant to ensure the participation and representation of all communities' interests.

But events that unfolded thereafter were stark reminders that change is easier proclaimed than carried out. From the long wave of political assassinations, to the July 2006 war, passing through the Nahr el-Bared crisis, internecine conflicts in Beirut and Tripoli, and finally the involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian war, the country has not enjoyed a moment of respite since the assassination of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005.

There is thus a confluence of internal and external factors that signal either a continuation of the current political stalemate in Lebanon, or a regionally sponsored comprehensive solution a la Doha Agreement (May 2008) that would result in the election of a president and the holding of Parliamentary elections according to an agreed-upon electoral law.

Awaiting such an agreement, Lebanese politicians have devised a plan to make sure they remain in power. They twice extended their own terms in Parliament for a full term, and elected a "National Interest" government that includes all political parties. They likely did this to avoid dealing with the questions of legitimacy and constitutionality that arose in 2007 during the presidential vacuum, when the opposition protests claimed the government was unconstitutional after the resignation of the Shii ministers. (The Lebanese Constitution states in its preamble: "There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the pact of mutual existence.")

In the meantime, citizens' affairs are given even less attention given the concern over national security. The spillover from the Syrian conflict on the military, political, and humanitarian level with the occurrence of suicide bombs, kidnappings of soldiers, a sharp political divide between pro- and anti-Assad regime, and 1.2 million refugees in a country that is already unable to provide basic services to its citizens and residents have all contributed to the current political stalemate.

Against this backdrop, the ongoing protests since July 2015 have been a much-needed sign of resistance by activists who decided they could not acquiesce to the accumulating garbage piles simply because the country is passing through a difficult time. They decided not to remain silent in the face of the government's nonchalance to matters that affect its ordinary citizens -- public health, a livable environment, and an end to abuse of public office and funds.

The anger about the garbage crisis has been coupled with demands related to the corruption of all politicians and parties, the obsolete nature of the confessional system, and the need for change on many fronts -- including for some, a complete overhaul of the system.

In effect, the importance of the popular protests lies precisely in exposing the dire state of affairs in Lebanon, namely as being corrupt to the bone, lacking legitimacy, and completely outside the control of the Lebanese citizen. More fundamentally, the movement is being lauded for bringing back the focus to citizens' concerns rather than being based on sectarian demands or interests.

Without disputing the legitimacy of these demands or the non-partisan, non-sectarian nature of the movement, successful calls for radical political change along the lines of "kellon ya'ne kellon" ("everyone means everyone") are very rare, and usually accompanied by at least some forward movement such as the resignation of ministers or other government officials or the falling of a government.

But none of these options are really feasible in the current political climate -- in part because despite fairly widespread support for the street movement, there remains a substantial majority of people in Lebanon who would continue to vote for the current political "old guard." The only realistic outcome may be the resignation of the Minister of the Environment, but he has resisted such demands and appeared unimpressed with the hunger strikes.

In order to really effect change and be heard, therefore, the groups involved with the popular movement should form a political party or coalition and negotiate with the current governing body. The street protests will continue to show that a sizable portion of the Lebanese population backs this political coalition and its demands, but at least there will be one official entity that speaks for the movement's demands with a clear mandate to discuss on its behalf on all matters.

The process of forming such a coalition with a common platform will undoubtedly be tedious, but that seems to be the strategic next step that would allow us to capitalize on the success the movement has had on the streets, especially with young people and marginalized communities.

In effect, it is clear that the largest demonstration of August 29 managed to mobilize over 100,000 supporters, according to one of the leading civil society activists. This should justify their right to be heard and represented at the National Dialogue, since they represent the interests of a sizable constituency of the Lebanese population.

The strategic struggle for the protestors should be to get a seat at the table. A seat at the table coupled with "street pressure" could be a more effective avenue civil society activists could use to bring about desired incremental changes to the political process. This will help ensure that the negotiated compromise will take into account the needs and demands of ordinary Lebanese people, especially in relation to basic services and the need for accountability in the political process -- without creating a dangerous power vacuum at a time when the country is ill-equipped to handle it.