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Lebanese Political Crisis Sapping Youthful Optimism


Activists hold Lebanese flags and an Arabic placard, center, that reads: "your extension is an occupation, no to the extension," during a protest against the extension of the Lebanese parliament, on a road that leads to the Parliament building, in downtown Beirut, Nov. 5, 2014.

Activists hold Lebanese flags and an Arabic placard, center, that reads: "your extension is an occupation, no to the extension," during a protest against the extension of the Lebanese parliament, on a road that leads to the Parliament building, in downtown Beirut, Nov. 5, 2014.

As Lebanon limps on without a president for the seventh month, the sectarian impasse that has created a void at the heart of the struggling state has left many of the country’s younger generation fearing 2015 will result in more of the same.

Since outgoing President Michel Sleiman stepped down in May after six years in office, parliament has failed on 17 occasions to reach a two thirds vote to name a successor.

“The possibility is that if things go on this way at some point you may see Lebanon crumble and you could see a failed state,” warned Sami Baroudi, a political science professor at Lebanese American University.

“The state must be strengthened in order to deal with the challenges the country faces, and having a president will help ministers and the government deal more effectively with our issues. If the president has regional and international backing then they can move things forward.”

Disillusion

Lebanon has defied such predictions before. But the stakes are high for a country suffering from sluggish economic growth and threats of Islamic State infiltration.

But it is the uncertain political situation that worries the younger generation the most.

Twenty-four-year-old Joseph Rejeily, who is balancing a night job and studying for a degree in management, reacts to the current situation with a resigned shrug.

For Rejeily, who will graduate next year into a market where youth unemployment last year hit 35 percent, it is just another sign that the system isn't working for him.

“The role of president is important, a body needs a head, but I don’t like politics and I don’t care about the president because I am bored of these things,” said Rejeily.

“I care about my own personal future, but I don’t think politics can improve things here.”

Division

The Lebanese political system is based on a power sharing structure initially established with the country’s independence in 1943 and designed to reflect the main elements of the religious mix in the country. The role of speaker is filled by a Shia Muslim, the role of prime minister is filled by a Sunni Muslim, and role of president is filled by a Maronite Christian.

The two most prominent Maronite Christian candidates are Michel Aoun, who has partnered with the country’s Shia political and military organization Hezbollah as part of a coalition of parties known as "March 8," and Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea, the candidate from the "March 14" coalition backed by the Sunni-affiliated Future Movement party.

Talks are ongoing between the two camps, with Aoun and Geagea set to enter a dialogue.

But with the Syrian war polarizing views and the involvement of regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia in the selection process complicating the mix, the deadlock continues as neither group backs down.

Meanwhile, anger remains over the decision by parliamentarians in November to extend their own terms in office by more than two and a half years on the basis that the country’s security situation made elections too difficult to hold.

“In Lebanon, politics is always viewed with a fair measure of skepticism,” said Baroudi, who said he saw “little prospect” of the presidential situation being resolved.

“Most people adopt a Machiavellian attitude, always seeing power and personal gain rather than serving the public good as the principal drivers of politicians. The current gridlock enforces these views.”

Predicting how and when the deadlock will be resolved, a matter that analysts claim is likely to be part of a broader package of political reform, continues to be a matter of guesswork.

Some call for Christians to unite to play a ‘kingmaker’ role in the political system.

For other political commentators, a more consensual candidate than either Aoun or Geagea must be found for progress to be made.

New politics

But while many have become numb to speculating about such matters, others are seeking new ways of effecting change.

For 24-year-old Gino Raidy, a prominent blogger, the ongoing absence of a president is symbolic of the kind of corrupt politics that drove him and others into blogging.

Raidy said he focused on particular issues, such as domestic violence, in order to help encourage change from outside the traditional political system.

“It’s obvious the system isn’t working,” said Raidy, a Maronite Christian who said he’s stopped caring about who might represent him in the role of president.

“We are less ambitious for change than before. There’s no trust in Lebanon, so when there’s talk of change many are afraid, especially Christians who fear their already diminished role [within the political system] will be further reduced.”

“But the best thing about Lebanese people is they adapt, so it’s about carving out a small niche where we can try to live the lives we want to.”

Long-term thinking

With tensions fueled by the war in Syria, the country has taken a step backwards in terms of sectarian divisions, which could get worse in 2015 claims 18-year-old student Majd Shidiac.

“Finding a new president is not the way out for our problems. Even if we do elect a new president it will still be the product of a corrupt system.” he said.

But while Shidiac’s cynicism chimes with that of many of his contemporaries, like Raidy he also represents hope among younger generations that a new kind of politics can be forged.

Rejecting sectarian politics, he campaigned on behalf of a independent group named Campus Choice during the recent student elections at the American University of Beirut, an event often perceived as a bellwether of the broader political scene.

It is not yet a major power in relation to its more traditionally-aligned political adversaries, but support for the Campus Choice candidates has increased steadily since the group’s launch in 2012.

“We are seeing a generation gap between the youth and our parents, many of whom still feel the problem can be solved through sects. The youth feel it is not the solution, though we have not yet reached a consensus on what that solution is.

“Hope is all we have at this point,” he added.

“We are working for this change, and though nothing will happen in five years, in the long term, maybe 20 or 25 years, I think change will happen.”

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