Are the Lebanese still interested in politics?

Disgust, disdain and indifference has taken hold of the people’s minds two years after the Oct. 17 protest movement.

Are the Lebanese still interested in politics?

Lebanese students demonstrate in Beirut on Nov. 8, 2019. (Credit: Anwar Amro/AFP)

In the cab, discussions about politics are held. At the neighborhood’s grocery story, the map of the Middle East is redrawn. The newest haircut trend, social events, and remarks made by the head of state or the Mukhtara-based Druze leader are all conversation starters with the hairdresser. The Lebanese give the impression of being deeply immersed in politics everywhere they go.

However, since the country’s meltdown and its descent into hell, indifference seems to have gotten the upper hand. People across Lebanon now speak of disgust and lack of interest in public affairs. This statement sharply contradicts the excitement and involvement that accompanied the Oct. 17, 2019 uprising for months. The popular uprising had fed the wildest hopes — regime change — luring the Lebanese with the promise of a belated Arab Spring. Since then, the stresses of everyday life have taken over, and the streets have become devoid of demonstrators.

“In politics, there is often an outburst, then a decline in popular enthusiasm. With each outburst, a new generation joins the picture. The question is, how long this communal awakening will last and how it will be translated,” Joseph Bahout, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, says.

The disdain that a large majority of Lebanese now hold toward politics and their lack of enthusiasm are not new on the domestic scene. Remarkable events have marked Lebanon’s recent history, and peaked with impressive mass movements that faded away very quickly.

That was the case of the famed mass protest on March 14, 2005, which marked one month since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — a tragedy which spured of a million Lebanese into the streets to protest against the Syrian occupation that was suspected of sponsoring the killing. A year later, the war between Israel and Lebanon in June 2006 quickly eliminated the effects of this first uprising.

Anger took hold of the Lebanese once again in 2015 when garbage went uncollected, filling public places and stifling the population with its foul smell. The streets were once again taken over by protesters, but the protest movement was undermined by the authorities, which made sure to break through the ranks of protesters.

Save for a few subtle nuances, a similar scenario stood out following the October 2019 protest movement, which although at one point it seemed invincible now appears to have worn itself out — defeated by the system in place and the economic hardship that has gripped the country.

Does that mean that the Lebanese are now losing interest in politics? The answers are probably as many as the categories of people and perceptions of “politics” in the general sense of the word.

Suzanne, for instance, is a dual national and has resided abroad for years with her French husband. Yet, she has Lebanon in her soul, now more than ever, and doesn’t miss any news broadcast.

“I follow the news not out of interest in politics in the strict sense of the word, but out of agony and concern for the country and its people. I am utterly disgusted by the ruling cast. I can't hear about it anymore,” she says.

Similar to the many Lebanese who are still in the country, Marie continues to have a sense of curiosity for political news in order to keep abreast.

“In Lebanon, politics is a pillar of our daily life,” the 60-year-old lawyer says. Marie, who was severely injured and whose property was damaged in the Aug. 4, 2020 Beirut port blast, indicated that she is not active for the moment, but will cast a ballot in next year’s parliamentary elections. “My desire is to see this entire political class wiped out. We must not remain inactive.”

‘I have been living in my bubble ever since’

If we exclude all those who continue to almost blindly pledge allegiance to their respective sectarian leaders, we notice that the number of skeptics or those losing interest in politics is increasing.

Public affairs piqued the interest of Teddy, a 35-year-old engineer, just after the Oct. 17, 2019 uprising, which rekindled his hope for a better future that can be forged through greater participation in politics.

“I gave up ever since, especially when I realized how complex and difficult the solutions are to implement. Since then, I have been living, similar to my family, in my bubble, trying as much as possible not to rely on the state or its defective services,” he says.

Aniseh, a psychoanalyst, has been completely out of touch with the news.

“We are in the drive towards death. I do not believe in projects that are being developed. For me, deliverance is a personal and individual act,” she says, in reference to the personal development and revolution in mentality that must, she claims, happen prior to any political change.

Although it is hard to measure the scale of this lack or loss of interest, in the absence of any quantitative study in this regard, one can see its repercussions in the rate of exodus of Lebanese from Lebanon, which increased fourfold from 2018 to 2020.

“The loss of interest has led to a reaction, which is that of leaving. This is the case of thousands of Lebanese who are ready to leave the country so easily. This means that for them, change is no longer possible,” Michael Young, political analyst and editor of Diwan at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, says.

Nevertheless, new actors who wish to see change through elections are also exhibiting a parallel dynamic. The signs pointing at this dynamic include the fact that the number of Lebanese living abroad who signed up this year to vote in the next parliamentary polls increased threefold.

This approach is not, however, a guarantee that they will participate in politics.

“There is a difference between having the knowledge and being committed,” Bahout adds. Even when the protests were still in full swing, a large number of Lebanese protesters did not have the willpower to go this extra mile and join the political sphere.

“Many protesters would go out for dinner at night, after taking to the street during the day, without even knowing who had organized the demonstration. Many Lebanese are not ready to take action to make a difference. They don’t want to pay the price,” the political specialist adds.

Young goes even one step further to mention a form of schizophrenia among the Lebanese.

“On the one hand, they insult the political class and chant slogans for change, and on the other hand, they revive the old sectarian reflexes at the expense of the desired revolution,” he notes.

In this vein, he recalls the Oct. 14 Tayyouneh clashes, which resulted in many Christians who support the Oct. 17 uprising rallying around the LF, a party within the political establishment.

This schizophrenia is also seen in the timing and extent of popular reactions, which sometimes do not align with how serious the developments are.

“People came out in protest against a simple WhatsApp tax. However, since Oct. 17, 2019, many developments that are a hundred times more serious have occurred. But the Lebanese did not rise up,” Young says, in reference to the Beirut port explosion and the economic and financial meltdown.

Observers believe that this behavior can be explained very simply: the Lebanese political barons ended up wearing down the people. Having obstructed the system by jeopardizing justice, looting the citizens and then leaving them too preoccupied by their day-to-day survival, the political class has retaken the helm. It has managed to deter many Lebanese from picking up the torch.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.

In the cab, discussions about politics are held. At the neighborhood’s grocery story, the map of the Middle East is redrawn. The newest haircut trend, social events, and remarks made by the head of state or the Mukhtara-based Druze leader are all conversation starters with the hairdresser. The Lebanese give the impression of being deeply immersed in politics everywhere they go.However, since...