The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Out with the old? The new faces seek­ing votes

Dis­sat­is­fied by state cor­rup­tion, ac­tivist and cit­i­zen groups unite to con­test polls

- By Ti­mour Azhari Latin America News · Politics · Beirut · Belarus · Austria · Albania · Baabda · Iceland · Lebanon · Belgium · West Ham United F.C. · Hezbollah · Amal Movement · Israel · Benjamin Netanyahu · Saad Hariri · Future Movement · Maronite Church · Lebanese American University · Country Alliance · Baalbek · Paula Yacoubian

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 Baabdafo­cused elec­toral group.

Sabeh, who was mar­ried at the age of 16, 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.

Sabeh 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 alAs­mar. 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 gen­eral as­sem­bly, com­posed of 14 vot­ing mem­bers – one male and one fe­male for the seven found­ing par­ties. Though more groups have since joined, As­mar said the as­sem­bly will not be al­tered un­til af­ter elec­tions.

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 po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tee, 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 was formed and funded by Le­banese and was firmly fix­ated on Le­banon’s sovereignt­y and in­de­pen­dence from re­gional power plays.

“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 said 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.

Sabaa has posted a full ac­count of its fi­nances for the first half of 2017

 ??  ?? YouStink pro­test­ers carry Le­banese flags dur­ing a rally in Beirut in Au­gust 2015.
YouStink pro­test­ers carry Le­banese flags dur­ing a rally in Beirut in Au­gust 2015.

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