Positive spirits regarding the upcoming elections in May 2022 are reflected in almost every interview and debate. Clubhouse, the social media app, has been flooded by optimistic panels and discussions dissecting how civil society can work to represent alternatives to the ruling political class.
But there’s another side to this story that Lebanon seems to be missing. The only way to change Lebanon lies in deconstructing what the country was made of and then reconstructing it to address the buildup of sectarian and ideological issues.
Lebanon consists of 18 sects, and its system is deeply affected by sect-based representation. The question of whether Lebanon can now demand and build a secular state sounds more unrealistic each day. But during the protests in 2019 and 2020, revolutionary discussions rarely focused on these sectarian divides. Back then, social media was buzzing with videos showcasing “reconciliation,” such as when women marched together from areas representing different sects. The aim was to prove that reconciliation is possible. But any reconciliation that doesn’t include revisiting deeper wounds might be insufficient and almost purposeless.
Lebanon never went through a proper reconciliation process. When different groups try to mend a country with too many wounds — from being a part of the Ottoman Empire; to the 1920s, when the Lebanese Republic under the French mandate was declared; to 1958 and the first trace of civil war; to 1967, when the Arab-Israeli war impacted Lebanon as well; to the infamous 1975 civil war — the result is a foregone conclusion.
What came after the civil war was just a visual “rebirth” of Lebanon, with economic investments, loans and plans that turned the destroyed Beirut to a modern city where Chanel and Dior stores met war-torn buildings. But under all these layers lies the real problem of Lebanon: an identity crisis, as Ramzi Abou Ismail, a political psychologist and a researcher at the University of Kent, describes.
With no history book or references defining the modern history of the country, with stories told differently by various parties and generations, and with sectarian tension seemingly resurfacing every few months, no number of votes in any upcoming elections could change the narrative of our missing national identity. That’s why being hopeful for the elections without tackling the identity problem in Lebanon is a mistake.
In fact, the risks are higher now, because new pro-revolution parties are facing political tyrants with years of experience in manipulating people to gain votes and using favoritism, clientelism, corruption and even armed militias to win or influence elections. These political tyrants are able to provide their lifelong supporters with a sense of security by protecting them from any symbolic threats — mostly the perceived threats of other sectarian groups. In recent months, as economic needs grew, this protection also turned into providing material benefits to their supporters in the form of economic favors.
We witnessed covid-19 vaccine promises from many parties, which encouraged citizens from certain areas to visit centers and register. Other parties launched special outlets where access to subsidized goods would be made available to supporters. Buying votes no longer costs $100 in Lebanon: A gallon of subsidized cooking oil and a vaccine dose serve the purpose, because even basic needs are scarce. No matter how secular or independent someone is, when their money is stuck in banks, the health-care sector is collapsing and a trip to the supermarket costs more than the minimum wage, they will choose whoever can give them access to these basics. This entrenches sectarian divides even further.
With a crisis of missing national identity, there’s no easy or hard win this time, just more losses if we don’t tackle the underlying problem. This problem remains deeper than corruption, an economic crisis and traditional parties.