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Mark Daou

The Lebanese Left: three phases since the Civil War

The statue unveiled in June 2006 in remembrance of slain Lebanese writer and journalist Samir Kassir in downtown Beirut, on the first anniversary of his assassination. (AFP/Joseph Barrak)
AUB students from the Secular Club during student elections (image via Facebook)

Early beginnings

 

Since the guns of the Civil War fell silent in 1990, the Lebanese Left has passed through three phases that have defined its participation in the political scene. By the end of the war, leftist parties had grown weak due to the assassination of their leaders, the prohibiting of leftists parties from contributing to the resistance against Israel, and the collapse of the Soviet Union—their primary sponsor. These parties were doomed to irrelevance when they failed to win seats in the parliamentary election of 1992 and by the crippling feuds that took place after the Oslo Accord in 1994, which saw the second biggest leftist party—the Communist Action Organization in Lebanon (OACL)—dismantled. From that moment, the Left in Lebanon was reduced to a symbolic presence, maybe best described as ineffective.

 

The first phase of the post-war-era Left followed hard upon the demise of the wartime parties. Students launched independent leftist political groups, mainly on the fringes of the Lebanese Communist Party. These student groups were influenced by the ideology, leaders and the history of the Lebanese Left. Many of the youth activists were relatives of members of the wartime communist parties. No Frontiers was founded at AUB; Pablo Neruda at LAU; Tanios Chahine at USJ; and other groups formed at Balamand, BAU, Lebanese University and elsewhere.

 

The student groups sparked intense debates within the Lebanese Communist Party, leading to the creation of lobby groups within the party as well as the formation of youth groups from party members external to the party organization, such as the group Communist Students. But these efforts to reform the Communist Party hit the iron wall of the party's structure, which increased the rate of defections and propelled the formation of more independent organizations. As a result, defectors launched several NGOs and social campaigns, such as Baladi, Baldati, Baladiyati, the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, and others.

 

When Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, the floodgates of political contention were opened. The main topics at the time were the Syrian troops in Lebanon, and the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s weapons since Israel no longer occupied Lebanese soil. The parties split between those in support of the ‘Syrian presence’ and those against the ‘Syrian occupation.’ In this duel, leftist student organizations took the latter position, thus crossing the divide the civil war had defined between west and east Beirut.

 

A fast-paced sequence of political events ensued in the early years of the new millennium, from the creation of Cornet Chehwan, the Christian political grouping, to the Manbar Democracy in west Beirut. These groups created considerable space for political challenges to the incumbent Baath-dominated system. By 2003, and with the US-led invasion of Iraq, Lebanon’s political class was split between those against both the war and Saddam Hussein, and those with Saddam and against the war. In the midst of that division, the leftist student groups took a daring step by declaring: “No war, No dictatorship,” a slogan they united under. This led to more avenues of cooperation, which in turn hailed the start of the second phase of the post-war Lebanese left.

 

 

Second phase

 

By 2004, the Lebanese Left founded the Democratic Left Movement (DLM). The movement organized itself quickly and spread with the efforts of hundreds of new members from the student youth groups, side-lining Communist Party and OACL members, as well as many independent thinkers, activists and journalists on the Left.  

 

The MDL was barely a few months old when the Cedar Revolution broke out. The movement was an active and powerful contributor to the intifada, which led to more defections from leftist parties such as the Lebanese Leftist Movement.

 

As the political struggle intensified in 2005, and with the new party making inroads in the political scene, leftists across the country found a new vitality, culminating in the election of the first leftist to parliament, MDL Secretary General Elias Atallah. This success came at devastating cost, however, with the assassination of Samir Kassir, a key founder of the Democratic Left Movement; and George Hawi, the iconic leftist leader and a key supporter of the movement. Then came the severe illness of another key founder—Hikmat el-Eid— along with death threats to the movement’s leadership.

 

By 2006, internal tensions broke out among the members of the MDL over the Israeli war on Lebanon. They argued whether the movement should support Hezbollah’s legitimacy as a fighting force outside governmental control or to demand that Hezbollah come under the leadership of the Lebanese government—this latter view holding Hezbollah responsible for instigating the war.

 

From that moment, infighting within the movement continued to intensify, surfacing in the party elections of 2007, in which the list of the general secretary lost a sizable proportion of support to a youth list that gained 36% of the votes in the first proportional party election in the history of Lebanese political parties. The deteriorating security situation and the eventual occupation of the movement’s offices by the Amal Movemet’s militia during the crisis of May 2008 further crippled the party.

 

Some increased activity was noted in 2010 with the secretary general’s second term coming to an end as candidates vied for leadership. Using the excuse of the ‘security situation,’ however, the extant leadership postponed elections indefinitely. By the time an election took place, it was two years late and only 100 members showed up to confirm the appointment of an agreed-upon list of candidates. It was the end of the viability of the organization, and the end of the Left's second phase in post-war Lebanon.

 

 

Third phase

 

A fledgling third stage may well have begun between 2011 and 2012, when new political youth groups started forming in universities with leftist leanings. Under the name “Secular Clubs,” many activists organized themselves to contest elections and fight political battles distinctly independently of the incumbent March 14 and March 8 political alliances. They allied themselves with civil society on economic and social issues that have consistently formed the backbone of the leftist developmental agenda in Lebanon. Between 2013 and 2015, the secular clubs achieved various electoral and public victories, allowing them to make their presence known and endowing them with increased credibility.

 

The graduates from these clubs form political cadres capable of contributing to political debate on a national scale. Their debut on the Lebanese political scene could herald the start of a third phase for the Lebanese Left. This phase could witness the formation of a new political organization that incorporates the lessons learned from the past two phases and unites the secular club students with activists from the Democratic Left Movement and independent civil society, as well as inactive communists. United, they could give the Left a fighting chance to contest politically and possibly break the monopoly sectarian leaders hold over Lebanese political life.

 

Marc Daou is the CEO of RPR, an independent public relations agency, and a lecturer on media studies at the American University of Beirut. He tweets @DaouMark

The statue unveiled in June 2006 in remembrance of slain Lebanese writer and journalist Samir Kassir in downtown Beirut, on the first anniversary of his assassination. (AFP/Joseph Barrak)

By 2004, the Lebanese Left founded the Democratic Left Movement (DLM). The movement organized itself quickly and spread with the efforts of hundreds of new members from the student youth groups, side-lining Communist Party and OACL members, as well as many independent thinkers, activists and journalists on the Left."