Change is Coming to Lebanon, and it is Being Driven at the Local Level

Above: a crowd waving Lebanese flags, Beirut, Lebanon. (Credit Unsplash/Charbel Karam, February 6, 2021)

Author: Nicolas Gholam
SCN Coordinator, Beirut.

The following opinion piece has been written by a guest author. The views expressed in it are the author’s own and cannot be attributed to the Strong Cities Network.

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the Beirut Port explosion. By the time you read this, you will have seen on TV the many protests in Beirut and around the world by civil society groups and local communities angry with the criminal negligence and corruption that allowed the explosion to take place and the failure to bring the ruling class responsible to justice.

In Lebanon, we have learned to endure the regular political and economic upheavals in the country and across the region: our own Civil War of 1975 to 1990, in which an estimated 150,000 were killed; the Syrian military occupation of 1976 to 2005; the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, the influx of refugees as a result of the US invasion of Iraq and the Syrian Civil War; and, most recently, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of these events has not only shaped Lebanon but also limited its ability to effect change, resulting in the country’s ongoing economic and political crisis, which began in August 2019 and has since plunged more than half of the population into poverty.

"Frustrated by the repeated failure of political elites to steer the country out of the crises, grassroots activists and independent political groups have been working to take matters into their own hands."

Both the economic crisis and the Beirut Port explosion have served as a wakeup call for Lebanese society. Frustrated by the repeated failure of political elites to steer the country out of the crises, grassroots activists and independent political groups have been working to take matters into their own hands. The result of this shakeup has been the emergence of new political avenues that have not been possible since before the Civil War. In the recent syndicate elections, a coalition of activists dubbed The Syndicate Rises won a decisive victory over the country’s sectarian elites. This in turn has been met at the other end of the spectrum by politicians abandoning their political parties and seeking to join these emerging groups.

Another change has been the rise of alternative media that offers a different discourse to the political party propaganda promoted by conventional media in the country. Whereas the majority of traditional media outlets either belong to or are affiliated with a political party, new alternative media outlets seek to offer unbiased and objective analysis on critical political, cultural, economic and social topics. Their surging popularity on social media platforms is proof of the great need for this kind of news, which is helping to rebuild the political centre and allow readers to establish opinions based on independent, credible journalism.

"While change may be coming, it is happening at different rates across the country... the need for radical change in Lebanon is greater than ever"

However, while change may be coming, it is happening at different rates across the country. In Beirut, where new and creative ideas have long found fertile soil, change has already taken root. In other more rural and conservative areas of the country, where traditions and social constraints are deeply embedded and political parties hold greater sway, change may be slower to take shape.

The need for this level of radical change in Lebanon is greater than ever. The country’s public debt, $74.5 billion as of two years ago, and longstanding socioeconomic inequality, has only been exacerbated by recent events. While international organisations have provided much-needed financial and material aid, more than 70% of the population is below the poverty line and the relief provided is not being distributed equally. Many communities have been reduced to a subsistence economy and are becoming increasingly resentful, frustrated and desperate. Combined with a complete absence of national leadership and its ability to ffect change from the top-down, Lebanon’s population is increasingly forced to resort to hostile measures to be heard.

All this has obvious dangerous implications for extremist groups seeking to exploit these desperate conditions to radicalise individuals. If change is not forthcoming, and unemployment, homelessness and poverty levels continue to rise, the situation will only become more unstable.

"local organisations, communities and ordinary citizens have stepped up to fill the gap of public service delivery where the national government has failed"

Lebanon has achieved some success in preventing extremism and radicalisation at the local level. A partnership between the Strong Cities Network and the Lebanese National Prevention of Violent Extremism (PVE) Coordination Unit since 2017 has produced three Local Prevention Networks in Tripoli, Saida and Majdal Anjar, with each municipality leading its own projects and informing the national PVE strategy.

In Tripoli for instance, the work is revolving around enhancing media literacy for youth and for parents. Majdal Anjar meanwhile has approached PVE through sports, while Saida has implemented a Teachers’ Toolkit for early detection that is being groomed to be implemented in schools all over the country in partnership with the Ministry of Higher Education.

While these successes prove the value of national-local partnerships, Lebanon provides a stark reminder of the fragility and dangers when national governments fail. In the case of Lebanon, local organisations, communities and ordinary citizens have stepped up to fill the gap of public service delivery where the national government has failed, but without continued support, their ability to continue to fulfil this function is looking increasingly untenable.

The country’s hopes are now firmly locked on the May 2022 elections as the only way to prevent a complete failure of national government, and replace it with actors willing and, most importantly, capable of offering tangible solutions at the local and national level.

Nicolas Gholam recently joined the Strong Cities Network as a Coordinator in Beirut. Nicolas comes from a Rural Development background and possesses vast knowledge of Lebanese socio-economic and political dynamics.

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