Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Lebanon’s youth take on sectarian system

Ostensibly protesting against garbage, Lebanon’s youth is taking aim at the sectarian system as a whole. It may prove, nonetheless, an implacable adversary, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was quite a night on 23 August in the Lebanese capital. Youth protests chanting against sectarianism and ending the quota-based political system brought back memories of the start of the Arab Spring. But the demonstrations quickly disintegrated into riots that seemed more like the Arab Autumn that swept across the majority of countries that witnessed revolutions.

The political crisis in Lebanon is a unique historic event. Throughout Lebanon’s history, except during confrontations with French colonialism that lead to liberation, the majority of conflicts, revolutions and crises had an implicit or explicit sectarian dimension to them.

In recent demonstrations, the explicit reason is garbage collection, while the underlying factor is the great contempt many Lebanese youth and to a lesser degree the entire Lebanese population have for sectarianism and the sectarian political system, which have become a subject of ridicule and criticism by sectarian leaders themselves.

Sectarianism in Lebanon has reached a point where sorting and treating garbage is made on a sectarian basis: there is Muslim garbage and Christian garbage. Garbage revealed the weaknesses of the regime in a country that is renowned for its beauty and cleanliness, despite its political fragmentation and weak infrastructure.

The “You Stink” movement is a loud expression of the youth’s rejection of the ruling elite in Lebanon, who bicker over power but are united in defending the existing system. This political class with unique shrewdness quickly dealt with the uprising as part of the opposition, and most of them blessed the sentiments of the street. Many tried to take advantage of it, especially the free nationalist current that is in a political row with the Future Movement and Prime Minister Tammam Salam.

General Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, congratulated the youth on their political action after he just completed a succession plan for the leadership of his party to his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Jibril Bassel. The succession was strongly criticised, even by members of the current, including his own nephew, Alan Aoun, who was competing with Bassel over leadership of the party but was forced to withdraw under strong pressure by founder Michel Aoun.

It was obvious Aoun was trying to direct the youth against the Future Movement since it has the most seats in the cabinet, and the two ministers targeted by the protestors  Interior Minister Nihad Al-Mashnouq and Environment Minister Mohamed Al-Mashnouq  belong to the Future Movement. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Salam is close to the Future Movement, and thus overthrowing or weakening the government would undermine the current.

Seasoned Druze leader Walid Jumblatt was sympathetic with the youth and critical of the interior minister. Meanwhile, Amal and Hizbullah were more ambiguous in their position.

Nonetheless, this political class became genuinely worried for the first time Sunday after demonstrations expanded following a security clampdown Saturday, and as more middle class youth joined the protests. Lebanon’s political elite finally understood the dangers of growing youth discontent, especially since overthrowing the government has become the main chant, instead of the resignation of the ministers of interior and environment. In fact, slogans escalated to overthrowing the entire sectarian system.

A more serious problem is that the youth’s demand to overthrow the government will create an even bigger political vacuum in the absence of a president and a tangible vision by the youth to resolve the crises in the country. Are they like the Arab Spring youth, who knew how to bring down the old without knowing how to build the new?

The demand to overthrow the regime is not only a leap into the unknown, or the fire, like in many other Arab countries, including neighbouring Syria, but also impossible because of the intricately complex and local-roots-based political system in Lebanon.

Despite all the faults of the political system in Lebanon, it has deep historic roots that date back hundreds of years. The system is based on minorities that lived in Mount Lebanon, especially Maronites and Druze, who maintained their political independence and religious freedom through a complex system that took advantage of the mountainous terrain and alliances between feudal and religious leaders, and that left reasonable space for personal freedom, which suits the Lebanese self-righteous character.

No matter how much influence it has from its sect, the power of any Lebanese party is rooted in sectarian loyalty and regional identity, as well as mutual personal interests between the sectarian leader and his followers.

Most importantly, this complex sectarian system separates responsibilities. Each party blames its opponents for failures amid a fragmented governing structure. If some blame the Future Movement for the garbage problem, Sunnis would rally to defend their political current. Meanwhile, the Future Movement accuses Aoun’s current for the chronic electricity crisis, since Aounians have been in charge of this portfolio for many years.

If Hizbullah, its allies, leftists and nationalists blame what they call the Hariri elite for economic troubles and Lebanon’s growing debts, the latter respond that Hizbullah’s wars and actions abroad  especially in Arab countries  are the reason of the economic crisis.

While the elite and youth blame the entire ruling class, it is impossible to change that status quo. Overthrowing the government is possible in a country like Lebanon, and has happened many times before, and the Lebanese have challenged their presidents many times before. However, deposing dozens of leaders of 18 sects is impossible. It would do more harm than good; these leaders allow this diverse society to co-exist, even if in the form of sectarian quotas.

And thus, the regime in Lebanon appears to be among the strongest in the world, while the state of Lebanon is among the weakest. It sometimes seems to be a battleground for political powers or at best an arena for bartering. The greatest danger is the collapse of the state that is home to the Lebanese people amid dysfunctional services and growing debts.

The new youth elite should work from within the system to improve and develop it, because this system is the product of Lebanon’s social composition. No matter how many leaders, parties and sectarian balances change, this system will remain set in stone.

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