Lebanon might be on the verge of a social and economic upheaval that could unite many Lebanese around a new banner for change, and in doing so put to rest the classical political division known as the March 8 and March 14 movements.
This trend could soon outpace the signs of a more hopeful political constellation in Lebanon. Agreement has been reached for a government that includes equal divisions (eight seats each) among the March 14 and March 8 coalitions, with another eight seats for independents.
The approval on March 20 of Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s Cabinet, after months of delay, and the agreement on a ministerial statement that will guide this government’s platform, are signs that governance, rather than sectarianism and ideology, may be gaining traction.
The next, anticipated step is presidential elections to take place on time, as President Michel Suleiman’s term ends May 25.
But even with these overdue steps, Lebanese high politics may soon be outpaced by a new pulse among the Lebanese people calling for a national, rather than factional, agenda for change.
The still precarious security situation in Lebanon, which is on the frontline of the war in Syria, may be a catalyst for this trend.
The massive influx of Syrian refugees, now numbering over 1 million, according to UNHCR (and these are only for those who are formally registered), out of a total Lebanese population of just 4.4 million, has been a catalyst for many Lebanese, who see the overwhelming humanitarian, social and economic costs of their presence in Lebanon as unsustainable and threatening their own personal and economic security.
Additionally, the recent major security operation by the Lebanese Armed Forces in Tripoli may signal that Lebanon’s factions are, belatedly, realizing that reproducing old-style sectarian agendas in Lebanon could rip the country apart, and may no longer be tolerated by Lebanese citizens who have paid the price for political paralysis and factional gamesmanship.
No doubt that extra-regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, may have reached an understanding that allows a consensus on governance to move ahead, as Jean Aziz wrote, and that regional powers continue to hold sway in Lebanon.
But there is more to the story. In a telling interview with As-Safir (as translated by Al-Monitor), Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah signaled that, even for him, the trend in Lebanese politics may be shifting from sectarian to national issues.
“We are serious in proposing the building of a strong, capable and just state. We are not a substitute for that state in any shape or form. Even when it comes to the resistance movement — we in the resistance or as resistance fighters will go back to our schools, mosques, universities and fields as soon as we see that our state has become capable, strong and able to defend Lebanon,” Nasrallah said in the interview.
Nasrallah may simply be talking the talk as a Lebanese nationalist, but a general fatigue with politics as usual, including among Hezbollah’s constituents, may be driving some of the nationalist discourse of Nasrallah and other Lebanese leaders to a more centrist position.
Besides security, the Lebanese economy also requires urgent reform, as Sami Nader reported this week. Economic growth does not respond to sect or ideology. It requires pragmatism and consensus.
The currently witnessed shifting policies with what we have known as March 8 and March 14 might lead, over time, to voiding these same movements from their respective true popular bases, the working and middle class citizens of Lebanon, who have been the ones disappointed by the cross alliances being formed and reformed, seemingly without regard for the people, as security and economic conditions deteriorate.
The factionalization and fragmentation along political and religious lines may, finally, be blurring. The mere sensing by their respective bases that sudden alliances are being formed across this divide has caused people from each side to drop their old and bygone political slogans and try to find a middle ground.
Lebanese citizens may be finding cause and uniting around a new agenda, even movement, built upon a lingering social and economic malaise finally erupting into an overdue popular revolt calling for a new social contract based upon national, not sectarian or factional priorities.
This process, if it unfolds, would set this unique Lebanese upheaval apart from the rest of the Arab Spring revolts, in that the Lebanese trend would likely be nonreligious and nonpolitical.
Indeed, Lebanon may benefit from an immunity to the sectarian virus, as its own experience with such polarization has led to endemic disappointment with that same rhetoric and false hopes, and an approach to politics that has betrayed its own people and left them with the feeling of being abandoned powerless in the shadow of agendas that are not theirs.
That Lebanon could lead in this new social contract should not be a surprise. Lebanon did its time with its own bloody 15-year sectarian regional war, and still was able to recover and re-establish its cosmopolitan flair. There is a lot to build on. The failures and dashed expectations of the uprisings in Egypt and Syria, which quickly fell prey to regional and ideological agendas and violence, and Lebanon’s own tragic past, could make it an incubator for a new approach to governance that would allow Lebanon to realize its potential, rather than fall victim to the rhetoric and false promise of what was once known as the Arab Spring.