Sensitive Political Issues Are Avoided

After the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, thousands took to the street to protest. In Beirut, Bernhard Hillenkamp interviewed social economist Omar Traboulsi about the prospects of civil society in the midst of political turmoil

photo: AP
Thousands of Lebanese gathered on Beirut's Martyr's Square for protest

​​Before talking about the events after the killing of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, could you give us an introduction into civil society in Lebanon?

Omar Traboulsi: It is quite revealing that in the Arabic language, we have two terms to describe civil society, namely al-mujtama al-ahli and al-mujtama al-madani. The first term ahli, implies "kinship". It is also a broad term as it might also imply tribal rather than class or social movements which are more enshrined in the term al-mujtama al-madani.

Al-mujtama al-madani carries a willingness to move away from traditional structures and perceptions. Civil society in Lebanon is more of an ahli rather than of a madani nature. Notwithstanding, both can function either against or in favor of the ruling party. There are also instances when they are in rivalry.

During and after the civil war of Lebanon, new trends have appeared. Environmental, human rights, women and certain secular organization were formed that are more of a madani nature. Despite their importance, they still do not represent the dominant model.

How many NGOs exist in Lebanon?

Traboulsi: Around 5,000 NGOs are officially registered in Lebanon. Our monitoring of the official gazette indicates that on the average, some 200 NGOs are established and registered every year. A study carried out in the year 2000 indicated that out of the grand total of 5,000 registered NGOs, approximately 700 are active on a regular and sustained basis.

Whereas during the war, many NGOs were linked to political parties, a number of new NGOs were founded by individual politicians over the past decade. This includes for instance the Hariri, Moawad, Safadi, and Fares Foundations. Through providing basic services, such trend of NGOs plays a major role in reinforcing the patron-client relationship which is a feature of Lebanon and its political system.

What was the situation for NGOs during the Syrian dominance in Lebanon?

Traboulsi: The legistration was not a real problem for NGOs though procedures could be protracted and characterized by strong interference from government authorities. The monitoring of figures is a clear case in point. However, certain types of organization were not favored by the state or looked at with some distrust.

For example, NGOs which resemble political parties, or have political programs went through challenging registration procedures. The state could interfere with the registration of certain NGOs, or "ask" to change their aims and objectives.

Also NGOs with specific objectives such as creating public awareness may also face difficulties when registering. The Ministry of Interior is often very selective and inconsistent, but their "close" organizations do not face such problems. For instance, the Islamist association of "al-Mashareeh al-Islamiya al-Khairiyye" does function as a party, although legally registered as an NGO.

What is the impact of the Syrian withdrawal and the new situation?

Traboulsi: It all depends on the outcome of the elections and the formation of the new government. Actually, the civil society was quite active in what is now referred to as intifada al-istiqlal (upheaval for independence).

They mobilized quite a number of people. Demonstrations were spontaneous to a large extent, but many demonstrators were mobilized through civil society organisations from both the mujtama al-ahli and the mujtama al-madani particularly some of the major social welfare NGOs. These were openly drawn into political mobilization after the assassination of former PM Hariri.

Will the Lebanese remain politically mobilized after the recent developments?

Traboulsi: This is difficult to say. It is true, that many became aware of the limits of the present political system after the assassination of Hariri. Most are fed up with it. However, one cannot be sure whether the present political slogans will develop into a more tolerant national discourse and political programs that will address key issues such as a vision of Lebanon and its place in the world and abolition of the present confessional system.

I have my worries; some of the slogans of the intifada al-istiqlal were openly racist supremacist and intolerant not just towards the Syrians but also towards "other" Lebanese. Let us be aware that despite all claims to the contrary that this rift exists, a kind of division in the country accentuated by the war and not yet truly addressed.

The "other" is now the opposition that is seen as pawns of the Syrians. Though everyone is now calling for sovereignty, much deeper and sensitive political issues are not openly discussed. True and open discussions of these issues will undoubtedly lead to the breakdown of the current political alliances.

When will these differences be discussed?

Traboulsi: There are some debates currently going on at the Martyr's Square, where youth activists have established camps. There, the youth have discussed differences. At the level of politicians and political parties, discussions behind the scene may be taking place to reach certain political compromises. This may not be the kind of dialogue one would like to see. Of course, on the streets, the youth may have more candid discussions and also the political leaders.

However, the impact of such dialogue will remain limited in the absence of true political will. A more formal or institutionalized form of political gathering does not seem to have taken shape yet. The abrogation of political confessionalism is not yet seriously discussed. The opposition calls for implementation of "Taif agreement". However, the "Taif agreement" contains an unequivocal clause regarding the agreement to abrogate the confessional system!

Let us go back in history: Why did the Syrians not withdraw? No doubt, for different regional and in-country reasons. Among these was a general consensus not to implement this particular clause of the "Taif agreement". This was not particular limited to the ruling government, but also those who were left out from the various pre-Taif governments. All agreed to keep the Syrians in order not to work towards the abolition of political confessionalism. It was a compromise between the different groups. However, since Sept 11 and the invasion of Iraq things have drastically changed.

The opposition now uses the "Taif agreement" rather selectively. Take for instance the three main components of the opposition namely, the Druze PSP, the Christian groups and the Hariri’s followers; they all have different views on this point.

You mean the biggest challenge for civil society in Lebanon is the abolition of confessionalism?

Traboulsi: Yes, this is the main challenge, especially after the election. There are some demands for this currently - however - I anticipate that after the election many politicians will feel happy in power, and will not pursue demands for the abolition of the confessional system further. We need to see who will move into the opposition and who will be in power. Only then one can clearly say whether or not the new circles of power will use the same practices as their predecessors or otherwise.

Could the parties become more influential during this period?

Traboulsi: I am not so sure. After the implementation of most of the demands of the opposition, the differences between the various political parties will not be significant. The assassination of former PM Hariri was a major blow to the past political and economic direction in Lebanon. It is not yet clear what will be the new political and economic direction. Will the largely Hariri defined agenda still work without Hariri?

Furthermore, there is a general public distrust of political parties. People of the opposition were not mobilized because of their trust in political parties. They were mobilized because of frustration, fear, revenge and many other reasons. The slogans sounded right. The support for the demonstration does not mean an automatic support of political parties. People wanted the Syrians out. They voted for change.

There is slow movement from al-mujtama al-ahli towards al-mujtama al-madani. Whether this will have any major influence on the forthcoming political developments will remain to be seen. Now there is an opportunity for change. But again, we will not know the outcome until the election. It is hoped there will be a reshaping of the political scene and more emphasis on key political issues and that some of the current opposition and government parties could in fact work together constructively within a new government. If that happens then there may be some room for optimism.

Are you afraid of some elements within the opposition movement?
I am not afraid of their ideas or slogans, but I am rather concerned with their practices. A majority of them were in power before with a rather wanting track record. Will they be different in practicing power now? Will they abhor patronage and narrow interests? Will they not be tempted to quarrel again for a larger share of the pie?

Omar Traboulsi is an associate consultant of "Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action" (CRTD-A), a non-governmental organization officially registered in July 1999, and situated in Beirut. CRTD-A's work extends to cover several countries in the Arab region, primarily in Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. CRTD aims to contribute to social development in the region through research, training and advocacy, and through building the capacity of local communities and grassroots organizations to address the needs of their members and constituency.

Interview: Bernhard Hillenkamp

© 2005

Analysis Amr Hamzawy
The Autumn of the Patriarchs: Where Is the Arab World Headed?
The past months have seen dramatic changes in the political sphere of the Arab world. In his analysis of the events, Amr Hamzawy makes an optimistic prognosis but warns that radical Islamism and ethnic violence are still influential factors in the region.

Political Reforms in Syria
Reluctant Embrace
Syria is about to step into the stream of Arab political reform, but with as little fanfare as possible, writes Sami Moubayed from Damascus.

The Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action