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June 22, 2013

Election Postponement in Lebanon Sparks Angry Protests

by Jamie Dettmer

Lebanese fear the sectarian civil war in neighboring Syria will tear their country apart. But as communal rifts widen, political leaders in Beirut have been locked in dispute over the formation of a new power-sharing government, and a 17-month postponement of scheduled elections has touched off angry protests.
 
Protests flared this past week in the downtown part of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, against a decision to postpone elections and extend the mandate of the country’s parliament. This is coming at a time when spillover sectarian violence is worsening in the country because of the conflict raging across the border in Syria.
 
With Lebanon's Shi'ite militia, Hezbollah, and Lebanese Sunni gunmen joining opposing sides in Syria’s 27-month-old civil war, many feel the country desperately needs steady leadership.
 
The combination of political deadlock and intensifying sectarian strife is unnerving Lebanese who yearn for stability. Youthful protesters against the decision to put off parliamentary elections say the Lebanese should be able to vote and usher in new leaders.
 
Protesters like 24-year-old film student Ali say prolonging the current legislature’s mandate is illegal. Lebanon is tired of the same old faces, he says.
 
“I am here against the extension of the Lebanese parliament and against all the deputies in here who are stealing our money and stealing our chances and they killed our dreams. They are the same people since the Lebanese civil war, the same faces, the same people, the same killers. And as I already told you they already killed our dreams and the peace in our country.”
 
On Thursday, a few hundred protesters skirmished with police near the parliament. And, Friday night demonstrators maintained a sit-in in downtown Beirut, but it was less antagonistic. Their posters expressed disdain for the politicians. One read: “Politicians are like diapers, [they] need to be changed.” Another declared: “Leave! You Failed.”
 
Twenty-eight-year-old Natalia, a student and partner in a public interest consultancy, is disappointed with the numbers of protesters that have turned out to register their disapproval, but believes this is just a start. A major demonstration is planned for June 28. 
 
“The parliament just decided to extend their mandate and that is against the constitution and every principle that democracy stands for. These same people have been rulers of the country since the war ended and they were the warlords as well. They are not doing their jobs, which is serving the people.”
 
The lack of economic opportunities is fueling the frustration of many of the protesters. Natalia says jobs are in short supply.
 
“Very, very few opportunities exist here. If you even want to start a family you have to go work abroad, put some money aside and come back, and that’s what we do not want to do. And that is what they want us to do - to leave [the] country and leave it to them to do what they please.”
 
With clashes between Lebanese Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims taking opposing sides in the Syrian civil war mounting, along with fear that more widespread fighting could be triggered in Lebanon, the international community is expressing alarm. 
 
U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly issued a thinly veiled warning Friday saying the “U.S.’s primary concern is the survival of Lebanon’s democratic institutions.”