The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lebanese MPs camp out in parliament to protest ‘ridiculous’ power vacuum

Lebanese protesters carry national flags Friday during a protest outside the parliament building in Beirut in support of members of parliament who have staged a sit-in. (Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
5 min

BEIRUT — After Lebanon’s 11th unsuccessful session to elect a president last week, two independent lawmakers simply refused to go home, staging a sit-in at parliament to spur their colleagues to action as the country slips further into economic ruin.

Parliamentarians Najat Saliba and Melhem Khalaf have been camped out in the parliamentary building in the capital, Beirut, since Jan. 19, sending an open call to other members of parliament to join them, meet quorum and finally elect a new president.

“The only way we can start making reforms, or make any attempt to stop the deterioration of the lira, and to make any attempt to get anything in the country, we need a cabinet,” Saliba told The Washington Post. “And the only way we can get a cabinet is by electing a president.”

She was speaking via Zoom on Tuesday night from the darkness of the curved parliament hall, where electricity is only available from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. “It’s pitch-dark,” said Saliba, but they’re making do with projectors and battery-powered lamps.

“It’s not that bad,” she added. “I think people are suffering a lot more than us.”

Lebanese member of parliament Najat Saliba on Jan. 24 described the dark room of her parliamentary sit-in. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

The country’s electricity shortage is one of many concurrent calamities that have engulfed Lebanon since 2019, when tens of thousands of people filled the streets to protest a spiraling financial crisis and the endemic corruption that has long divided the country into haves and have-nots — a divide that has only grown in the years since.

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The Lebanese pound is in free-fall: Before the crisis, it was pegged at 1,507 pounds to the dollar, and while the peg is technically still in place, people exchange dollars at volatile black-market rates that can change daily, even hourly. On Wednesday, the pound reached a record low: 57,000 pounds to the dollar, already down 35 percent since Jan. 1.

The decline of the pound has condemned much of the country to poverty. It has also widened the gulf between those who get paid in dollars and those who get paid in the local currency — a baffling change to most Lebanese, who for decades had used both bank notes interchangeably.

In the absence of official data from the government, whose last official census was in 1932, the World Food Program estimates that 46 percent of Lebanese households have trouble meeting their basic food needs.

Beirut was once synonymous with wild party scenes and luxurious hotels; now, men, women and children roam the streets begging for money, food, medicine and water.

“We have no power to do anything but watch the people suffer and run after their daily, human, basic rights,” Saliba said. “With a vacuum like this, people are left alone to fend for themselves. This is the worst disastrous situation you can ask for.”

“In order to break the cycle of stalling, and to break the cycle of not doing anything, we decided to sit in the government here, in the parliament, and call for action,” she continued.

Lebanese member of parliament Najat Saliba on Jan. 24 described why she staged a parliamentary sit-in. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

The term of Lebanon’s previous president, Michel Aoun, finished at the end of October, and many worry that the post will remain vacant indefinitely.

Their fears are not unfounded: The last vacancy dragged on for 29 months, paralyzing the country for more than two years before Aoun took office in October 2016. The presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian, following a power-sharing deal that ended a bloody 15-year civil war in 1990.

The current caretaker government has limited powers, and with parliament in a state of election, Saliba explained, all legislative functions are on hold. It is a “ridiculous” situation, she said, that demanded desperate measures.

“We would go and cast a white paper vote, and leave without even waiting to know the results,” she said. “So we were like sitting there, witnessing a whole mockery of the system. This drove us really crazy, and we started thinking what would be the best way to push those people, to assume the responsibilities to the fullest, [to] think about the best way to elect the president, especially as we are witnessing the worst economic collapse.”

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The sit-in has led to some progress, Saliba said. Thirty-one of their fellow parliamentarians have visited to show support, some dropping by regularly to talk, others sleeping over in rotations. “But they’re not enough. Thirty-one people cannot elect a president.”

In the first round of voting, a successful candidate needs 86 votes, or a two-thirds majority of the 128 sitting MPs. So far, no candidate has received more than 44 votes. Opposing political parties have refused to reach across the aisle.

“We cannot wait,” Saliba said, adding that, constitutionally, parliamentarians can gather at any moment to vote, without waiting for a call by the speaker of the parliament. But the majority of MPs have steered clear of the hall.

Lebanese member of parliament Najat Saliba said on Jan. 24 the government cannot wait long before electing a new president. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

Saliba said she and her like-minded colleagues are in it for the long haul, and will continue sleeping on the few couches scattered around the building until the deadlock is broken. Saliba wears a coat inside in the absence of heating, but her face lit up when she was asked if food delivery was available.

“There’s so much food,” she laughed. In quintessentially Lebanese fashion, the lawmakers’ constituents have been supporting them with meals, fruits, dessert and coffee. “People keep sending us food,” she said, shaking her silver hair in disbelief.