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Can Lebanese Protesters, Civil Society Help Govern After Toppling Government?

People throw stones during a protest following last week's explosion that killed many and devastated the city, in Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 11, 2020.
People throw stones during a protest following last week's explosion that killed many and devastated the city, in Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 11, 2020.

Lebanon’s protests already have brought down two successive governments in the space of nine months, analysts say, pointing to the strength of people power in nationwide demonstrations and their demands for change, as well as the vulnerability of the country’s long-entrenched ruling elite. But some argue the “revolution” has not yet succeeded in raising up alternative leadership, while others point to new political parties and coalitions already being formed as a sign of what lies ahead.

Middle East Institute President Paul Salem credits Lebanon’s vibrant civil society and protests demanding change with shaking and removing some of the ruling elite from power. Now, Iran-backed Hezbollah also is vulnerable because political cover provided by Lebanon’s presidency and parliament speaker has been undermined.

But Salem wonders if leaders will arise from the protest ranks able to topple entrenched former warlords and other oligarchs to steer Lebanon into a new and needed political direction.

“The regime, the oligarchy, the system is in obviously a very, very profound crisis, which obviously creates opportunities for change, but it is difficult and very complicated," said Salem. "There is intense pressure to seize this opportunity to form an independent government that is not beholden to the current parties, and that it be given legislative powers for a set number of issues, for a set amount of time to get something done. The revolution has not been successful in raising up governments, alternative leaders that can really take the place of the corrupt oligarchy.”

Maha Yahya, who directs the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, says alternative leadership has been in the process of building up since 2015, when Lebanese poured into the streets without being prompted by their political parties, and the latest crisis has sparked more development in coalition and leadership building.

“It takes time. It’s a nascent movement. However, we are already seeing new political parties emerge, initiatives to put forward coalitions on the basis of a charter, shared principles trying to work out a vision for Lebanon on how it could be and could get there," said Yahya. "I know of at least two to three political parties already been formed.”

Yahya says at the moment, Lebanon has neither the capacity to take on Hezbollah or its weapons. But serious talks are happening on how to move the damaged, debt-ridden country out of the political and economic “quagmire it is in and on to more stable terrain, while you prepare the medium to long-term transition to a healthier approach to governance without destabilizing, a return to arms, or a complete breakdown.”