Reaching Lebanon’s disenfranchised majority

Lebanon is the Middle East’s most invisible authoritarian regime. Often praised for its culture of democracy, Lebanon’s leaders have proved unwilling to reform the sectarian state that has left this country, which promises so much, routinely offering so little. Saad Hariri and the March 14 movement represent the latest leaders to follow this trend, as their recent rally commemorating the death of former PM Rafik Hariri showed their inability to inspire those outside their voting bloc. Though he attempted to cast himself as a political leader with national appeal, Saad Hariri only succeeded in heightening his image within a select segment of Lebanese society, rather than utilizing the opportunity to deal with the root causes of Lebanon’s instability: poor governance, fractured leadership and Lebanon’s sectarian political system.

In his speech and in the weeks since the rally, Hariri has attacked Hezbollah’s arms, asserted his support for the Special Tribunal investigating his father’s death, and offered up an obscure vision for Lebanon’s democratic future.  The central problem, however, is that to achieve his goal of disarming Hezbollah and creating a better system of government, Hariri must reposition himself as a man of reform, moving away from the very political structure that has served as the foundation of his success.  If he is to move forward, he must mobilize a new base of supporters outside the lifeless March 14 movement and become a true statesman with national appeal.

The widely-held belief that Lebanon is deeply loyal to sectarian communities is flawed and outdated. The equally-false notion that most of Lebanon’s population remains divided between the March 14 and March 8 coalitions has pervaded much of the media coverage of Lebanon, simplifying the country’s more factionalized conflict. This superficial narrative of allegiance overlooks the disenfranchised majority, a constituency that lies somewhere in the middle between these two political poles and represents the biggest voting block yet to be captured by any political party.

In Lebanon, unemployment is high, poverty is extensive, and confidence in the economy is low. This has led to an increased recognition that the system of patronage between politician and citizen has not benefited the society at large, giving way to a growing discontent toward political elites.  Less worried about Hezbollah’s weapons or the Special Tribunal, the disenfranchised majority represents the huge bloc of Lebanese who believe their country is heading in the wrong direction. They are primarily made up of Lebanon’s lower-middle class, but also include parts of the middle-upper income bracket and educated citizens who are absent from the political process and have begun to mobilize.

To become an effective statesman, Hariri must incorporate civil society demands into his democratic vision while also taking pointers from Interior Minister Ziad Baroud.  While Lebanese civil society was previously suppressed by Syrian tutelage, it has made small achievements that have advanced transparency in the budgetary process, furthered operational efficiency within government bureaucracies and raised the standard of accountability for public officials, all of which should serve as the outline for the sovereign state Hariri aspires to. Unlike its Arab neighbors, which have systematically crippled civil society and have had minimal exposure to representative government, Lebanon is blessed with a politically sophisticated citizenry, experienced in the practice of democracy. Though imperfect and prone to abuse by sectarian opportunists, Lebanon’s democratic tradition has laid a foundation on which an effective and inclusive state can be built.

Baroud, a long-time civil society activist himself, has built on this foundation by successfully enacting sections of the proposed electoral-reform package, which seeks to gradually secularize governance through the creation of a bicameral administration.  Indeed, Baroud has pushed forward a culture of responsibility in government and was credited with overseeing Lebanon’s most transparent round of elections to date in 2009.  With a reputation for implementing change, rather than merely speaking of it, Baroud has gained popular support by being an impartial but principled decision maker within Lebanon’s cabinet. It is this commitment to the state and its citizens over sectarian loyalties that should serve as the model for political leadership.

In times of crisis, the public looks to the government for clarity. Today, Hariri faces a critical decision between two options: to revert to the familiar system of sectarianism that ensures him limited power and short-term survival, or to become a national leader by advancing a new outlook that embraces the demands of the disenfranchised majority while engaging with civil society activists who will increasingly settle for nothing less than true democratic reform away from Lebanon’s sectarian system.

Simply repeating the same tones of triumphalism that we saw in the 2005 Cedar Revolution without a decision to commit to the process of state building will leave Hariri at the same point he is in today: a Sunni Muslim leader indistinguishable from his feudal peers. To ensure long-term political survival and to become a leader who transcends sectarian divides, Hariri must stop offering empty rhetoric that panders to Lebanon’s worst sectarian instincts, and start providing clarity on the details of his vision for a democratic Lebanon.

  • randa

    Hopefully Hariri can take Barouds lead and focus on good governance rather than sectarian strife. The issue of guns is a big one and weighs heavely on everyones mind. No matter how much progress is made in civil socity, when a call to arms is made, we are back to where we started... a broken country.

    April 20, 2011

  • ahmad

    Hariri is not a wise leader...his leadership over the sunni community emerges from that same sectarian instinct the article mentions. We should all speak frankly...he is not a statesman and he does not have the skills to lead such a complex country.It is out of the question...Hariri will never fill the gap between sunnis and shiites...we do require a strong sunni leader to do that, but Hariri has simply burnt all his chances after a series of dreadful mistakes and a bold sectarian speech which often sound irritating.

    April 20, 2011

  • Dana B

    Brilliant writing indeed. I agree hariri needs to change the path he is following - although I wish I saw Hariri in the same optistimic light as before. At the moment, he is just another sectarian leader putting himself first, his community second, and his country last.

    April 18, 2011

  • sam akar

    Mr. irrelevant just goo away...........

    April 18, 2011

  • TJO

    Agree that guns come from "sectarian" economic & political differences (Our Shiaa brothers were out of the loop for so long until Hezbollah's guns earned them some respect) which brings us always back to Lebanon's chronic disease (too many religions/sects). We are after all doing OK when u consider this burden. I would love to have a Lebanon only approach...by the way which Lebanon ?

    April 17, 2011

  • Rola G

    Last paragraph sums it all perfectly..well done :) your writing skills are brilliant, brilliant and BRILLIANT

    April 16, 2011

  • Ranya G

    Guns are not the main problem.The economic downfall that is so prevalent in Lebanon has created the conditions in which people have resorted to guns- fix that and slowly the guns will go away. This can only be achieved once the majority of Lebanese people feel like the politicians in power are looking out for them, further reminding politicians that their career's should NOT be based on one group, but Lebanon as a whole.

    April 16, 2011

  • TJO

    Agree with "lebinlon" that reform can only take place in a civilized atmosphere.Baroud looks clean...but what exactly did he achieve under so many guns? The 2005 elections were also transparent. Baroud/Hariri,...could perform well should the law prevail everywhere..U know what I mean !

    April 16, 2011

  • khodr G.

    Realistic and accurate article.. Keep going

    April 15, 2011

  • SarahB

    Great article-- exactly the type of voice Lebanon needs to hear more of.

    April 15, 2011


    Question to the author : how can you implement a "vision for a democratic Lebanon" when a part of the lebanese population can freely point a gun at the other part ? humm ? HOW ? it obviously start with removing that gun and putting it in the armed forces hands. no ? and that's your first stumbling block. Thank you for providing a suggestion to THAT !!

    April 15, 2011