A Grassroots National Dialogue- A Prerequiste For Change

Saturday 30 November 201912:14 pm

More than a month after  Lebanon’s protests started, the political class seems reluctant to give in to the protesters’ demands as calls for a technocratic government still linger on. Technocratic or not, what is needed is real political and economic reforms that earn the trust of the protesters and restore the confidence of international lenders on which Lebanon is dependent for much of the investment and development projects- Cedre being one of them.

Financial and economic stability cannot be regained through a mere government reshuffle, nor by appointing specialized ministers in the portfolios they administer. Real structural change needs to take root before one can see change. It is argued that Lebanon has enough laws but not enough independence within the judiciary to enact them, which means that new appointees will soon enough find themselves barricaded in a corrupt system with very limited powers to see through their policies, absent a political cover. This is why demands for a technocratic government seem to be a little out of touch with the political reality on the ground.

A push back against the protesters’ demands is rooted in the view that one political concession might lead to another, which would in effect threaten the political system in place. While it might not necessarily lead to the downfall of the regime or the demise of the political class, it would certainly spell out the beginning of a new chapter and a shake-up of the status quo as it stands.

However, failing to respond to the protesters’ demands might exacerbate the crisis. Carrying out some of the demands is seen to have some positive impact, as it would help diffuse some of the tensions among the protestors while bolstering their image within its base- or what’s left of it. Concessions could be repackaged to current politicians popular base and to the protesters alike as “willingness to put the demands of the people and the national interest before party politics”.

It is also worth noting that as much as there’s real drive for change among a cross section of the population, the ruling class still enjoys a significant degree of popular support.

It is also argued that just as the ruling class is being asked to respond to the demands of the 1.5 million or so protestors disenchanted with the ruling class, there’s still an equivalent number of popular support- and even loyalty- to the political class whose voices cannot be cancelled out. The pro Aoun demonstration was significant in its symbolism of the political divide present among the Lebanese despite their equal suffering in a country on the brink of collapse.

Parliamentary elections were held a year ago,  unfortunately, these have confirmed the same political class. Millions of protesters on the streets today are calling for the downfall of the regime, which begs the question where were these protesters when the ballots boxes were open? Despite a low voter turnout of around of 49.7% percent, most of those on the streets today, bear some responsibility for the current situation we find ourselves in today. As the protesters’ demands are asked to be taken seriously and acted upon by the political class, accepting those in favor of this same political class is also crucial in any transition period.

A transition to a technocratic government is nice and sweet, but the formation of a techno-political cabinet that constitutes technocrats and politicians is a fair solution given the results of the elections held about a year ago, which gave a clear majority in favor of a political coalition that up until the resignation of the prime minister was proportionally represented in the government.

Expecting the winning parties to wash away an electoral victory and withdraw from future governments is a little unconscionable and hence calls for a techno-political government. Conceding ground to the protestors would be seen as an admission on the part of the current political actors of their failure, something they don’t seem to be open to considering just yet.

It also holds true that the current ruling coalition has lost its legitimacy by those who marched on the streets, where protesters across the board were unified by their legitimate demands beyond any sect or class that might have previously divided them. Despite that, we saw a counter protest in support of the president, not to mention the hundreds of thousands that up till now remain silent. Unfortunately, those in favor of the political establishment are pitted against those who find themselves disenchanted with the ruling class, despite having suffered equally as a result of corporate sectarianism confessionalism marred by corruption.

National Dialogue

As the political scene seems to be reeling from political stalemate and economic stagnation,  the political leadership acts unresponsive and even indifferent. Therefore, there’s an ever growing need for the launching of a national dialogue that opens the space up for a constructive discourse among citizens. it also aims to accommodate the various calls put forth by the protestors, while noting the reservations voiced by those still backing the political establishment.

Pushing forward such a process would help refine protesters’ demands as they currently range between those calling for the abolition of political confessionalism, the downfall of the regime and those merely calling for specific political reforms.  Some of the more targeted reforms take a different approach, one that views democracy in a lens that sees change as being progressive rather than instantaneous.

On another note, accusing the protestors of all being agents of embassies carrying out foreign agendas is a mere political ploy to tarnish the movement and throw into question its legitimacy. Despite these efforts to delegitimize the protests, that doesn’t deny the possibility of a foreign intervention taking advantage of the current situation to advance certain political objectives. Not only is this a trend of foreign intervention, it is also the case with established political parties trying to score points by cashing in on the wave of this non-partisan movement that has voiced its contempt of the ruling class in its entirety.

There’s an ever growing need to launch a national dialogue that opens up the space for constructive discourse among citizens, accommodating protestors' calls, while noting the reservations voiced by those backing the political establishment. #Lebanon

#LebanonProtests have been sparked by decades of economic mismanagement and corruption, nepotism and sectarian corporate consociationalism, but that cannot rule out foreign meddling in internal affairs or local efforts to taint the purity of the protests
A transition to a technocratic government is nice and sweet, but the formation of a techno-political cabinet that constitutes technocrats and politicians is a fair solution given the results of the elections held about a year ago, what has changed since?
As was the case with previous national dialogues, political leaders drew their own vision of what future social, political and economic reforms should look like. Tackling major sticking points between the major political camps is not easy #LebanonProtests
A representative national dialogue is truly representative when it involves a cross section of the population to bring forth ideas and take part in shaping the future. Diffusing the establishment’s dominance over the political decision is a civic duty

Lebanon’s revolution has been sparked by decades of economic mismanagement and corruption, nepotism and sectarian corporate consociationalism, but that cannot rule out the possibility of a foreign meddling in its internal affairs or internal parties trying to taint the purity of the protests that rose up against them in the first place.

In light of these complex circumstances and given the legitimacy of the protesters’ demands as was reiterated by the political establishment itself, It's becoming an ever more pressing need that a nation-wide dialogue be initiated- one that unifies these politically diverse calls under one national umbrella. It establishes the groundwork that sets out the clear political demands agreed upon by the vast majority. Only then would it be viable to carry out these reforms provided they command the backing of the vast majority of the Lebanese.

It also sets forth a shared national vision that constructs the mechanism for future viable solutions including political reforms. It is a national discourse that prepares the groundwork for political reforms to be translated into action.

National Dialogue Starts At The Grassroots Level

Given the need for change is a demand voiced by those on and off the streets, this rich political environment could provide the cornerstone for the progression of a dialogue across the nation- and as would be explained below- at the grassroots level.

A national dialogue includes awareness campaigns, dialogues, discussions and deliberations led by experts in all walks of life in a transparent process- one that includes opposing views and gives the space for a genuine discourse among the different components of the Lebanese.

Allowing for a dialogue across the political divide is crucial to accommodate the scattered demands currently being voiced by the protesters in an all inclusive mechanism, which also includes the voices of those who still believe in the establishment. Clearing some of the confusion around certain issues, while providing a healthy space that allows fellow citizens to debate in local cities and councils around the viability and the practicality of their propositions.

Only by incorporating the views of citizens through mobilization at the grassroots level would we be able to form a common ground for a national dialogue through which real change could take place.

As was the case with previous national dialogues in post-war Lebanon, leaders of political parties were involved in drawing up their own vision of what future social, political and economic reforms should look like. Tensions ran high as discussions over contentious issues were put high on the agenda tackling major sticking points between the major political camps. Among these issues were national defense strategy regarding Hezbollah’s arms, the delimitation of the Syrian-Lebanese borders under the 1559 UN Security Council Resolution, and Palestinian arms outside camps.

Lebanon’s past experience with national dialogues has seldom made a breakthrough in the political scene, which begs the question of what if the role of political leadership was to diminish in favor of representatives from a cross-section of the population. This means a national dialogue spearheaded by the civil society, university students, professionals and the working class- to name a few- which has played a significant role in the 17th of October revolution in addition to representatives of marginalized communities including underrepresented  and underserved groups such as people with disabilities. Advancing the role of individuals at the community level is what enhances a sense of civic responsibility and accentuates in practical terms the role of a vibrant civic sphere outside of the sectarian political divide and the elitist circles, but which does not exclude them either.

The problem with past national dialogues is that they are driven by the political establishment where the process was bound to and led by mindsets from the political bubble. Allowing for the active participation of independent groups through community-led initiatives might signal a real push for change, which wouldn’t happen otherwise with a monopoly of the political decision by a political establishment that continues to benefit from the prevailing status quo.

Putting highly contentious topics on the agenda as was previously the case throws into question the seriousness of the political elite in breaking the deadlock, as the talking points set on the agenda embody highly contentious issues with little chance of finding a middle ground for - let alone resolving them.

Following the October 17 Revolution- a defining chapter in Lebanon’s political landscape- Lebanese have, and for the first time, risen above the political establishment by breaking down the sectarian shackles put up by the political elite.

In effect, national dialogues shall move away from previous topics that have reached on multiple times a political deadlock and veer towards questions around identity politics and viable reforms, such as judicial reforms or proposals for an alternative model of governance accepted by the Lebanese-or a substantial number of them.

Similarly, given the current awakening amongst large swathes of the population, calls for political reform including the abolition of political confessionalism must be launched across the nation in the form of discursive debates in committees and subcommittees represented by the people and extends beyond the conventional national dialogues often represented by the political leadership.

A truly “representative” national dialogue is only truly representative when it involves a cross section of the population able to bring forth their ideas and take part in shaping the future of their country. Diffusing the political establishment’s dominance over the political decision is a national and civic duty and is critical in any transition period.

Lebanon post 17 October has carved out a new reality, one that is defiant, persistent and imaginative. The political leaders are no longer the sole representative of the vast majority of the population, and that’s the new reality politicians have to reckon with. Therefore, there’s a necessity to initiate such dialogues at the grassroots level contrary to how it has previously been executed through a condescending top-down elitist approach.

Based on previous experiences and given that consensus building has proven to be challenging and sometimes impossible, future dialogues ought to aim for compromise instead of a consensus-building. The active engagement of citizens at the grass roots level by providing a common discursive space at the community level and on a broader national level is key to reassessing this stage, what needs to be done, and how to carry out these reforms moving forward. This is only possible by breaking the hegemony of the political class and its-decades old monopoly over the political process.

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