When the results of the elections in Lebanon were announced in May this year, the excitement within the opposition movement was palpable: 13 opposition candidates who were not affiliated to any of the establishment parties entered parliament. In some areas, they replaced candidates who had dominated local politics for decades.
Yet since taking office, these new, independent parliamentarians have struggled to make a name for themselves. Political discourse continues to be dominated by disputes between Israel and Lebanon over the Karish gas field in the Mediterranean, which both sides claim for themselves.
As Lebanese political consultant Nizar Hassan explains, the presence of opposition representatives in parliament does not automatically bring about change — that takes organization. Hassan has been observing politics and advising politicians in Lebanon for many years and is, among other things, co-host of The Lebanese Politics Podcast. Three months since the Lebanese opposition’s parliamentary breakthrough, he spoke with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Hanna Voss about the opposition’s progress thus far and what kinds of politics will be necessary to tackle the worst crisis in Lebanon’s history.
Nizar Hassan is co-founder of the progressive political movement LiHaqqi. He researches workers' rights and social movements and co-hosts The Lebanese Politics Podcast.
Nizar, what do you think the role of the opposition candidates who entered parliament in May should be?
It would be important that the new candidates formulate their own approach on how they want to act in parliament sooner rather than later. Of course, entering the parliament at all was a very crucial thing. But when I hear from some of them that they want to legislate, I say: “Take it easy. You are in parliament not primarily to shape but to obstruct the rest, Lebanon’s political oligarchy. That will be your task — especially when it comes to the economy and sectarianism, because in these fields it should be possible for candidates from different camps to forge alliances.”
With what aim?
The goal can only be one: to represent the working class, the ordinary people in parliament. These are the ones who lack representation. These are the ones in whose interests the oligarchy acts last of all.
If the new parliamentarians are really concerned about the ordinary people, about the workers, they must make that clear to the other members of parliament. Address them loudly and clearly: “None of you care about this or that issue that deeply affects the people of your country. You ignore the needs of the people, look past them and only at each other in order to identify yourselves in your rejection of each other and to pretend relevance in that. However, that does not help people. That is why I am raising my voice against you, that is why I am mobilizing people outside the parliament and making the following counter-proposal.” At least, that’s what a real socialist candidate would do.
Is there a socialist candidate in parliament now?
No, I don’t see one. But there are people who want to work and do politics differently. They are not saints, but they have good intentions, and I would work with some of them if they want to. But we will have to wait and see.
We see candidates who have socialist ideas but they are not very deep. We have lawyers who generally belong more to the bourgeoisie, but who knows? We have people with a history of being in Israeli custody, for example, or being shot at during the protests after the 2020 port explosion.
In the south, with Elias Jrade, people voted for someone who is left of centre and who understood that people are tired of always talking about how Hezbollah is just an Iranian militia and things like that. That is so far away from what people are actually concerned with in their everyday lives. Someone who comes from there can understand that and represent it credibly. Nevertheless, real socialist ideas, perhaps also represented by a new party, will still take some time.
Why do you think these socialist ideas are needed?
Basically, there needs to be an understanding of what the world looks like and, based on that, a common framework within which to work. Those who do not share this understanding will only ever try to change things within the existing framework. Liberals want to fix things, socialists want to change them.
This is particularly necessary in a country like Lebanon, where the existing system is so rotten from the inside out. Our problem is not simply corruption. Our problem is a system that has put capital accumulation above the basic welfare of people for decades.
Radical approaches are needed to change this state of affairs, not compromises?
If politics is controlled by a group of people from the bourgeoisie, the same patterns are simply reproduced again and again. That does not help. If we want to change political and economic practice at their core, we cannot start with compromise. If we seriously want to represent the interests of the working class in Lebanon, compromise is not the way to go, certainly not in times of crisis like this. It is the opposite: to steer the discourse as far as possible in the direction we want, so that the compromise eventually starts already further to the left. It’s about setting the framework elsewhere from the first place and not settling for left-liberal ideas.
What would have to be addressed, and how?
First of all, Lebanon’s political system as such does not work, because it does not produce decisions and solutions. Constitutional democracy has failed. We need some kind of majority rule if we want to function as a parliamentary democracy. We need a new electoral system, because that is the basis of any political legitimacy in the first place. We need a law that re-regulates the relationship between religious institutions and the state.
If we are trying to build a less sectarian society, we need democratic reforms and, in my opinion, a new constitution. Ours was written by the bourgeois intellectual elite of the 1920s, but is in many aspects no longer compatible with what people care about today. These are the things that people are basically asking for when they say they want an end to this sectarian in-fighting.
And on the economic level?
Above all, we have to reach the people who have suffered so much in the crisis. That is more important than paying the banks’ loans. Most important, of course, is to build a productive economy. That means the opposite of a neoliberal solution, and is also where the socialists and the progressives, who also want change, still differ.
In what way?
Many of the progressives and liberals think that the money offered by the IMF in exchange for reforms is a solution. I believe the exact opposite: the IMF’s “solution” will cause another crisis, another collapse in maybe ten or 15 years. More people will become poor. You won’t improve anything with the proposed measures, it won’t change the massive trade deficit that Lebanon has because we import so much more than we export.
What would fix that would be investment in productive capacity. The scale of the crisis in Lebanon calls for ideology. In times of such crisis, people often turn to socialism or fascism. Fascism has the easy answers, but we socialists must also provide some. Part of that answer is to organize the society and economy in a whole new way. Once again, it’s not about improving individual things, but changing the big picture. We want an economy that works for the people, not the other way around.
How could this very big economic change be achieved?
We first need to start normalizing ideology in Lebanon. So far it is perceived as something very daunting, but we need a narrative that is radically different from the mainstream. Our discourse needs to be more radical, we need to talk about how all resources belong to the people. No, not your toothbrush and not your house. But your third house. The land you don’t use.
Let’s invest in people, in education, health care. We also need to finally start thinking about the sectors that will allow you to be relevant in the world. The whole tech sector, for example, that will become a major economy on its own.
What does it take to at least start with that process?
Leadership. Even if we don’t like to hear it, we need people who say, “I am here to fight the oligarchy. To practice socialism. We are here to tackle this and that.” That’s how you reach people who are not socialists at heart, who may even be somewhere else politically, but who recognize: there is a clear difference to the others, the fight is obvious and it is my fight, too.
So not being afraid of polarization?
On the contrary. I plead for polarization. I appeal for the courage to polarize.
But isn't that dangerous in view of a divided society like Lebanon's?
In Lebanon, everyone has lived and made policy according to the same narratives for far too long. Basically, since the 1990s, right after the civil war, it was clear that the economic model was not working, that Rafic Hariri’s policies were doomed to fail. If you grant ever-higher interest rates on deposits in Lebanese accounts but need foreign currency as a state to balance the enormous trade deficit, then it is clear that it will collapse at some point. This had been predicted for years.
Nevertheless, no one addressed it politically, the economy was entirely absent from the sphere of politics. This shows the need for a strong socialist voice in Lebanon that serves as a clear counterweight to the mainstream and politicizes economic issues. So that people can differentiate along political preferences rather than along sectarian lines.