Lebanon’s independents disrupt political order


The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since political novice Ibrahim Mneimneh won a seat in Lebanon’s general election this month.

Strangers, journalists, old friends, new colleagues: everyone wants to congratulate him and his reform-minded newcomers, whose victory has shaken the status quo in a country long dominated by political elites.

“We have given people hope for the first time in a long time,” said Mneimneh, a 46-year-old architect and urban planner, at his home in Beirut. “It was a bit overwhelming.”

He is one of 13 new lawmakers with ties to the October 2019 protest movement that swept Lebanon as the country’s fragile economy began to collapse. They are doctors, lawyers, professors and activists who collectively have won votes in half the country’s constituencies and across religious and social divides.

Their success means that Hezbollah, the political and paramilitary force that dominates the country, and its allies have lost their majority in the 128-seat parliament. No party or bloc won the election outright, and long talks loom before a coalition government is formed. But the emergence of independent MPs is a significant change in a country long dominated by former warlords, scions of political dynasties or those with foreign money, analysts say.

“This is the first time 13 ordinary people have come to power,” said Sami Atallah, founding director of the Beirut-based think tank The Policy Initiative, which oversees parliament. “These are real people that we can all relate to.”

Mneimneh is one of the more familiar faces among the newcomers. His political career began in 2016 when he unsuccessfully ran for a council seat in Beirut’s local elections. These came on the back of a nationwide garbage crisis in which garbage went uncollected for weeks – one of many crises widely blamed on politicians seen as corrupt and incompetent.

Although unsuccessful, the civil society party with which he ran won 40 percent of the vote. “We could see that people were eager for change,” said Mneimneh, who ran again in the 2018 general election. He failed to win a seat but built the political machinery, combining local activism and social media campaigning, that propelled him to victory last week.

Mneimneh said his campaign was funded primarily by small donations and his own money. Like most pollsters, he did not expect protest-linked candidates to win more than eight seats, especially since Lebanon’s elections are often marred by fraud and vote-buying.

His victory was all the more surprising given that it came in a Beirut neighborhood that has been dominated by mainstream parties for the past 30 years. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his Future Movement boycotted the election, allegedly citing Iran‘s undue influence. “Because Hariri didn’t tell voters what to do. . . For the first time, people started having a real and healthy political conversation about how to choose their candidates,” Mneimneh said.

Professor Najat Aoun Saliba is one of four women in the new cohort of independents © Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images/Fondation L’Oreal

This conversation has been fueled by widespread anger at the ruling elite, particularly among younger Lebanese, who will bear the brunt of the country’s collapse.

Many of the anti-establishment independents campaigned for political, economic and social reforms, but all prioritized repairing the country’s ailing economy. Most also pledged to bring justice to the families of those killed or injured in the 2020 Beirut port blast that killed more than 200 people and injured thousands more, prompting the government to resign. Najat Aoun Saliba, a chemistry professor and environmental activist who was among those elected last week, attributes her decision to run to the blast.

“We felt that our dignity and our existence were completely in the hands of corrupt people,” said Saliba, who spoke to the Financial Times by phone from her home in Beirut, in one of the districts worst hit by the blast.

Saliba is one of four women in the new cohort of independents and one of eight women MPs in the new parliament, a record number for Lebanon. Female voters are key to her victory, she said. “For me it is extremely important that we soon get 50/50 representation in government and in all sectors.”

The independents’ ability to push reforms depends largely on their ability to act as a unit, analysts say. Experts also warn against romanticizing the opposition’s power, as parliament remains establishment-dominated.

“If they remain united as a group . . . They could really bring Parliament back to life,” Atallah said. “This Parliament has been hijacked by the ruling political parties and they have actually rendered it irrelevant. It’s just a stamp parliament.”

Mneimneh and Saliba both said their cohort understands their power lies in unity and they hope to act as one bloc. “We all need to benefit from each other’s expertise and support to advance our agenda,” Saliba said.

But their differing views on some of Lebanon’s most divisive issues, including refugees, Hezbollah’s arsenal that has been retained and the role of religion in the country’s politics threaten to create divisions.

Their approach to restructuring the banking sector and the economy is also unclear.

Maha Yahya, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, said that “not enough work was done before the election” to promote a unified ideology among independents. “Questions like: How do you distribute the losses, how do you proceed with bank restructuring, what do you do with state assets? Those are key questions. . . and it is not clear that they are on the same page on these issues.”

At the end of last week, most of the hit independents appeared on one of the country’s most popular talk shows. It’s timecalculated as a celebration of Parliament’s newcomers.

“Not all protest movements succeed,” Saliba told the audience. “But they couldn’t lock us up in the street, and now we’re going to Parliament.”


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