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Two years after Lebanon uprising, hopes for change pinned on elections

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Two years after Lebanon uprising, hopes for change pinned on elections
Soldiers are seen at the area of clashes in the Tayouneh area of Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday during protests. Photo by Jamal Eddine/UPI | License Photo

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- Two years after cross-sectarian mass protests turned into an unprecedented popular uprising, creating a strong desire for change, the situation in Lebanon has only gotten worse.

Political leaders accused of corruption and ineptitude are still in power. The economic crisis is the most severe in the world, with most of the population living in poverty. Hezbollah is still in control.

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Only small groups of protesters showed up Sunday to mark the second anniversary of the movement that broke out on Oct. 17, 2019 to denounce a government decision to impose a new tax on WhatsApp calls.

Gone are the days when protesters flocked by the thousands to defy the political elite, in power since the end of the 1975-90 civil war, and demand their ouster.

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The COVID-19 pandemic, police crackdowns, violent militia attacks and intimidation, coupled with the Aug. 4, 2020 blast at the Beirut port that killed more than 200 people, and the ever-deteriorating living conditions changed the course of what became known as the "October 17 Revolution."

The crises allowed political leaders to catch their breath, form a new government and announce their intention to hold the general elections on time, in May, or even earlier next spring, convinced that they will win again.

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New opposition

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Although new political groups and civil society organizations emerged from the protest movement, the challenge of unifying their ranks, agreeing on a clear political program and defeating the well-established traditional political forces remains.

That challenge sheds doubt on whether independent forces will be able to make serious reforms and bring about different alternatives for representation, said Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University.

Nahwal Watan (Toward One Nation), established a year ago as a platform for "political change and socioeconomic renewal," is shifting focus to the upcoming parliamentary elections as the starting point for political change.

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It aims to put in place an infrastructure to mobilize voters, facilitate the formation of a single main opposition candidate list, support qualified candidates and engage the diaspora.

"This is our war: to make people see that we, as forces of change, can make a change through the elections," Ali Abdel Latif, a steering committee member of Nahwal Watan, told UPI. "There is an opportunity today to lay the ground for a change movement, and the 2022 elections is a chance to start that."

Rindala Beydoun, another steering committee member and a Beirut-based international lawyer, said Nahwal Watan aims to assist "the new young change forces" and "bring the vast majority together."

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"We are active in all the regions, with an electoral machine, coordinators on the ground, a diaspora network covering ... some 29 cities around the world and transparent fundraising," Beydoun told UPI.

Abdel Latif said that according to polls conducted by the group covering all of Lebanon, more than 60 percent are 100 percent in favor of change; 20 percent are undecided and "a bit lost"; while the remaining 20 percent still support the traditional forces.

"We see that the situation is a lot in favor of the change movement and will be reflected properly in the results of the upcoming elections," he said.

Traditional control

Unlike Iraq, which scored low voter turnout in its parliamentary elections last week, Abdel Latif appeared confident that Lebanon will see high turnout for his group to secure additional seats in the new 128-member parliament.

Some election experts do not share his optimism, saying most traditional parties are still strong enough to maintain control of parliament. They estimate that independent candidates could win up to 20 seats.

Makram Rabah, a political activist engaged in the revolution and a lecturer of history at the American University of Beirut, expects "few changes" at the upcoming general elections because of dominance of Iran-backed Hezbollah and a corrupt political elite.

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"These elections will consecrate the ruling class and will make it stronger," Rabah, an outspoken critic of heavily-armed Hezbollah, told UPI. "Even the U.S. and Western officials are aware that the elections will not bring big changes simply because they [Hezbollah-traditional parties] control the system: the state and the elections."

He called for the need to "unify our voices" and focus on Hezbollah and its "Iranian agenda" and not just corruption and mismanagement.

"Forces of change cannot confront this regime, this ruling class, by relying on street protests and elections alone. There should be a long-term strategy and with time create tools to face them," Rabah said.

Hezbollah and its Shiite Amal Movement ally are expected to maintain a good representation in the new parliament and any change in their seats is expected to be limited. They still largely enjoy the support of their Shiite community.

Hezbollah is to maintain its strategic alliance with the Christian Free Patrotic Movement, headed by Gebran Bassil, who is the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, and prevent it from losing seats in favor of the other Christian forces like the Lebanese Forces, said Kassem Kassir, an expert on Islamic movements and a political analyst close to Hezbollah.

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From day one of the revolution, Bassil has been the main target of the protesters' ire for his role in the widespread corruption.

"It is too early to say, but it appears that there will be no drastic change among the Shiites, who will have the same representation ... unless a new force as strong as they are emerges," Kassir told UPI. "The bet is that a new bloc is formed, whether from the civil society, opposition or independent forces, but that could not be possible if they continue to be divided."

The Sunni Future Movement led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri is facing a hard mission to maintain its share in the next parliament and attract back its once loyal supporters who now mostly support the revolution and civil society groups.

"The lost voices will be among the Sunnis... But if they are dispersed, nothing will change for us. We might lose a few seats, but we will remain the most representatives" among the Sunnis, Mustafa Allouch, deputy head of the Future Movement, told UPI.

But if the civil society and opposition groups organize themselves and come up with good candidates, they might win the majority of the Sunni votes, Allouch said.

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The Future Movement, suffering from disorganization and lack of funds, needs to raise convincing slogans, other than targeting Aoun's rule, which accelerated the country's collapse.

"Miracles could happen. We could face certain conditions and we might lose the elections. At the end, we are a political party and if we lose, we will prepare for the next elections," Allouch said.

In a country like Lebanon, where the electoral system is customized to support and favor the existing confessional groups, change cannot be achieved by domestic forces alone.

Salamey said it is unlikely that independent political forces would be able on their own "to make any swift changes in the forthcoming elections, though they may win few seats here and there."

"It requires significant support from the international community, especially if it requires financial, economic and political support such as putting pressures and sanctions against the politicians or particular figures," he told UPI.

He argued that the international community "continues to play Lebanon as part of its negotiations with Iran, rather than to support any genuine political reform in the country."

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