BEIRUT — The Lebanese Communist Party is set to hold its 12th conference Sunday, where members will elect a new head who will be appointed to serve the party for the next four years.
The party’s elections come less than three months before the upcoming parliamentary elections, currently scheduled on May 15, and will decide the party's choices in the polls. While the candidates’ names have not yet been announced and will not be until the day of the vote, the internal elections have drawn out divisions within the party’s membership, particularly with regards to their stance towards Hezbollah.
While it currently holds no seats in Parliament, and has not since Lebanon’s Civil War, the Communist Party has played a historically important role in Lebanese politics, being one of the few cross-sectarian parties and an active part of the opposition movement that has grown since October 2019.
Like Kataeb, another longstanding party that has recently branded itself as part of the opposition, the Communist Party participated in the 1975-1990 Civil War. It was allied with the Palestinian Liberation Organization and leftist Lebanese parties, and opposed to the right-wing parties led by Kataeb. Communist fighters were also active in the resistance against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982.
However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which represented their exclusive regional support, the party’s presence and popularity in the political scene has been in constant decline. Though they have been the only opposition party operating in some of the stronghold areas of Amal and Hezbollah, they have not succeeded in electing any MPs since the end of the Civil War in 1990.
The general stance of the party is opposed to the whole political class. However, the matter of Hezbollah still causes a dispute among the party’s leadership and members. One wing of the Communist Party takes a largely sympathetic view towards Hezbollah, seeing it as aligned with their anti-imperialist views and opposition to Israel; while others among the communists see Hezbollah as a sectarian and oppressive force that is aligned with the corrupt political system.
Fouad Ramadan, 65, a member of the central committee of the Communist Party, told L’Orient Today that one wing of the party consists of people like him who, though they are critical of Hezbollah’s sectarian identity, do not give them the same classification as the rest of the political class.
“I personally have no doubt that Hezbollah itself is against corruption, the problem however is that their allies are corrupt,” Ramadan said, referring to Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement.
“But Hezbollah on the other hand can’t afford to oppose Amal as it will bring back the old battles and would eliminate the most important support to Hezbollah as a resistance against Israel,” Ramadan added. During the civil war, Hezbollah and Amal were fierce rivals and engaged in violent clashes against each other.
Despite criticizing some of the party’s political alliances, Ramadan said he is in favor of Hezbollah’s armed wing keeping its weapons, as he does not believe the Lebanese Army is strong enough to face off against Israel.
Amr Hassan, who has been a member of the party for 11 years and is also the son of a member, said he believes the party’s leadership has pandered too much to the Hezbollah-aligned part of the political class in recent years.
Hassan said that in his view, the former head of the party, Khaled Hdede, who served from 2003 until 2016, “disrupted the party, and made it aligned with March 8 parties at the cost of communist principles, [and] national and poor people’s interests,” while the current head Hanna Gharib “was not assertive enough to make clear stances even during the revolution, because I suspect he doesn’t want anyone in the party to be mad at him within its difference of opinions.”
Contacted by L’Orient Today, Gharib declined to answer any questions, saying the matter is sensitive at the moment.
Hassan also explained that though he respects Hezbollah’s historical role in fighting Israel, he thinks the resistance should not be in the hands of a single sectarian party and that Hezbollah should be given a label just like the other ruling parties.
“Hezbollah is not only a participant in corruption. It is, through its weapons, the defender of the corrupt system which includes its political rivals the Lebanese Forces, whom they’re indirectly defending,” he said.
The varying opinions about Hezbollah in part stem from another point of dissent in the party: the relative importance that should be given to domestic versus foreign policy considerations.
Ramadan said that some party members want to prioritize internal matters now, as the country faces an unprecedented economic crisis, rather than focusing on regional issues; as opposed to people like him who give high importance to regional matters.
“In my opinion, you can’t separate the two, because Lebanon is not an isolated island and is affected by international factors, and as, ideologically, we should always be opposed to the United States’ imperialist policies,” Ramadan said.
“Hence the best approach is to be on the same side of the countries that oppose the United States, which include Syria and Russia. I think our internal choices including the elections should be in line with that path,” he added.
Ramadan also noted that the upcoming elections will decide whether or not the party will align with what he calls “civil society groups.” These include some of the new opposition groups formed since the mass protests that began in October 2019.
There are also questions as to whether the party will align itself with some of the traditional parties and figures – including some with opposing political ideologies – that have now positioned themselves as part of the opposition. Like other opposition parties, the Communist Party is unified against aligning with anyone from the current political class, which they blame for the current economic collapse. However, as with other opposition groups, the party is not completely united over which other groups should be classified as “opposition.”
“We were part of the Oct. 17 revolution and our members were protesting across Lebanon, in order to abolish the sectarian system and call for the rights of the workers,” Omar Deeb, a spokesperson for the party, said.
He added, “On that basis, we are against aligning with anyone from the current political class, and this includes that politicians those who are inheriting their party’s positions from their fathers,” a reference to the head of Kataeb, Sami Gemayel, whose father Amin is the previous head of the party; and to Michel Mouawad, whose father Rene was a former Lebanese president. Both are trying to align with independent groups in the parliamentary elections.
The most internally controversial potential alliance would be with the Kataeb.
Hassan said that though he acknowledges the reform that Gemayel has been trying to enact within the party, he thinks the country needs a complete change of system, which he doesn’t think Kataeb is advocating for.
“It is really something to respect, when my comrades in the communist party, along with other protestors, were received by Beit al-Kataeb downtown during the protests in 2019, to protect us from security forces, although they knew who we were as we were dressed with a Palestinian keffiyeh,” Hassan said.
“However that being said, we need a full abolishment of the sectarian system, which most Kataeb members are not fond of, and which Gemayel can’t surpass,” Hassan added.
He noted that while the majority of the Communist Party’s membership is opposed to allying with groups like Kataeb, a portion of them supports such an alliance.
Members of the party contacted by L'Orient Today were either against the alliance or declined to comment.
The last chance
Originally, the party’s conference was supposed to be held in late October 2019, but was postponed several times due to the series of dramatic events unfolding in the country.
“We couldn’t hold the conference while the country was in the middle of the Oct. 17 revolution,” Deeb told L’Orient Today, in reference to the nationwide protests that began on Oct. 17, 2019. “The priority was to give it our all for the revolution because it was in the interest of our country, so we had to put our internal matters aside.”
He added that the later postponements were due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, which as he said made it hard for the members to meet.
Some, like Hassan, are hoping that the elections will offer a chance for the party to “get back to its roots” and look out for the interests of the working class, while re-emerging as an electorally viable independent group.
Hassan said that the results of the party’s upcoming internal elections will determine if he stays a member or not.
To him, like many others, the party represents an important legacy of resistance to the 1982 Israeli occupation of Lebanon. But, he said, this alone is not enough to keep him engaged in its present-day form.
“I’m currently 32 years old and I’ve given a lot for the party that my own mother was a member of,” Hassan said. “I will always have respect for the party’s history, but if these elections do not result in a substantial change, me and many other party members are going to resign.”