Democracy is Now Dangerously Fracturing in Lebanon
Lebanon has never been a perfect success story as a democracy, but it has traditionally distinguished itself as an inclusive state and modern society in a region plagued by sectarianism and conflict. This may no longer be the case.
As journalist Adnan Nasser notes, The Economist now classifies Lebanon as an authoritarian country, whereas it was once considered a “hybrid system.” In response to the widespread corruption among Lebanon’s political and financial elite, the Lebanese people responded. First they protested, then they voted.
Politics in the way of progress
While Lebanon has not yet experienced the type of political transformation its people long for, the May 2022 parliamentary elections resulted in a larger-than-expected number of reformists elected to office. One of these is Member of Parliament Mark Daou, who unseated a powerful incumbent in his surprise election victory. When I saw him shortly after the signing of the historic maritime agreement between Israel and Lebanon in October 2022, there was a certain sense of optimism in the air.
A great deal had changed when I saw Daou at our office in Washington, DC a few weeks ago. Since October 30, Lebanon’s presidency has remained vacant. Furthermore, the country remains sharply conflicted over Judge Tarek Bitar’s investigation into the Port of Beirut blast as he summoned several high-ranking officials for questioning. The prolonged presidential vacuum and lack of investigation into the port explosion both point to the struggling state of democracy in Lebanon today.
The price can be heavy for those brave enough to fight against corruption in Lebanon. While leaving his home one day, Daou himself found a Kalashnikov bullet in his windshield.
Lebanon needs a functional executive and independent judiciary
Daou’s fellow “Forces of Change” parliamentarians Melhem Khalaf and Najat Saliba have been camped out in Lebanon’s parliament building on a nightly basis until the parliament elects the country’s next president.
The challenge of electing a president in parliament is that the body remains divided and no faction has the necessary votes to elect its preferred candidate. In the months since the presidency fell vacant, eleven sessions have been held to elect a replacement and no consensus candidate has emerged. More recently, parliament has yet to even have a quorum of MPs present to elect a president.
At the same time, the Lebanese parliament is attempting to carry out some of its legislative functions. This prompted 46 MPs, including Daou, Melhem and Saliba, announcing they will boycott future legislative sessions until a president is selected. They cite the Lebanese Constitution as justification for their stance, which makes clear that, until a president is elected, Lebanon’s parliament is an electoral body and not a legislature.
While the eventual nominee will need to be a consensus candidate, the Lebanese people deserve a president who is clean, reform-oriented and committed to addressing their needs. Similarly, amid political gridlock, Lebanon’s absence of an independent judiciary is crippling its ability to investigate the largest non-nuclear explosion in history, which killed 220 people.
Judge Tarek Bitar resumed his investigation into the blast in January, following 13 months of delay due to political pressure. In doing so, he issued charges against a number of high-ranking political figures, including Ghassan Oueidat, the country’s top prosecutor. The latter responded by filing charges against Bitar and releasing all detainees in the case. This episode points to the need for a truly independent judiciary in Lebanon, one that even the current draft law in parliament falls short of establishing.
Lebanon’s Elected Leaders Need to Reinforce Lebanon’s Democratic Institutions
The sad thing is that while Lebanon continues to veer away from democracy, its people continue to suffer. 80% of the Lebanese are impoverished and there is a looming food security crisis. The currency continues to plummet while public school teachers and many public servants remain on strike. Many are warning this country could become the world’s next failed state.
The prolonged presidential vacuum and failed port investigation both point to poor political leadership. The sad thing is that a functioning executive and independent judiciary are basic pillars of democratic states. The failure of Lebanon’s elected leaders to satisfy these basic democratic criteria give the Lebanese people and their friends across the globe little to no hope Lebanon’s politicians can address the hard things.
Electing a president, forming a government, and truly protecting the country’s judicial branch from political interference are all necessary steps Lebanon’s leaders should take now to reinforce democratic institutions in their country. Failure to do so would have catastrophic consequences not only for Lebanon but also the region.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.