The uprising in Lebanon has reached a critical stage. Protestors are caught between the euphoria that characterized their demonstrations last October, when people took to the streets, and the need to think about where their movement has to go in the future.
As the country’s financial situation continues to collapse and people lose their jobs, thinking about new forms of dissent and renewal has become a necessity. People are now too preoccupied with the basics of survival to give as much attention to demonstrating, when the priority is to get a government in place that can deal with the international community. But the effort to change Lebanon for the better will not stop, which is why the protest movement has to transform itself into a more lasting challenge to the politicians.
One of the more promising ways it can do so is by focusing on municipal elections, which take place every six years. This was well understood by civil society activists in the last municipal elections of 2016. There are several reasons why engagement in local politics may create valuable openings for those dissatisfied with the status quo.
First of all, municipal councils affect citizens in their everyday life. As the uprising has made clear, the Lebanese revolted largely because they felt that their lives had become an insult, with people paying ever higher prices for deteriorating services. Everything from trash management to green spaces for children to imposing filters on poisonous neighborhood generators are within the remit of municipal councils. If anything can persuade citizens to vote for alternative leaders to their sectarian politicians, it is to offer them the means to dramatically ameliorate their daily surroundings.
Second, municipal councils are not elected on a sectarian basis, even if some cities respect a sectarian balance to ensure that councils are more broadly representative. Why does this matter? Principally, because if councils are less sectarian and are less affected by sectarian considerations, it means, potentially, that they are influenced less by sectarian leaders and parties. More important, because of the limited sectarianism of the councils, sectarian leaders are inclined to view municipal elections as less of a challenge to their communal leadership, giving local councils more latitude to act freely.
Third, and deriving from the second, because municipal elections are not sectarian, they are influenced less by the sectarian impulses among voters. In parliamentary elections, for instance, voters are much more liable to vote on the basis of their sect, regarding their failure to do so as representing a loss for their sectarian community at large. That is why relatively few people voted for civil society candidates in the 2018 parliamentary elections. At the municipal level such considerations have less of an impact, allowing independent candidates to appeal to a wider cross-section of voters.
Fourth, at the municipal level there is often a sense of local solidarity and sense of belonging that make the outcome of elections very unpredictable. The immediacy of the vote and pride in one’s neighborhood, town, or village mean that voters are more likely to be sensitive to personalized messages from candidates looking to persuade them that they can bring improvements to their living conditions. This can cut across party or political loyalties, and if exploited properly can have a major impact on voters’ choices.
The protest movement should begin to prepare for municipal elections in Lebanon’s major cities and towns. Those are the essential targets for 2022. Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon, Tyre, like Nabatiyyeh, Bourj Hammoud, Bint Jbeil, and Zahleh are all places in need of municipal reinforcement or revival. Why the larger areas? Because it is more difficult for the government to starve such places of funds were it to regard independent municipal councils as a threat to the domination of sectarian leaders. Equally important, successful municipal management of larger agglomerations would enhance the credibility of independent figures to manage national institutions when voters have to decide for whom to vote in parliamentary elections.
Elections in 2022 are some time away. Yet this gives independent civil society groups time to prepare the groundwork for municipal elections. Moreover, given these groups’ comparative advantage in understanding realities on the ground and in building networks within society, this time can be well spent. This is particularly true in Beirut, the richest and shadiest of municipalities. Concerned independents can begin organizing now, perhaps by acting as a shadow government in the capital, keeping the current council under persistent and public scrutiny, while meeting with Beirutis and asking them how they would really like to see their city improve.
The battle to reclaim Lebanon will be a long one. The sectarian leaders and their followers will continue to fight to maintain themselves. But with a major financial breakdown looming and the old order transparently bankrupt, now is the time to take advantage of a national mood in the country that is ready to consider more competent leaders who have the population’s interests at heart. It’s best not to challenge the sectarian leaders head on too soon, so that independent forces have the space to organize and build up a support base. That is why a major focus down the road should be on municipal elections, where the Lebanese can exploit the vitality of the local.