In the aftermath of the August 4 explosion, former militia members and farmers have flocked to Beirut to help while prominent clerics announce support for new elections.
Rabat – Lebanon is at a crucial point in its history as political intransigence and calls for new elections occupy leadership while citizens organize and volunteer to provide practical aid. People in Beirut need practical services like food, water, and construction work in order to deal with the situation on the ground.
Markets have been destroyed and hospitals swamped with little practical support from the government. As parliamentarians continue to disagree over procedures and potential power-sharing agreements, the people of Lebanon have stepped up and provided some semblance of support for those impacted by the August 4 explosion in Beirut.
Citizens step up
Lebanon’s citizens have stepped up in an incredible display of resilience in the face of adversity. Rural farmers have moved to the capital to provide meals while volunteers continue to clear rubble and prepare to rebuild. The sense of community visible in the face of parliamentarian intransigence provides a clear contrast between the priorities of the Lebanese people and their political leadership.
Local social organizations and businesses have joined hands to provide rudimentary social services to people in need. A Tripoli-based program aimed at rehabilitating former militia fighters saw 40 former combatants volunteer to go to Beirut to help rebuild. The program is a joint effort between construction firm Beb el-Dahab and March, a non-profit peacebuilding organization.
“It was so touching and heartwarming when they called to say ‘we want to come down and help, we don’t care about getting paid’,” the NGO’s founder Lea Baroudi, said. “I’m talking about extremely, extremely poor former fighters who were fighting a sectarian war.”
A Beirut farmers market, the Souk el Tayeb market, was forced to close after the explosion. The market is now the scene of an improvised community kitchen. Women from various rural villages and low-income communities have come out to provide more than 1000 meals for volunteers, every day.
But while the citizens of Lebanon have shown a remarkable sense of community in the face of disaster, disagreements over a caretaker government and calls for new elections continue to divide the Lebanese elite.
Yet change does not appear to be in the air when it comes to the country’s political class. Disagreements over calls for early elections and the form of a temporary caretaker government have divided politics in Lebanon.
The disagreement over early elections remains generally divided between parties who are currently in power and those who are not. Hezbollah and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement fear they may lose the gains they made in Lebanon’s 2018 elections, while the opposition calls for a new election where they might gain.
The topic of a caretaker government has also divided parties into camps. Some call for a “neutral” government that resembles the make-up of Lebanese society ahead of early elections. Others prefer a “national unity government” that would contain all the country’s main political parties.
Several Christian parties pushed for the “neutral” government and early elections, while the Progressive Socialist Party called for an “emergency government” that would be charged with the monumental tasks of first rebuilding Beirut, fixing the country’s economic problems, and carrying out reforms before a new poll would take place.
Another factor is the Lebanese Armed Forces. Samir Geagea, the army’s executive chairman, has asked for a parliamentary session to be reduced to four years, effectively moving elections forward without calling elections immediately. In the meantime, Geagea would recommend “a fully new, independent and neutral government” to manage Lebanese affairs.
Meanwhile, foreign actors are using the promise of financial aid to push for yet unspecified reforms in Lebanon. The US and France in particular have singled out reforms as a necessary precursor for desperately needed foreign aid. What exact reforms foreign powers demand has not been publicly defined.
Clerics speak up
Lebanon’s top Christian and Sunni clerics have now joined calls for new elections in separate statements. Lebanon’s top Sunni cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian, stated that President Aouan should listen to citizens’ demands and realize a change in political leadership. “The existential threat to Lebanon requires urgent attention,” Derian said, emphasizing the need for “an international investigation to delineate responsibilities and restore confidence.”
Bechara Boutros al-Rai, patriarch of the Lebanese Maronite Church, had issued a similar statement on Sunday, August 16. In a sermon, the top Catholic cleric said, “we will not allow for Lebanon to become a compromise card between nations that want to rebuild ties amongst themselves.”
“We must start immediately with change and quickly hold early parliamentary elections,” al-Rai added.
Both clerics highlighted potential stumbling blocks toward a change in Lebanon’s political status quo. Al-Rai named the yet-to-be-agreed-upon election law as a potential source for delay while Derian urged President Aoun to spur parliament on to quickly name a new prime minister.
Amid the resilience Lebanon’s divided communities have shown, citizens share frustration with their government. Lebanese politicians are often more responsive to the priorities of foreign influences than to citizens, leading the people of Lebanon to demand swift and structural change.
Amid calls for new elections and political maneuvering, the people of Lebanon have presented a stark contrast between the people’s collective actions and the absence of a united political response from Lebanese elites.