As Lebanon stands on the brink of collapse, and some say a complete overhaul of the country’s governance is needed, a young political party is fighting to emerge from the shadows to shepherd the country to a more secular future.
When I first spoke to Mounir Doumani, a representative of a fledgling Lebanese political party, he told me his party was “waiting for the complete collapse of the state” so that they could step in and begin a new era of governance for the country.
It was January 2019, nearly nine months before mass protests broke out in October.
At the time, I thought he was overly optimistic, if not to say crazy.
Catching up with him a year and a half later, he corrects me. His party Mouwatinoun wa Mouwatinat fi Dawla (Citizens in a State) aren’t waiting for Lebanon to collapse – they are expecting it.
He said “waiting” seemed passive.
“Only in moments of crisis, political or economic, can you change the power structure,” he told me during our meeting in Beirut in 2019.
I remember nodding politely, perhaps in my own naivety as a fresh journalist only in her first few months working in Beirut, with a shallow understanding of the depth of the country’s problems or the fragility of the political bedrock.
Early warning signs
Long before October 2019, experts in Lebanon had already begun to warn that the country’s shaky political foundations had led to a precarious situation.
Ziad Abdel Samad noted that experts had begun raising the alarm in 2016 as the central bank began its first in a series of unorthodox financial engineering mechanisms designed to protect the local currency that has now lost over half its value. Samad is the co-founder and executive director of the Beirut-based Arab NGO Network for Development and recently spoke during Al Arabiya English’s webinar, Lebanon's unprecedented crisis, challenges and paths forward.
In a January 2019 article in Lebanese monthly magazine le Commerce du Levant, the Citizens in a State Secretary General Charbel Nahas said: “We believe that Lebanon has entered a pre-crisis phase and that the current political system can neither avoid it nor face it … But we fear that an uncontrolled crisis will have a devastating effect on the country.”
The dollar squeeze began to hit home in mid-2019, but in January, Nahas told the French-language magazine, “Since the Lebanese economy is not competitive – producing almost nothing and importing everything – the loans in national currency induce a currency outflow.”
“The probability of a crisis occurring is extremely high. We can’t predict it mathematically, but the developments we see every day seem to point in that direction.”
On the brink
In May 2020, Doumani and I spoke again, amid a resurgence in the protests that had begun back in October. Despite a new, supposedly technocratic government headed by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, the Lebanese people had become increasingly frustrated with the worsening economic situation, rising inflation spurred by a dollar shortage, and a decades-old corrupt regime more concerned with sectarian politics than governing.
As increasingly hungry protesters took to torching banks, I asked Doumani how his party envisions securing the right to govern – and what its proposals are to guide Lebanon through a time of crisis.
“It will happen through something called negotiated peaceful transition of power,” he told me bluntly and confidently.
He pointed to examples including North Africa and General Charles de Gaulle’s rise to power through election in France. In the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, Tunisia became what some say is a potential model for democratic transition as the country’s former ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country within a month of the uprising’s onset, and by 2013, legislators had implemented a law to set up a transitional justice process to expose human rights abuses committed by the government and hold perpetrators accountable.
“It doesn’t mean there’s no violence,” he said. “It means that it doesn’t end with whoever wins a revolution in power.”
Citizens in a State was formed in 2016 and is led by Secretary General Charbel Nahas, who has served both as labor and telecommunications minister and is a former World Bank economist.
“The name is really long, unsexy and unmarketed, but we really wanted the name to reflect the mission of the party. The party has one objective – to establish a state,” he said.
The power of the ballot box?
Despite its grand goals, the party failed to win a single seat in the 2018 parliamentary elections.
Doumani, however, put this down to the problems with the current electoral system in Lebanon, with sectarian quotas ensuring a balance of power among Christian, Shia, and Sunni constituencies.
“Elections are a tool used by the regime to renew legitimacy; they’ll never produce a result not based on secular legitimacy,” said Doumani.
While the party did win two seats in two different municipalities in 2016, Doumani said that even then the party could see the state needed to change radically, and therefore focused on driving significant change rather than just winning seats.
“Maybe it was too early to say it, but we knew it was going to happen, so we tried to bring people together, but that takes an understanding of the reality of the situation,” he said.
And now, with Lebanon inching closer to collapse, Doumani said elections cannot be relied upon to drive change.
“Elections will not be on the table, not now, not in the near future,” he said, explaining that elections don’t work while the state is on the verge of collapse as no one party can claim true legitimacy.
In a country with stronger institutions capable of dealing with such a situation, such as in France that allowed de Gaulle to come to power, elections could work, he explained.
Doumani’s criticisms of the electoral process were shared by experts who took part in Al Arabiya English’s webinar.
Samad said that while people have called for early elections, in Lebanon the decision-making process happens outside institutions by informal groups, armed or unarmed.
One problem is the role of Iran-backed political and military group Hezbollah, which has a strong influence over Lebanese politics and backs the Diab government against protesters.
“I doubt that any election or political process can lead to change unless we really engage with the constitution,” Samad said.
An article in the Lebanese constitution calls for an elected body to be formed to abolish the “political confessionalism according to a transitional plan.”
But in reality, the country’s power-sharing system, in place since the end of the country’s 15-year civil war, allocates power to each sect. Consequently, it reinforced loyalty along sectarian, rather than national lines.
But the system developed had its limitations, one being that strong state institutions failed to materialize.
Calls for an end to the sectarian system
One of the key themes of the October protests was a move away from sectarian ties that had for so long united groups along religious lines. Historically, individuals turned to sectarian leaders, rather than the state, to address their issues.
But as people thronged the streets in fall 2019, that mindset had visibly shifted. Shias, once loyal to Hezbollah, had joined their Sunni and Christian fellow citizens, now waving Lebanese, rather than party flags. However, a few counter protests did occur. At one protest in downtown Beirut, Sunni, Christian, Druze, and Shia religious leaders joined hands and processed through the street.
This change could be viewed as supportive of the aims of mouwatinoun wa Mouwatinat fi Dawla. For four years the party has been developing its vision for a new type of Lebanon, a secular state that addresses citizens’ needs directly, and not through religious sectarian communities.
“The party’s objective has always been to move away from the sectarian regime model, not for ideological reasons, for very practical reasons,” Doumani, said, referring to the current system’s failures.
When asked about sectarian representation of party’s leadership, he said that it’s not something they take into consideration, but acknowledged that in Lebanon it’s often possible to identify someone’s sect by their last name or hometown.
Today, crises continue to mount in the small country. At the core of this, some analysts say, is the sectarian system.
And asking those in power to reform themselves is “very naïve,” said Nasser Yassin, the interim director at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.
During Al Arabiya English’s webinar, Yassin said what was needed was a complete overhaul of the system, but recognized that it’d be a bloody affair no one is prepared to engage in.
“The sectarian system is perverted,” Doumani said.
He said “perverted” wasn’t quite the right word, but defined as “a thing having been corrupted or distorted from its original course, meaning, or state,” the term aptly describes the squandered manner in which the ruling elite has governed.
“It’s a system based on looting, on redistribution. It works in good times because even people who are getting a little are getting more. It doesn’t matter because they’re getting a share, and they’re satisfied. As soon as things go wrong, and there’s nothing to loot anymore, the sects control people through loyalty and turn them against the other,” explained Doumani.
Nothing left to loot
One main catalyst for the outbreak of protests on October 17, 2019, was a new tax on voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) apps, like WhatsApp. The move was seen as the state trying to squeeze taxpayers even more to cover losses from mismanagement and corruption, rather than address deeper issues such as its ailing electricity sector, which bleeds up to $2 billion annually and has contributed to the state’s massive debt of around $89.5 billion.
People in Lebanon were already burdened by a dollar shortage that had slowly begun to see the value of the local currency slip and the 2019 austerity state budget that saw pensions cut from the Army and public sector employees, the culmination of policies in place since the 1990s.
The new WhatsApp tax, which would charge users $0.20 a day for calls on the country’s most popular communications app, was a step too far for many.
Yassin said Lebanon had entered a state of “low-intensity collapse.”
“[The political elite are] going to adapt to this and make us adapt,” he said. “They are going to continue to gather what they can from the collapsing state.”
In Doumani’s view, most of the traditional political parties have failed to realize that the political system has failed.
Instead, the regime has tried to reinvent itself through Prime Minister Diab’s government, which came to power following the protests. While protesters demanded an independent, technocratic government, what they got was a one-color, Hezbollah-backed government chock-full of fresh faces with familiar political ties.
Years ago, it was difficult to convince people to break with political alliances, Doumani said. But now, that seems to be shifting.
When asked why the party believes they should be the group to lead Lebanon through this, he suggested that as a movement, they have people who are getting prepared every day to take the reins, when the time comes.
“There’s people that are willing to take on the challenge of running a country in complete bankruptcy and through transition, and they are part of the movement,” he said. “We know what to do because we knew what was going to happen.”
Doumani added that they have been coordinating with other groups to present a united opposition front to the ruling elite.
But Yassin, a political analyst, said he hasn’t yet seen an opposition front form yet strong enough to take on the state, though he acknowledged there have been some concerted efforts.
“People often say it’s a weak state, but we also have very powerful leaders who know the rules of the game, and they know how to utilize the state and its resources,” he said. “They know how to use clientelist networks for their own gain.”
“It’s not so easy to uproot the system.”
As protesters called for the end of sectarian politics, they chanted “Kellon yaani kellon,” or “all of them means all of them,” in reference of desire for a technocratic government, rid of any politicians with ties to existing political parties.
How does any party with a member of the old establishment – Nahas – at the helm have a chance of gaining legitimacy from the same people who chanted “kellon yaani kellon?”
Doumani offered an indirect response.
“When we talk about a new structure or society, we’re not talking about different people, we’re talking about the same people that are in this society. We’re talking about some people who had responsibilities in it, we’re talking about people who didn’t have responsibilities in it.”
Nahas, for his part, resigned from the government in 2012 rather than sign a decree related to transportation allowances for workers because he believe it violated Lebanese law and would eventually deprive them of end-of-service compensation.
“I don’t see Charbel Nahas as part of ‘kellon yaani kellon,’” Yassin said. “He was part of the government at some point, but he wasn’t part of the main stream and came from the margins.”
With Nahas at the party’s head, they have developed a four-phase plan that aims to move Lebanon through a complete collapse by appointing a transitionary government that will in the final phase hold parliamentary elections.
Transition and future vision
An interactive infographic on the party’s website lays out their political vision. In the short-term, Doumani said recouping state losses will be the most challenging hurdle. A new electoral law will have to come shortly after, as well as ensuring that individual communities are protected and are protected from each other.
In phase three, titled “formation of a cohesive society and fortified economy,” the party lists enmity with Israel, the relationship with Syria, Hezbollah’s weapons, and a census – the last of which was conducted in 1932 – as issues to be dealt with.
On paper, it’s all there.
But collapses are messy and transitions of power are rarely easily or neatly achieved. And for Lebanon, the future is uncertain. The regime has previously survived several periods of political uncertainty.
It is not clear whether this crisis will break the mold and change the system completely, allowing a non-traditional party like Citizens in a State to move in and implement its vision for a new, secular Lebanon.
Doumani is optimistic though.
“This is history in the making. It’s not business as usual.”