In Today’s Election, Lebanon’s Left Has a Chance to Challenge the Establishment

Ahead of today’s general election, a left-wing coalition has organized to challenge Lebanon’s sectarian elite. The progressive opposition movement, Citizens in a State, is seeking to rebuild the country through a radical redistributive agenda.

People cast their ballots at a polling station during general elections in Beirut, Lebanon, May 15, 2022. (Houssam Shbaro / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Today, Lebanese citizens will go to the polls to elect their new parliament. The elections come at a time of immense crisis for Lebanon — the country is going through an unprecedented financial meltdown, described by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst economic crises in 150 years. The value of the national currency, the lira, has depreciated by more than 80 percent since 2019, leading to skyrocketing prices for food, fuel, and consumer goods, and decimating depositors’ bank accounts.

The source of the collapse is no mystery. Decades of corruption and mismanagement, combined with the hollowing out of the state and productive economic sectors by the post–civil war neoliberal political class, has led to a situation in which Lebanon’s rentier economy cannot function for anyone except the oligarchs in charge.

The Causes of the Crisis

Lebanon is one of the most unequal countries in the world. A 2021 study by the Carnegie Middle East Center estimated that between 1990 and 2016, the top 1 percent of the population owned 45 percent of the wealth, with the bottom 50 percent accounting for less than 5 percent. In the 2010s, Lebanese billionaires’ wealth amounted to 23 percent of the country’s total income, a rate higher than in the United States and comparable to that of Russia. Most of Lebanon’s tax income comes from VAT charges and international tariffs, with low personal income tax rates, leaving millionaires and billionaires rich and the state underfunded.

To compensate for this lack of funding (personal income tax revenue in 2020 amounted to only 3 percent of GDP), successive Lebanese governments relied on foreign bank deposits and remittances from Lebanese abroad to keep the economy going, which worked for a time. But the lack of productive industrial or agricultural sectors meant the country had a wildly skewed import-export balance, and foreign depositors, attracted by high interest rates, just bloated the banking sector more instead of providing useful investments. The instability of the system was proven in 2019, when the money stopped flowing in, the banks lost their liquidity, and the inflation crisis began.

It was in the context of this worsening economy that people took to the streets all across the country, starting in October 2019, to demand the ouster of the political leaders that have ruled Lebanon for the past thirty years. These leaders, known as zaims, are at the center of Lebanese confessionalism, a formalized system of religious sectarian divisions that dictates the apportionment of seats in parliament and government posts.

The zaims lead the main political parties in the country, which represent Lebanon’s diverse array of religious groups. Some are Christian, some are Sunni or Shiite Muslim, some are Druze. They operate clientelist networks for their supporters that provide infrastructure and social services in exchange for votes and, in their decades in power, have kept the state weak and unable to provide for its citizens.

The protests have been an opportunity for a previously moribund secular left, which had existed on the margins of politics throughout the postwar neoliberal consensus. With the collapse of the economic system, progressive parties, some old and some new, are looking to make a resurgence.

These progressive parties are part of the broader opposition movement, which includes more than fifteen groups across the political spectrum. They are, however, divided on issues of social justice, economic reform, and political strategy. Citizens in a State, known by the acronym MMFD (Mouwatinoun wa Mouwatinat fi Dawla), is one of the more prominent opposition parties, standing out from the rest of the field due to its unique approach to running candidates in the election.

Organizing an Opposition

Lebanon is divided into fifteen electoral districts, with each containing several parliamentary seats. Parties and independents form candidate lists within the districts, and seats are apportioned proportionally to the votes the lists get. Most political forces choose to form alliances with each other in order to maximize their chances of winning seats.

MMFD, however, is running its own separate lists in most of the districts, apart from the other opposition parties, with fifty-five candidates across the country, more than any other political group. For the party, the elections are not a matter of winning the most votes or seats for the broad opposition, but about advancing a specific programmatic agenda.

MMFD’s central objective is the creation of a “civil state” in which the Lebanese people are represented as citizens, not as clients of sectarian interests. The party was founded in 2016 by Charbel Nahas, a former labor minister who resigned in protest from the cabinet in 2012 over the government’s anti-worker stance.

Nahas has a reputation as an intellectual and is known for his numerous writings on Lebanon’s political economy. These include his predictions of the collapse of the economic system years before the liquidity crisis in 2019, and his emphasis on MMFD’s detailed recovery plan.

Besides points directed at secularizing the state, MMFD’s political platform includes targeting financial losses toward the banks, opposing privatizations, and reforming exploitative financial practices. The party also calls for the establishment of a universal health care system and the strengthening of free public education, which would serve not just as essential services for citizens but also as a way to cut some of the threads of precariousness that keep people dependent on their zaims.

According to Petra Samaha, a member of the Delegate Council of Citizens in a State and a candidate for the party in the Zahle district, the party presented its program to other opposition groups and asked if they would be willing to campaign on it. “We came with a political program, a governance program, that says very clearly what we are going to do if we are in power and how,” Samaha told Jacobin. “Not one of the other lists of the opposition groups presented a full-fledged program on how to get out of the crisis.” In most cases, she says, when asked to negotiate and discuss MMFD’s platform, other parties were more interested in winning seats first and discussing policy after they were elected to parliament.

This approach is untenable for MMFD, which believes the strategy to overturn the establishment must be advanced by providing a clear and credible political alternative. Winning a handful of seats in a parliament still dominated by the sectarian parties is not enough.

“Elections in the country happen in the playground of the regime,” Samaha says. “What we are proposing through these elections is a shape in the narrative, of course, and a sort of a referendum over a national project that would protect society.” If the party’s list was able to win 7 or 8 percent of the vote nationwide, it would, according to Samaha, be a good result and show that a substantial number of people believe their platform has something to offer.

The Political Landscape

Most of the opposition parties do not share MMFD’s adherence to a clear program. Many are not very explicitly ideological beyond expressing a desire for political change. A few have indicated support for recouping economic losses by selling off state assets like telecoms and the Beirut airport. Included among the groups branding themselves as an alternative are right-wing parties and figures with previous connections to the regime.

The most prominent of these is the Kataeb, an old Christian sectarian party that played a large role in the political establishment of the twentieth century, which is now trying to rebrand itself. Kataeb is small, with most of its support in East Beirut and the adjoining Metn district, but it may now be able to tap into disaffected Christian sentiment and expand its voter base.

Kataeb is running in these elections in alliances with figures like Neemat Frem, a wealthy businessman with a long conservative record who was previously aligned with President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, banker Antoun Sehnaoui, and Michel Moawad, a minor zaim.

Kataeb and its allies are part of the “sovereigntist” camp that blames Lebanon’s problems on the so-called Iranian occupation, by which they mean the presence of Hezbollah and its weapons in the country. While MMFD and some other opposition parties identify Hezbollah as one party among several whose governance has been responsible for the collapse, the sovereigntists take aim at them above all others.

This tendency includes other so-called opposition parties and individuals, as well as some establishment parties from the old March 14 coalition that previously grouped together anti-Hezbollah forces. These parties, and particularly the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces, have the explicit backing of Saudi Arabia and their Gulf allies (and at least the implicit support of the United States), which are hoping to undermine Iran’s position in the region.

The presence of former establishment groups within their ranks has proved divisive for the opposition. Some refuse to ally with them, given their policies or past connections with the regime. But other opposition parties, lacking a clear ideology or electoral program, will take whatever allies they can get, especially if those allies have lots of cash.

The disagreements over who to align with, what policies to support, and which candidates to run has led to the splintering of opposition parties. In the Beirut II district, corresponding to East Beirut, there are three lists running that could credibly claim to be “alternative,” not including the separate Kataeb list.

In Saida-Jezzine, where only five seats are up for grabs, there are four lists making that claim. The only places where most opposition parties came together to form united lists are in the South II and South III districts, where the Shiite duo of Hezbollah and Amal dominate.

The Legacy of the Communist Party

With a divided opposition, many of the supporters of the 2019 uprising feel demoralized and unsure of who to give their vote to. The Lebanese Communist Party (LCP), which has been one of the most active parties organizing in the streets during the protests, is running on several shared lists with Citizens in a State, but does not agree with its strategy of placing its program over opposition unity.

The LCP made endorsements of lists in eleven of the fifteen districts, six of them where they are in alliance with MMFD and five where they are supporting opposing lists. According to Omar Deeb, a member of the LCP’s political bureau, the party made the choice to prioritize forming the strongest possible front.

“We were trying to form the broadest possible coalition among the Left, but also among the secular and democratic forces, so for us, we considered that the alliance that we target in all those regions is to form a broad, secular, democratic alliance,” Deeb says. “We are in a stage in the struggle where we have to rally all of those forces against the sectarian regime and the sectarian parties ruling the country.”

Deeb says that the strategy is not about winning seats, which he agrees is not a path to change, but about giving people something they can believe in. He thinks that most people are looking for lists that are strong enough to challenge the establishment parties, and that smaller, weaker lists will discourage people from voting.

Unlike most other opposition parties, which were created in the past few years, the LCP has a long and storied history, and has been at the forefront of the fight against sectarianism and inequality for almost one hundred years.

It was founded in 1925 as the Communist Party of Syria and Lebanon. In these early days, its main representatives were tobacco workers and Armenian genocide survivors. By the late 1940s, the Lebanese Communist Party, then formally split from the Syrian branch, had become one of the most popular parties in the country, with a strong presence in the trade union movement.

This popularity came crashing down, however, after the party leadership made the decision to back the Soviet Union’s support for the partition of Palestine (which it later repudiated). Widespread anti-Zionist sentiment would result in a backlash against the Communists.

Despite its diminished strength, in 1958, the LCP participated in the uprising against the Western-backed president Camille Chamoun alongside other progressive and nationalist forces. By this time, other parties had begun to occupy space on the Left, including Nasserists, Baathists, and Kamal Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party. They demanded political and economic reform, including wealth redistribution and an end to the confessional system.

This collection of communist, Arab nationalist, and socialist parties transformed into the Lebanese National Movement (LNM) in the 1970s under Kamal Jumblatt’s leadership. Faced with a rising tide of radicalism, Lebanese sectarian elites unleashed violence against the LNM and its allies in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (which was based in Lebanon at the time), starting the civil war in 1975.

The later years of the civil war, however, marked a turn away from radicalism versus reaction and toward sectarian politics. The Progressive Socialist Party grew increasingly Druze-focused after the assassination of Jumblatt and the succession of his son Walid. The Communist Party, which had a particularly strong presence among the Shiite communities, saw its support eroded by the Amal Movement and Hezbollah, whose growth coincided with the rise of political Islam across the region.

The LCP participated in the resistance against the Israeli invasion of the South, but, by the end of the war, was greatly weakened along with the rest of the Lebanese left. The fall of the USSR and the neoliberal consensus of the ’90s saw the party fall further into obscurity.

A Resurgent Left?

Now, with the failure of the capitalist sectarian system, the Left is making a comeback. Deeb believes the protest movement has allowed the LCP to connect with the populace. “We were able to recruit many young people, students, workers, etc.,” he says. “This gave us the opportunity to reach, to communicate, to interact with hundreds of thousands of people in Lebanon, who interact positively with the party even if they are not members.”

Curiously, while MMFD has broadly progressive policies and is generally considered in the media to be a party of the Left, they resist describing themselves as such. “In our diagnosis, we don’t see left and right in Lebanon,” Samaha says. “The system that has been working in the past thirty years, you can’t even describe it as a right-wing system, it wasn’t even liberal. There were six sectarian leaders with their friends, the bank owners, who were just looting the country.”

Deeb disagrees with this view. “We do not agree that concepts of left and right do not apply to Lebanon. Those are universal issues. And MMFD, from their program, they are a left-wing party even if they would like to deny it for some reason,” he says. “They are not working for the interests of big businesses, of big capital, but they are working for reforming our banking system, for [universal] health insurance, for the people.”

MMFD’s plan to transition out of the crisis resembles a sort of developmentalist capitalism, with policies intended to direct investment toward businesses in productive sectors. The plan combines this developmentalist approach with a very direct attack on finance capital, taking money from the banks to compensate for the losses that they helped cause.

The Communist Party shares a similar short-term economic prescription but diverges from Citizens in a State on the mechanism for the political transition. MMFD wants to use the crisis as an opportunity to build political power so that they and their allies can impose themselves as an alternative to the regime. They believe that the situation will get so bad that the main political parties will be forced to cede power.

A passage from MMFD’s transition plan reads: “After [the party leaders’] best illusory option is gone, which is to maintain the regime they have created, they would have two choices: either violence and loss, or negotiating a peaceful transfer of power through a transitional phase.”

The Communist Party is not as optimistic about this idea of a negotiated transition. “In Lebanon, they are ready to [start] a civil war before surrendering their powers. They did it before,” Deeb says. “The ruling class went to war in order to prevent the Left from being able to change the regime, to reach power. And they are ready to do it again . . . they don’t care about the stability of the country, about the future of the country. They don’t really care about the people who vote for them. So they are not the morally conscious ruling class which will surrender or hand over power to its opponent.”

For the LCP, change has to come through continuing to organize and building a balance of forces against the regime — connecting with labor unions, strengthening the student movement, bringing people back into the streets to protest. The struggle will not be easy and may not always be peaceful. The elections on Sunday most likely won’t be a victory for the opposition, but they can be a starting point. People are looking for an alternative, and this is the opposition’s opportunity to show that they are capable of building support for a secular, democratic, and social Lebanon.