NOW Lebanon | June 1st, 2022 | Lebanese elections

Lebanon’s working classes are all but represented in the new parliament, although a new wave of politicians and newly elected MPs promise to do politics “for the people”.

[Edit: After a social media backlash, MP Najat Aoun Saliba handed in a rebuttal letter, which NOW Lebanon and myself contested. Read at the end.]

Driving through the city on election day, Mohammad, 30, barely gave any attention to the numerous posters displaying the candidates’ faces and slogans. For him, May 15, 2022 was just another Sunday at work. 

“I will vote for no one, not even the independents,” he said.

“They claim to be for the people, but will end up as corrupted as the others,” said Mohammad, a 30-year-old taxi driver from Abu Samra, Tripoli, who asked to remain anonymous. 

Many electoral posters were ripped, the candidates’ serious gaze besmeared with graffiti. 

And many in Tripoli and the North II district related to the disillusioned taxi driver. The voter turnout was less than 35 percent on May 15, 2022, against 49 percent on national average.

“Abstention was a clear message of distrust among the working classes, especially in the marginalized North,” said Pascale Asmar, an independent researcher in political and media discourses.

Voting behavior and political participation was heavily influenced by social class and income, a study conducted by Oxfam a few weeks before the Lebanese general elections showed. 

Whilst 70 percent amongst the tiny minority of Lebanese making more than 20 million Lebanese pounds monthly (approximately 700 dollars at the 30,000 LBP market rate) expressed their intention to vote, only 40 percent amongst those who make less than 2 million Lebanese pounds (70 dollars) a month.

Anti-establishment candidates, many of whom came from the October 17 uprising groups, won 13 seats in Parliament, which was deemed a win. They are likely to have secured more votes, if not for the absenteeism, but they failed to mobilize the working classes.

“I have heard many people say that these candidates didn’t even know the price of bread or benzin (gas),” recounts Asmar. “Their profiles seemed disconnected from a big part of the population,” she added.

Middle-class politicians

The profiles of the thirteen newly elected opposition MP’s may not have helped. 

“They are lawyers, doctors, dentists, university professors, and stem from the upper-middle class,” confirmed Karim Bitar, associate professor of International Relations at Saint Joseph University and research director at the French Think Tank IRIS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques).

The new MP’s belong to the top ten percent of the population, which possesses almost 50 percent of the country’s wealth, according to the mean incomes of these professions and to the World Inequality Database.

Neither the new MPs nor anyone in parliament are representative of most of the population.

Some 82 percent of the population now lives under the UN’s relative poverty line, and up to one-third of all inhabitants suffer from extreme, multidimensional poverty, according to an ESCWA report.

According to Oxfam, Lebanon is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Before the crisis, the Mikati and Hariri families, the first hailing from Tripoli and the second from Sidon, owned one third of all the countries’ wealth.

“Neither the new MPs nor anyone in parliament are representative of most of the population,” Asmar pointed out.

Half of all people residing in Lebanon have no health insurance and work in the informal sector – without contract, fixed wages, and rights. This working class is made up of Lebanese nationals working in precarious conditions or unemployed, migrant domestic workers, as well as Syrian and Palestinian refugees. 80 percent of the country’s inhabitants earn less than 6 million Lebanese pounds a month, roughly $200 at the current 30,000 LBP/$. 

New faces

On May 15, 2022, Najat Saliba was elected on the Progress list in the Chouf district. 

“It is true that we haven’t looked at the issue of representing the working classes,” she admitted. “It is an interesting question, and I will address it with my colleagues,” she said, adding that she didn’t know about the background of her fellow MPs.

Saliba herself stems from a rural laborer family in the South that gained wealth before the civil war. “We lost everything in 1975, so my family has been through hard times too,” she recounts. 

Today, she described her situation as “very comfortable,” thanks to her salary as an AUB university professor and to the multiple grants and prizes she received as an environmental activist.

Access to quality education is a factor that contributes to the class gap between candidates and the working-class electorate. 

Lebanon has by far the highest percentage of primary and secondary pupils in private schools, at 70 and 54 percent respectively in 2018. These proportions are unique to the whole region. However, private schools and universities are very costly, and leave out a large part of the working class, who cannot afford the fees. 

The level of educational inequality strongly impacts political behavior: Oxfam found that voters for the independent candidates often held Master’s degrees or PhDs and all candidates finished higher education, placing them in the middle class or upper-middle class.

What unites the new MPs is that they don’t belong to the established political families and share an activist background.

“What unites the new MPs is that they don’t belong to the established political families and share an activist background,” explained Bitar. But as far as he’s concerned, there are big differences between the newly elected MPs. Not all are progressives. 

But Ibrahim Mneimneh, who won a Sunni seat in Beirut II after running with Beirut Resists on a progressive agenda, grew up in the marginalized district of Tariq Jdideh.

“Many impoverished voters heralded him as ‘one of us’,” explained Asmar. “He works as an architect in a middle-class area of Beirut, he’s a dad, many feel like he resembles his community,” she added.

NOW attempted to contact Mneimneh, but the MP did not reply.

A contrasting figure is to be found in Yassine Yassine, newly elected MP in the Bekaa. “He became a millionaire in the USA after making a fortune in the telecoms industry,” Asmar said. Yassine has never advertised himself as progressive and, for example, opposes civil marriage. “It’s possible that he wanted to remain close to his quite conservative electorate,” she guessed.

Yassine is not the only new MP in this position. Cynthia Yarazir, former Free Patriotic Moevemt -FPM member, is known for having called for a “genocide” against Syrians in a 2016 tweet, for which she has issued apologies – whilst asserting her anti-Syrian sentiment.

“Some independent candidates are neither progressive nor truly independent,” criticized Wadih el-Asmar, human rights activist and president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights. “I sometimes even wonder if they will defend all human rights actively,” he said.

Political analysts agreed that this year’s elections did not provide a space for discussing social class and inequality. “Since the campaigns were basically transformed into a pro- versus anti-Hezbollah referendum, other issues were overshadowed,” said Bitar.

The 2022 elections also confirmed the new cleavage between the establishment versus independent candidates. “The hatred against the traditional parties was so great that the class divide seemed less important,” believes Wadih el-Asmar.

“It is ironic that inequalities and human rights were almost totally silenced during the campaigns, although there were never as many independent, progressive candidates,” she asserted.

Eradicating poverty or inequality

Most independent candidates focused on measures targeting extreme poverty only, such as cash grants to the poorer segments of the population, instead of systemic reforms to fight inequalities, experts said.

Similarly, Saliba doesn’t believe a mandatory and universal health coverage to be necessary, and supports public coverage only for the most marginalized groups. 

“We prefer reforms to address inequalities without harming the private sector, whose growth is necessary,” she explained.

The measures proposed by the new MPs are often very vague and show a clear absence of political education and ideology.

Debates rage on between newly elected opposition MPs about creating a national solidarity fund dedicated to financing health care. 

“We think that the wealthiest companies should pitch in to support the vulnerable and revamp the medical system,” explained Saliba.

Such measures resemble the UN agency’s recommendations. ESCWA calculated that if the wealthiest companies pledged 2 percent of their net wealth, extreme poverty “could be eradicated in Lebanon.”

This approach is heavily criticized by historians and economists. For historian Fawaz Traboulsi, this leads to “decoupling poverty from all other social issues and treating it (…) as  a ‘disease’ that needs to be stamped out.”

Yet, the goal of “eradicating poverty” remains ineffective year after year. And this “philanthropic approach” doesn’t change the power structures behind poverty, according to Traboulsi. 

“The measures proposed by the new MPs are often very vague and show a clear absence of political education and ideology,” Asmar, the independent researcher, said.

In contrast, Oxfam recommended wealth redistribution through taxation, social spending, and limitation of the elites’ power.

The failure of progressive alternatives

Although some parties and candidates did make advanced proposals on how to reform the economic system, such proposals have been marginalized or have squarely lost the elections. The Capable lists from Citizens in a State (MMFD) were the best example of this trend.

“They included very ambitious measures to address systemic inequalities, yet gained only 1.5 percent of all voices, far from their goal of 15 percent,” Bitar commented, although he insisted that it was not as crushing a defeat as many interpreted. 

Charbel Nahas’ party heralded a unitary program nationwide, including universal health care and an income tax reform. But little of it has reached the working-class electorate which it was supposed to benefit. 

“Nahas sounds very arrogant and academic to most people”, said Asmar. 

Most of MMFD’s candidates were from the educated upper-middle classes, live abroad, and are unknown in their constituencies, so how were people supposed to vote for them.

Furthermore, the electoral law pushed tactical voting for larger parties, which deserved opposition factions, including MMFD, said Nizar Ghanem, October 17 activist and director of research at Triangle, a policy research company based in Beirut. 

“His program stayed abstract, since MMFD refused alliances and tried to impose their program on other parties most of the time”, he explained. “The working classes are divided and very localized, so his plan to build up a centralized national party did not respond to their needs”.

“Most of MMFD’s candidates were from the educated upper-middle classes, live abroad, and are unknown in their constituencies, so how were people supposed to vote for them,” Asmar also said.

Old elites, new elites

Among the new MPs, the “progressives” support low taxation and measures recommended by NGOs, which is not surprising, according to many experts.

Most of the newcomers stem from the upper-middle class, “beyond dispute the class most suited to the globalized, neoliberal age,” Traboulsi wrote in a report published in 2014.

Historically, the Lebanese middle class emerged through consumerism and the liberal policies of the 1950s and 1960s. It is often seen as “the class with the greatest interest in democracy,” according to him.

The middle class has been contending for power since the 2016 municipal elections, and its struggle has only intensified in the last few years. They were the segment of the population that engaged the most in the October 2019 uprising and voted for the independent candidates in the 2022 elections. 

Ministerial and parliamentary positions give their holders the power and immunity they require to protect or develop existing economic interests, to establish new economic interests.

But perhaps it wasn’t just out of love for democracy. 

As the lower and middle segments of the middle class virtually disappeared because of the economic crisis, becoming the so-called new poor, Lebanon’s upper classes are equally threatened with extinction. 

And their survival may lie in political representation, as the strong backing of the new candidates by those making more than 20 million Lira monthly illustrates. 

“Ministerial and parliamentary positions give their holders the power and immunity they require to protect or develop existing economic interests, to establish new economic interests,” wrote Traboulsi.

Replacing the old, feudal elites might thus be their way of securing power and stability.

“Many have criticized the civil society movement for only wanting to elect new figures more respectable than their establishment adversaries, without questioning the structural injustices of this system,” Bitar admits.

A historic disappearance

The lack of working-class representation among the newly elected MPs, then, is not a surprise. For Bitar, “this goes back a long way in Lebanon’s history, even before independence, in 1943.”

“The founding fathers of the Lebanese idea perceived it as an experience of liberal management of pluralism, it was the country of laissez-faire, and has often been described by political scientists as a market republic.”

The absence of working-class representation is deeply rooted in this notion of the liberal state. “Except for some intellectuals and sociologists who have raised the question of inequalities and change of system, these issues have always remained relatively marginal,” Bitar explained. 

As such, it is not surprising that the thirteen newly elected opposition MPs have “forgotten” to address social class and systemic inequality. It might simply not be in their interest, nor in the interest of the State they advocate for.

“This explains the total lack of trust and feeling of abandonment that most people felt during the elections”, said Asmar

Philippe Pernot is a French-German freelance journalist and photographer currently based in Tripoli, Lebanon. He studied political science in France and Germany, and he focuses his work on social movements such as feminism, ecology and anarchism, as well as on minority rights and discrimination. Follow him on Instagram.

REBUTTAL LETTER BY MRS NAJAT AOUN-SALIBA

On June 1, NOW Lebanon publish this article looking at the lack of social policies among the newly elected members of Parliament.

The article quotes several political analysts and MPs, including Taqqadoum MP Najat Aoun Saliba.
MP Saliba sent a letter of rebuttal to our newsroom accusing the reporter of misquoting and misrepresenting what she said. 

We consider that the ethical thing to do is to publish her stance. 

Dear Editor-in-Chief of nowlebanon.com,

In the article titled “Unrepresented,” issued on your website on June 1, the author makes an assumption on my behalf that (quoting directly) “Saliba doesn’t believe a mandatory and universal health coverage to be necessary, and supports public coverage only for the most marginalized groups”. He continues by quoting me, stating that “We prefer reforms to address inequalities without harming the private sector, whose growth is necessary.”

I want to state that the claims made above are totally inaccurate. I have never mentioned, nor implied, nor believe that public coverage should be for the most marginalized societal groups only. Furthermore, was not asked by the author about the specific case of the health sector. When asked by the author about the private sector in general, I simply responded that we cannot neglect its role, including the universities and their hospitals that have played a major role in the society, and therefore that we favor reforms to address inequalities without harming the private sector, whose growth is necessary.

I would like to stress that universal healthcare is necessary and should be mandatory for the entire population.

I kindly request that my right of reply is associated with the article and if possible, that the article is revised accordingly.

Thank you

Najat Aoun Saliba

NOW Lebanon’s statement

After careful consideration of the reporter’s account, notes, and of MP Saliba’s letter, we have to stress that the article was not meant to attack anyone personally, but to emphasize the fact that the working classes have historically been excluded from the works of the Lebanese parliament – and that many of the new progressive MPs belong to upper-middle-class and had reproduced the class blindness.

We have not changed, distorted nor invented any of the quotes in the article. We regret the backlash on social media and we consider it unfair to criticize the MP who had the courage to talk about policy shortcomings and show willingness to make up for them and include social policies in the priorities of the party. 

Among the politicians we’ve approached for interviews, MP Saliba was one of the few willing to address the topic. She answered the questions with honesty, friendliness and humility.

We were surprised when she sent us a rebuttal letter published above. MP Saliba had the reporter’s contact and she could have contacted the journalist and the editors to discuss any misquotations, if any, but she did not. 

The rebuttal comes 10 days after publication because the article led to her stance being criticized on social media. We are glad that she and her party now stand firmly for universal social security and the issue of working-class representation.

We want to make clear that the intention was never to attack MP Saliba personally nor to imply that the 13 new opposition MPs are less competent than the others. We firmly believe that they will make the country a better place if they don’t forget whom they are supposed to represent.

Therefore, we stand by our coworker. We believe that the media should be watchdogs of all politicians, not just of the establishment.

The backlash around the article shows how important it is to keep pushing and to remind ALL politicians about what their priority should be: the 82 percent of the population behind the poverty line, which are not represented in Parliament.

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