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Why Have the Lebanese ‘Forgotten’ Politics?

Why Have the Lebanese ‘Forgotten’ Politics?

Sunday, 19 June, 2022 - 10:30

Individuals can only learn politics in a political society, just like they can only learn the law in a society of laws.

Thus, for example, the Cuban oppositionists in Miami engaged with all sorts of concerns and activities that are difficult to link to politics and the law. The same is true for the Russians who rose to the fore and took power after the Soviet Union collapsed, as well as many of those who became “politicians” in Iraq after Saddam fell or their Syrian counterparts who had been hoping to succeed Bashar al-Assad.

They are all the product of one of two things: either the disruption of politics in their country in favor of a form of “politics” that is the prerogative of a single party and a single leader, or living in exile. They all came to politics from zero political experience.

Lebanon does not fall into this category. It is not governed by a one party regime with a single ruler, and parliamentary elections that all parties contest are held; the latest of these elections ended only recently. However, Najat Aoun Saliba (one of the 13 new “change deputies”) saying that Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri “is in himself a school, that, God willing, I will manage to learn from” demonstrates that Lebanese politics is plagued by deep problems. It is not merely a question of Berri and schooling being total opposites, as on top of that, the statement also negates Saliba’s political raison d’etre: why change then? Why vote for her as a candidate representing change?

The incident, then, is more than a gaffe or a slip that the good intentions of Saliba and her other colleagues can cover for. It touches on, among other things, the state of politics, how it is practiced, and how it is represented in Lebanon.

Since the war of 1975, politics' capacity for driving change has been diminishing, as has conceiving oneself and the other politically. In addition to the human losses and material damages it left in its wake, the war undermined the political consciousness that been building: let us remember that the 1972 elections brought to Parliament a Baathist like Abedalmajid al-Rafiie, a Nasserist like Najah Wakim, and an exotic Marxist like Zaher al-Khatib.

After that war, another "white revolution" like the one that toppled the presidency of Bechara El Khoury, or elections like those of 1968 that created a fundamental shift in the country's politics, have become unimaginable.

Let us also note that politics, under Syrian tutelage and then the tutelage of Hezbollah, has become an exercise in the “marginalization” of major sectarian communities: marginalization of the Christians between the Taif Agreement of 1989 and March 14, 2005 and then the marginalization of the Sunnis, which continues to aggravate by the day. Politics through marginalization is not politics. It is more an object of collective psychology. In addition, those sects themselves underwent in relatively short periods of time some major shifts in their political consciousness. This phenomenon was manifested in the strong support for Aoun among Christians, which left the majority reversing its traditional positions. With Hariri, a similar shift occurred within the Sunni community. Today, there is good reason to believe that Christians and Sunnis' collective mood might have begun shifting again.

What we are describing is neither a clinical case nor things that happen in a hospital. It is the disruption of politics that draws on many other sources: the plurality of the sectarian leaderships have been shrinking further, as the Lebanese historian and intellectual Ahmed Baydoun has repeatedly explained. Sects that had had multiple competing zaiims (chieftains) now have one or two at most. We also have the question of the "sacredness of the resistance," a hindrance to politics by definition that has been growing symbiotically with three other disruptive factors:

The first is that the “resistance community,” basically the Shiites, should not change. That is, it should not become divided along political lines because this undermines the ‘sacred’ (Hezbollah), which should never be undermined. The recent elections are the latest proof of that.

Second, so long as the "resistance community," a large sect, is forbidden from changing, then all change is forbidden. That is the lesson of October 17. Among the ramifications is that crimes, from the assassination of Rafik Hariri to the assassination of Lokman Slim, and the assassinations of the port and the economy perpetrated during the interval, are not prosecuted in any meaningful way. When an international court indicts, arresting the perpetrators is impossible.

No law, no institutions. What governs us is our unyielding fate, before which politics stands impotent and silent.

Third, we have the regional disruption, represented by the solid Iranian wall. It is most obvious in the experience of Saad Hariri (and Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq): isolation from politics has become the only option. Once again, the psychological prevails over the political.

The implications of excluding politics become apparent once we look at the “change deputies” themselves: for some, their political experience began accumulating on October 17. Others had been politically engaged amid their turbulent student lives over a quarter of a century ago. Most of them are “good guys” facing up to “thugs.” They are indeed “good guys,” but this question’s political relevance is another matter.

Politics have been paralyzed by war, sectarianism, the resistance, and finally Syrian tutelage and an abundance of velvet gloves. In the aftermath of such a state of affairs, none of us knows what to say. Najat Aoun Saliba went further, saying the opposite of what she should.

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