Transition to what? Demonstrations & the Shadow of the Taif Accord
Beirut, summer 2020. COVID-19 and the winter just past have made themselves felt on Martyrs’ Square. Scorch marks, remnants from the fiery clashes between demonstrators and ISF are still visible upon the road surfaces, as are the graffiti and revolutionary street art that dot the buildings clustering around the square. These totems of fury and frustrated ambition have helped keep the hope of October 17 2019 vivid in the absence of demonstrators, confined indoors and online over a spring framed by the government’s general lockdown. Enforced between March 17 and June 7, Lebanon’s lockdown flattened the curve of corona virus cases, totaling a globally envious 3,102 on July 22; but at a cost of spiraling socio-economic desperation.
Unemployment has skyrocketed, over half the population is believed to be living on or under the poverty line, the Lira’s value has plummeted against the US dollar to which it is pegged, and negotiations with the IMF for a bailout loan worth in-excess of 10 billion ($US) have stalled. Against this backdrop, two developments this month may prove to be notable: protestors returned to Martyrs’ Square in an act organized by the National Salvation Front, while a newly formed player, al-Jubhat al-Madaniyyah al-Wataniyyah (the National Civil Front) announced its arrival. The Front brings together numerous collectives that have emerged across Lebanon since the October 17 revolution began. Subsequently, it is not a unified movement so much as a broad assembly, trying to focus and aggregate localized demands and operations into a national campaign capable of effecting systemic change.
Accompanying the announcement of the Front was a founding document, outlining the agenda to be taken forward by its members. Claiming legitimacy from the demands of the unfinished and continuing October revolution, the National Civil Front’s agenda is as complex as its components are conventional for reform movements in Lebanon. They include for instance, the establishment of an independent government of experts to address the immediate crises, coupled with a clear timeframe for early and free parliamentary elections; what have been described to the media as “constants” (thwabt).[i]
The question that immediately arises here, concerns the nature of the transition from the present, to the desired future when the entire legislative and constitutional edifice of the state needs to be either reformed or rewritten. Consider the demand for early elections based on equitable representation, and the creation of a government unshackled from confessional politicking over portfolios. Such discussions have brought the Taif Accord into public discourse anew. Since the beginning of the uprising, some protestors have called for a full implementation of the Taif Accord as a roadmap out of Lebanon’s post-war malaise.
With its call for the demilitarisation of militias (a not-so-veiled swipe at Hezbollah), and its instructions to develop a roadmap leading the country away from the kind of consociational democracy that has characterised the Republic since its independence in 1946; the Accord could be seen to provide a pathway to reimagining the structure and institutional processes of Lebanese politics. Yet, it is a double-faced document, that while calling for the removal of sectarianism from Lebanon’s political architecture with one hand, simultaneously enshrines confessionalism into the fabric of post-war politics with the other. As Michael Hudson reflected a decade on from the signing of the Agreement: “the Taif Accord modifies ‘the rules of the game’ of the First Republic but does not alter their basic character”.[ii]
Resultantly, the Constitution must be reformed before a new elections law without any sectarian can be legislated. Subsequently the demand for early elections capable of producing a parliament radically different from its predecessors is an oxymoron. You can have one but not the two together.
[ii] Michael Hudson. “Lebanon after Ta’if: Another reform opportunity lost?” Arab Studies Quarterly 21:1 (1999), p. 27.