Elections Now, Regardless of the Electoral Law

When I blogged about the necessity of boycotting Lebanese elections back in 2012, I had a basic assumption in my proposition: elections are a given and they will happen in due time. But it never occurred to me, that the politico-confessional ruling class will take that basic right away and extend its own term twice until 2017. One can try to give this self-extension all kinds of justifications, but they all fall short from giving sufficient reason to this illegitimate maneuver.

Back to the basics

In a "parliamentary democracy", the People gives a mandate to elected representatives for a specific period of time. This mandate has an expiry date. The furthest this mandate can be considered valid is the constitutional term period (which is in the case of Lebanon, 4 years). Beyond it, it is automatically considered illegitimate, regardless of any legislative maneuvers (legality vs legitimacy).

By presupposing that no reason is a valid reason to skip elections or extend expired mandates, then we can discuss all other legislative and logistic details. To keep with the spirit of democracy, elections MUST take place in due time if not earlier if necessary.

Take the recent example of Greece. Following a political crisis due to the steep economic crisis, early elections were held in January 2015. The People gave a mandate to a new parliament to take it out of the crisis. After tough negotiations with the EU, the government failed to achieve its goals. So PM Tsipras resigned and called for new early elections in September 2015. Regardless of the motives and political details that led to this situation, one thing is preserved: resorting to the People is the way to get out of a crisis.

Putting the cart before the horse

In Lebanon, the current political crisis has given birth to a new popular movement, opposing the current political class and raising demands including solving the current garbage management crisis, accountability and the political demand of early (actually overdue) elections.

Critics of the movement have been accusing it of ambiguity when it comes to the political issue, especially that elections include many details, most importantly the electoral law, subject of debate for many years. The confessional nature of the Lebanese political scene has been preventing reforms to the electoral law. The current law in use is obsolete, based on the law drafted in 1960 (a bare majority law, with constituencies that fits the politico-confessional oligarchs). Many have been demanding a proportional representation law, with different types of constituencies. The major components of the "Movement of 29 August" have shown their support for a proportional representation system, without any common agreement regarding the constituencies, however, this was not included in any of the official statements.

Many consider that the movement should include electoral law reforms in its demands, to allow it to achieve real change. Although this may be true, but there are no guaranties. This is due to the fact that the current political class is illegitimate, and as mentioned before has no direct mandate from the People but has hijacked power by extending its own term. In this context, asking this political class to make electoral reforms that would threaten its own existence is quite improbable. The demonstrations and protests might be a pressure factor, however, what are the odds for a ruling class that doesn't stem from the People to respond to the demands of that People?

Understandably, the genuine holders of this opinion (as opposed to ones with ulterior motives) are eager for change. But we must admit that deconstructing the current corrupt political class will not happen overnight (or "overelections", should I say). It is going to be a prolonged struggle, and it might be more efficient to accumulate small victories than rush into making big ones.

At this time, it is crucial to re-activate the democratic process. If a reformed electoral law have been passed it would be an additional gain but even without one, having elections should be the main target. It may come at the expense of many of the demands, it may re-elect the same political class, but it makes one crucial difference: the People has set a precedence of forcing elections to correct what is considered an illegitimate situation; the power is back to where it belongs in a democracy. And that is a very important first step, that would pave the way to more focused pressure and more steps to come.


A burgeoning hope

Events have been going on frantically in Lebanon recently. What began last July as an environmentalist protest to find a solution for the recent garbage management crisis is quickly growing into an organised political movement that is threatening the corrupt political system.

The cumulative crisis

Dialogue session between the politico-confessional oligarchs of Lebanon in 2012
(Credit: Marwan Tahtah for Al-akhbar newspaper)

The Middle-Eastern country, land of several cohabiting religious confessions, was torn apart by a 15 years long civil war which ended in 1990 by establishing a system in which previous warlords –and confessional leaders per se– play a major role under the patronage of the Syrian regime.

Over the following years, all sorts of corrupt deals were being struck under the pretext of the post-war rebuilding process. One of the many conspicuous deals, which is relevant to the current situation, was the awarding of garbage management to a company with shares divided between politico-confessional oligarchs or their proxies, with ridiculous costs.

By 2005, the public debt was estimated to be around $45 billion, while the country had no decent infrastructure and whatever was rebuilt reeked of corruption. That same year, the political assassination of ex-PM Hariri triggered a series of events that eventually led to the retreat of the Syrian military presence, without diluting its influence via its local “allies”, with a growing influence of Iran, and the influence of various Gulf countries was established in the country. A new era, supposedly began and the political scene was polarised between 2 major camps –not to go into more complex intricacies– which are the March 8 camp and the March 14 camp, each made of several alliances and realignments of the same political class of warlords and confessional oligarchs from the pre-2005 era, and supported by the opposed international players in the region.

This formula proved to be very unfavourable (to say the least). The political bickerings between the two camps, culminating in armed clashes in Beirut in May 2008, needed another intervention from the international players and an agreement was signed in Doha to enable the election of a president and agreeing on an electoral law, albeit a terrible one. By the 2009 elections, a status quo was established between the two camps, and any temporary change was directly related to temporary shifting between international powers. The political crisis was also being accompanied by signs of an economical crisis, with decreasing growth rates and increasing prices, and consecutive governments failed to address most of the issues, from the most trivial office appointments to more urgent social needs. And an atmosphere of terror was being spreaded, especially by 2011, the year of the beginning of the events in neighbouring Syria. The Lebanese people were facing a very bleak situation economically, but could not speak up due to the fear from disturbing the confessional system and because the security matter was more relevant, with terrorist attacks happening in several parts of the country. Only a few dared protest and demand changes, most notably the UCC (Unions Coordinating Committee) demanding their rights in a fair pay scale –more than 15 years overdue, for a brief period several civil organisations which demanded the abolition of the confessional system and environmentalist protests raising the voice against the situation of the waste landfills.

This pushed the political class to complete its act of power hijacking, by extending the term of the parliament in 2013 for very dubious reasons. Despite some opposition by a minority of the MPs, nobody resigned, and the extended parliament survived, without any direct mandate from the people. However, this didn’t solve any issues, but instead the country was slowly slipping into political deadlock. The extended illegitimate parliament was unable to elect a president in due time and the office has been vacant for the past 15 months. The government couldn’t address the economic and social needs of the people and in a mob-like way dismissed the demands of the UCC and extended the contracts of the company handling the garbage management until 2015. Moreover, the parliament renewed its illegitimate term extension until mid 2017.

By mid 2015, the public debt was estimated to be over $72 billion, growth nearing zero, about 25% unemployment rate, about 40% of the people are under the high poverty line and the political scene was totally ineffectual.

A hot Lebanese summer

Garbage piling up in the streets of Beirut. (credit: Naharnet)

In July 2015, the crisis reached its peak when the biggest of the waste landfills became saturated, garbage collection stopped, in an extortive manner, for weeks and the garbage was piling up in the streets, while the government failed to provide new solutions.
Small groups of civil activists and environmentalists started organising protests against the situation and proposed the solutions they envisioned to get out of the garbage crisis. Those protests were attracting tens of activists and supporters at first and eventually started gathering more people to reach a few hundreds by 8 August.

Meanwhile, the government had prepared a highly suspicious call for proposals with even more suspicious specifications. The date of awarding was set to 19 August, but the Ministry of Environment, due to unclear reasons, decided to postpone for a week. This decision happened while activists were protesting in the street and despite their relatively small number, the security forces resorted to violence against them and arrest a few. This signaled a very dangerous situation and spread suspicion among a bigger number of people who immediately gathered to support the detained activists, until their release.

Support was growing over the next days, and anti-corruption demands were being raised alongside the environmentalist ones, to reach thousands of people on 22 August, to the surprise of the political class, which pushed the government to take security measures by erecting fences and barbed wires on the way to the government headquarters, the Serail, and on all entrances to the parliament. Moreover, that night, the government deployed riot police and resorted to violence to brutally disperse the peaceful protesters who were challenging those unlawful security measures. The next day, the number of people taking the street in support of the demands doubled, and slogans of freedom of speech and refusal of the legitimacy of the current were also being raised, which didn’t stop the government from resorting again to violence against the protesters and erecting a concrete wall to block the way to the Serail, only to remove in less than 24 hours under pressure from the protesters.

On the other hand, the Ministry of Environment surprisingly decided to bring forward the date of awarding results, revealing an even more corrupt situation: the monopoly of waste management was distributed among the politico-confessional oligarchs and the administrative area was enlarged to cover the entire country, divided into six zones in which a contractor close to the dominant politico-confessional oligarch in the region was awarded the rights to manage garbage, with the same, or even higher, costs. Only to cancel those results the next day in a twisted political maneuver.
The organising groups in the protesting movement called for a protest on 29 August to support the following demands:
  1. The resignation of the Minister of Environment for failing to solve the garbage crisis properly
  2. Holding the minister of Interior and whoever investigation reveals responsible accountable.
  3. Finding a solution to the current garbage crisis by giving municipalities their withheld funds and allowing them to find local, cost-effective and environmental-friendly solutions.
  4. Considering the self-extended parliament as illegitimate and the demand for elections.

The protest proved to be a success with the largest number of people yet taking part of it, in support of its demands. To take on the established momentum, a 72-hour ultimatum was given to the government to start fulfilling those demands.

The political class, however, decided, following an initiative from the Parliament Speaker, to hold a dialogue session among its constituents on 9 September.

In an act of escalation, about 50 activists stormed the Ministry of Environment and staged a peaceful sit-in inside it, demanding the resignation of the minister, which ended in a violent intervention from the security forces to take the protesters out and facilitate the exit of the minister.

The following day, the Minister of Interior, reported the results of the investigation in the violent events, and only 2 low-ranking officers and 6 staff were held responsible, while more than 18 civilians were held in custody and face trials in the Military Court.

Planting the seeds of hope

Thousands demonstrated on 29 August in Martyr's square to demand a solution for the current garbage crisis and for the activation of political life in Lebanon (from twitter)
For the first time in years, a political movement is growing beyond the confessional regime and beyond the post-2005 polarisations and seeks to actively fight corruption in Lebanon. This movement, which began as the #YouStink movement, is currently being organised under one umbrella namely the “Movement of 29 August”, which is expected to join activists, unions and marginalised leftist political forces to actively work towards improving the political, social and economical situation in the country. The challenges are big and, for now, the demands are still basic, but this presents a good chance to make a difference and for the foundation of a new political regime.

This movement will not be constrained to the current crisis but into a long struggle to re-establish the political scene in Lebanon. The next stop in this struggle will be on 9 September. The movement is organising a protest to raise the voice against the futile dialogue being held between the oligarchs on the same day, and to re-insist on their demands raised on 29 August.

Many challenges face this movement, from its inside and from its outside, but one thing is sure that it totally relies on the popular support it is increasingly gaining.


A Radical Movement of Change

It's been the tradition of this blog to celebrate the International Labour Day on 1 May (2011, 2012). Despite the long time of inactivity, I decided to follow this tradition this year as well with this entry.

Part of the protest march of the UCC in Beirut on 29 April 2014 (Source: @PaulDamouni)
This year, the May Day memory is highlighted by the recent UCC (Unions Coordinating Committee) protests happening in Lebanon. I see great potential for this movement which, of course, is a righteous movement, following a labourious struggle which started in 1996; not to mention that it's cross-confessional, and doesn't adhere to any authoritarian political agenda.
On the surface, the struggle is for the ranks and salaries scale. But deeply, this struggle affects the whole structure of the Lebanese system of financial and confessional oligarchies.
And it has been proving so with the slogans it has been using recently, using a vocabulary including the concepts of "the 99% vs the 1%", "the whales of money and authority", refusing a "settlement at the expense of the poor classes", and calling for legislatures for punishing the corrupt and for a more balanced taxation scheme.
But where to go from here?
I believe this movement can be the cornerstone for more protests to come. For now, this movement is keeping its strict unionist aspect with specific demands, which I think should not be corrupted but, I also firmly hold the belief that it's time to expand it into a more radical one, including more groups of interest.
As a first step, everyone should support the UCC. We should have interest to do so. The struggle is no longer merely for the demands to approve the scale of ranks and salaries. Achieving this specific endeavour is the gateway to reshuffling the system, to be more fair.
The Leftist movements have been absent (except for a few voices) from the apparent picture of the UCC movement, which I hope is a strategic silence, not a sign of incapacity due to political affiliations. What better time for those movement to hold the causes of the people and the poor to the facade of the political scene?
I really hope this struggle ends up in positive result, despite the major regional and global conflicts affecting Lebanon, and that it won't be transformed into a political settlement card, because for once we have a movement that can lead into real change.



The Steps To Remove Religious Sect From Lebanese Registry Records

On the eve of an extremely sectarian and divisive electoral process, in terms of electoral law or political discourse, I still strongly believe that boycotting the elections is the best solution true Lebanese citizens must adopt to protest the hijacking of their country by leaders from the Middle Ages. (previously discussed in the blog entry: A good Lebanese citizen must not vote).

Protest and boycott are excellent starters to the main course of obtaining a nation. But this is a long path to follow, in the goal of reaching the non-sectarian civil society we all dream of.

An important right, which not all Lebanese citizens are aware of it, is your right to remove your religious sect from civil registry records (حق شطب المذهب من القيد) which saw the light with Minister of Interior Ziyad Baroud in 2008/2009.

Fellow twitter user @AHAreej kindly shared with me the following valuable documents in response to my question about the legal proceedings of removing religious sect from records.

I believe it's recommended to have a lawyer, and well, to be very persistent and follow it up (due to terrible bureaucracy, you know).

Document 1: The legal research conducted by Ministry of Justice to confirm the validity of this right (download here):

Document 2: The form to be filled and submitted to دائرة النفوس (download here):

In a sectarian country such as Lebanon, the main concern following such move of removing your religious sect could have some consequences like jeopardizing marriage or inheritance rights, some civil rights like voting or public office. The following 2 documents are a sort of a quick FAQ on these issues explaining the basis of legally defending those rights after removing your sect (download here and here):

As beautifully depicted in the previous FAQ document, a Lebanese after removing his sect information, is no longer a number in a sect, but a Citizen.



The Confused Nomad

It seems that Beirut International Airport is my favourite place to spot controversial books. After The God Delusion, this time, I found in the duty free bookstore the book Nomad by controversial author/politician/activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Cover of the book Nomad (ISBN: 978-1-84739-818-5)

Praised by prominent "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, the book invoked some interest in me and I decided to get it and read it.

Hirsi Ali starts her book by relating her tough early life (Hirsi Ali also has written a memoir titled Infidel) between Somalia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya by depicting her relationship to various members of her troublesome family and compares the differences she faced after running away from an arranged marriage to seek refuge in the Netherlands, where she began her activism, became a member of the parliament and then had to move to the United States of America for a job in the American Enterprise Institute.
Then she goes on by describing her account of the Muslim societies in the USA, to sum up their behaviour by three main conflicting topics: sex, violence and money, to then try to offer, what she considers, remedies.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's style is simple, pleasant and straight to the point. Her ideas on getting rid of outdated superstitions and complete helplessness, empowering women, protecting them and equating them with their men counterparts (through her foundation) are hailed although her approach is provocative to some extent (for instance the short film Submission, which caused the assassination of its director Theo Van Gogh).

Scene from the short film "Submission" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo Van Gogh.
The latter was assassinated shortly after the release of the film.

But, mevrouw Hirsi Ali, despite her much respected activism, seems to have a sort of confusion about this "new" world she is part of, in which she's a constant nomad and an eternal learner.
For an atheist who staunchly opposes religions (or is it Islam only, because of her sad past with it?), it is strikingly hypocritical to accept a job with the AEI, the think tank of the American Christian Neoconservatives, not to mention their deep attachment to the Zionist movement.

Moreover, miss Hirsi Ali, uses the ludicrous white man guilt theory to justify the support of some activists to the Palestinian cause (in the context of attacking feminists for not raising voice against issues outside their borders):
"Having sided with other movements of social revolution, such as the movement for national independence in Southeast Asia and minority groups and for the Palestinians, feminists began to define white men as the ultimate and only oppressors."

While looking up Hirsi Ali, I came along a YouTube video about a speech of Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the Global Atheist Convention 2012 discussing the Arab Spring from a secular v/s Islamic perspective.

The talk is very interesting except the bit where Hirsi Ali disregards all the crimes and apartheid of Israel and calls to tolerate its existence and claims that Israel is free because of the fact that newspapers can criticize politics and society.
This attitude is not restricted to this talk but, in fact, is highlighted in Nomad, in another attempt by Neoconservatives to shift the focal point of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to one between a Jewish and (allegedly more violent, hateful and decades backward) Islamic civilizations in order to demean it and legitimize the persistence of apatheid. Regardless of the attitude of any religion, this attitude is untrue, and the core of the conflict is the Israeli forced apartheid state which ripped the Palestinian land and is mistreating its people.

Also, mevrouw Hirsi Ali seems very confused about the new found freedoms in the western world. Undeniably, the society if the West, in the USA for instance, is more advanced than the ones in the third-world (and in this case, for Hirsi Ali is anti-Islamic, Islamic) societies. But these societies are also plagued with all sort of social problems of the modern type (psychopathy, rape, crime, homelessness, unemployment, dysfunctional families, etc...). Also, she seems to consider the illusion of choices in consumption an indication of happiness. There's more to life than this.

Of course no one's denying the bigger sense of freedom and cultural advancement in these societies (mainly because of the lesser influence of religions, among other reasons) but like in the "barbaric dictatorial regimes" Mrs. Hirsi Ali is allegedly fighting, regimes of corporations are ready to do more horrific actions, warmongering, and global crises, for the sake of the interest of the corporations.

The world needs people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who raise the voice against injustice and call for progress but, to overlook important causes and promote ideals of corporations is not a compromise to be made.