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Lebanon: Challenges for reformists 'difficult to master'

May 20, 2022

Lebanese reform forces are the symbolic winners of the election, while the Hezbollah-dominated bloc lost the majority in parliament. Do the reformists have a chance of leading the country out of the crisis?

Electoral workers at a polling station in Houla, southern Lebanon
The Lebanese population is exhausted and distrusts politicians Image: Aziz Taher/REUTERS

For the Lebanese reformists, the outcome of last week's election is a triumph: They won 13 out of the 128 seats in parliament.

They snatched the seats from allies of the Shiite Hezbollah militant group, who will be represented with 62 members — compared to 71 after the 2018 election.

However, the Iran-backed Hezbollah itself was able to hold its own seats. The loss came at the expense of its partners, in particular the Christian Free Patriotic Movement party, led by President Michel Aoun.

And yet Hezbollah and its allies have lost the majority in parliament.

They will now face increased pressure from other major parties, such as the Christian Forces Libanaises (FL), led by Samir Geagea. Shortly after the results came in, FL was already claiming to be the most important reform group of all.

Lebanese depositors hold placards saying 'Note how the central bank and banks are withholding our deposits.'
Cash withdrawals are limited, and the currency has lost 90% of its value - which makes it hard for the population to pay for food. Image: Hussein Malla/AP Photo/picture alliance

But it remains to be seen how credible they are. After all, they have long been part of the Lebanese political class, both in parliament and, earlier, as a civil war militia, and many Lebanese consider them part of the establishment. But more importantly, they do not belong to the new camp of the younger reformers.

Fight against 'corrupt projects'

The young reformists were founded in late 2019 amid a severe national crisis that was characterized by political stagnation, corruption and a massive economic decline.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value, and the situation was further exacerbated by the Beirut port blast in August 2020 that left more than 200 people dead, destroying both the port and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Since then, the port blast has, for many, turned into a symbol of the inadequacy of the established political class.

According to the United Nations, three-quarters of the Lebanese population now live below the poverty line— plenty of challenges for the 13 reform parliamentarians, but they are more than willing to tackle these, at least according to their election slogans.

"Look what they've done to us,no electricity, water, they took away our money and they've buried us under garbage," Najat Saliba, one of the newly elected lawmakers of the reform forces "Taqqadum" (Progress), told DW.

For her, long-established politicians have done nothing but fail.

"If they couldn't do anything for 60 years, they won't be able to do anything in the future either!" 

She promises to be part of a firm opposition in the Lebanese parliament. "We will veto every single one of the corrupt projects of the representatives of the parties."

Will the opposition be joining forces?

"We will see if these 13 [reformist] members of parliament manage to turn into one coherent oppositional block," Heiko Wimmen, Beirut-based project director at the International Crisis Group for Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, told DW.

"They do have different opinions on many aspects, like collaborating with Hezbollah. While some might consider it, others would rule it out."

They will also have to address another problem. Despite the growing discontent in the country, most voters still elected representatives of the established parties. 

A large part of the population, including those in the public sector, have such a small income that they barely have enough to survive, and it isn't surprising that people were looking for political representatives whom they trust to stand up for their interests, at least to some extent.

"And, of course, they are most likely to continue trusting those who are in power as they can still do the most for their voters," Wimmen said. He sees that the reaction and performance of the established politicians is known, while that of the new ones, is not yet.

Lebanese army patrol past a poster showing portraits of Hezbollah leader Said Hassan Nasrallah
Although the country was covered in election posters, the population was far from enthusiastic about the election Image: Mohammed Zaatari/AP Photo/picture alliance

Mistrust as mobilizer

So far, the reform force doesn't consider these difficulties as too big a challenge.

"We need a financial and an economic recovery plan to be able to save this country, because our economic crisis is very deep," Marc Daou, one of the newly elected Taqqadum-MPs, told DW.

For him, another issue is pressing as well: illegal arms. "We need to get a grip on this," he told DW.

Hezbollah, in particular, could come into focus here, as it is no secret that they are significantly better equipped than the regular Lebanese army.

However, even such a high level of commitment relies on voters' trust — and that is lacking.

In the past, the established parties have been working with a "tried-and-tested strategy" according to Wimmen. One of the most fruitful strategies has been to stir up fear of the other party, he said.

The Lebanese reform politician Najat Saliba with a microphone
The Lebanese reform politician Najat Saliba, one of the new Progress-bloc lawmakers, is willing to tackle the challenges of the country. Image: Marwan Naamani/dpa/picture alliance

In Lebanon, which is divided along sectarian lines, parties have been trying to make their supporters fearful of other parties.

"For example, with claims that the Shiites want to turn the country into an Iranian colony," the International Crisis Group expert remembers.

"The Shiites, on the other hand, are being persuaded that the Sunnis and Christians want to make a pact with Saudi Arabia and the United States so that they can then hand the country over to Israel. This rhetoric is used again and again — and it works," Wimmen told DW, adding "countering these fears is now the central task for the reform forces, but also one that is very difficult to master."

Crisis-hit Lebanon votes: DW's Rebecca Ritters

Razan Salman in Beirut contributed to this article.

Translated from the original German by: Jennifer Holleis

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East
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