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Lebanon's opposition lawmakers start work in chaotic first session

In their first session, Lebanon's newly elected opposition legislators found themselves immediately swamped in the quagmire of Lebanese politics.
ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

Nabih Berri was reelected speaker of parliament for a seventh term during Lebanon's first parliamentary session since the May 15 elections.

Berri heads the Amal Movement and is a close ally of Hezbollah. The 84-year-old politician has held his position since 1992. This time he won by his slimmest margin ever with only 65 votes compared to 98 in 2018.

The remaining 63 votes were split between 23 blank ballots and 40 others with messages of protest about long-neglected issues such as sexual assault, the assassination of Shiite historian and activist Lokman Slim, the 2020 port explosion and protesters who suffered from police brutality in the 2019 revolution.

The parliament proceeded with two rounds of voting to elect as deputy parliament speaker Elias Bou Saab, Lebanon's former education and defense minister and a member of the Free Patriotic Movement. Bou Saab won over his Progressive Socialist Party-endorsed opponent Ghassan Skaff, with 65 votes to 60. There were two blank ballots and one that was canceled.

lengthy debate erupted over the legal mechanism for electing two secretaries and three commissioners that ended in Alain Aoun and Hadi Abou Al Hassan landing the secretaries' seats while Michel Moussa, Hagop Bakradounian and Abdel Karim Kabbara took commissioners' seats.

This parliamentary session ushered in 13 opposition members who have been handed the torch of the revolution by their electorate. However, those interviewed by Al-Monitor said that their first session did not meet their democratic ideals and admitted that their own political conduct needs improvement.

An hour before the session, protesters including family members of the blast victims walked with the 13 lawmakers from the Beirut port to parliament, chanting, "Open the doors, open the doors, our MPs have arrived!" and "Revolution! Revolution!"

Two of them were Firas Hamdan and Rami Finge from the most-contested districts of South III and North II, respectively.

A stronghold of Hezbollah, the South III district witnessed a breakthrough win by activist and lawyer Firas Hamdan, who won the Druze seat against Hezbollah-allied banker Marwan Kheir El Dine.

His victory, running on the Together Toward Change list, was hailed by many for shaking Hezbollah's 30-year dominance over the south and toppling his competitor, the former minister of state and chairman of Al-Mawarid Bank.

Hamdan is one of the youngest members of parliament and a key face of the revolution. He was shot in the chest with a rubber bullet by security forces in a protest following the Beirut port blast, an injury that affects him to this day.

In the North II district, Rami Finge landed the Sunni seat with the Revolt for Sovereignty and Justice list.

Once loyal to the Future Movement party, the Sunni-dominant city of Tripoli struggled to find candidates that would fill the void left by the retirement of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who headed the Future Movement.

Fear of Hezbollah-backed allies expanding their grip on the city propelled Tripolitans to turn to the safest anti-Hezbollah option, the Lebanese Forces party.

As a result, the opposition's margin of victory was limited to Finge, a dentist who has been an avid anti-establishment protester since 2019 and was once arrested for distributing food to protesters in 2021.

Finge's win came as surprise, defeating Faisal Karami, the son of former Prime Minister Omar Karami and a former parliamentarian himself.

Just after the session closed, opposition member and former head of the Beirut Bar Association Melhem Khalaf told Al-Monitor that the session was tainted with unprofessionalism.

"There was no consensus on methods of voting," Khalaf said, describing the parliament as acting like it had never held a session before. He stressed that his alliance will prioritize the people's concerns in its upcoming legislative work and is working to give the public some hope.

Khalaf addressed doubtful supporters by asserting that change comes from cumulative effort that has only just started.

Tripoli's Finge, on the other hand, expressed dissatisfaction with the opposition's performance.

He told Al-Monitor that the 13 parliament members should have made prior alliances with independent legislators to help elect Skaff as deputy speaker of parliament.

"We're not willing to abandon our October 17 principles. However, I wish for groups with whom we can see eye to eye to join our side so we can make a significant impact inside parliament," Finge said.

He went on to say that all 13 members of the alliance shared similar views and had coordinated their votes. They plan to form a bloc open to cooperation with other parliamentarians.

However, he noted that their biggest hurdle is time. Since the May 15 elections, the lawmakers had not prepared sufficiently for their first parliamentary battle and they hope for a better outcome in the future, Finge said.

"I believe change started when the people chose to mark Lebanon's history with new politicians on May 15. But we need to establish a stronger presence to play the game intelligently," he said. "Our opponents have years of experience over us."

Carnegie Middle East Center’s Michael Young told Al-Monitor that the 13 legislators could not be expected to behave as traditional politicians and needed time to demonstrate their potential. He added, "These are different people who ran on different lists and only came together after May 15. Therefore, it is unclear what position, policies and ideologies bring them together," Young said.

Similarly to Finge, Young said that the parliamentarians did not have time to develop common strategies, define common principles and unify their votes. Opposition lawmaker Halima Kaakour said that while their votes for Skaff as deputy speaker were initially divided seven to six in his favor, the group decided to abide by the majority.

"They would rather maintain their independence and avoid creating affiliations with one side or the other," Young said.

Such compromises, according to Young, can only lead to the opposition alienating the public and the establishment simultaneously. Instead, he said, the opposition must define its principles in order to establish alliances that fit into its broader political objectives.

As for Berri's reelection as speaker, Finge feels that Berri's minimal margin marks a considerable step toward change, while Young sees it as a clear statement that the establishment is still in power.