#4 As the legislative elections approach, is the Lebanese left divided?

The relationship with Hezbollah remains the main dividing line within the Lebanese left

#4 As the legislative elections approach, is the Lebanese left divided?

A march of supporters of the Lebanese Communist Party on the occasion of Labor Day, in May 2021. (Credit: Anwar Amro / AFP)

In a country where the traditional political class has long since buried the idea of a secular and social state, took control of labor unions and steered the economy toward a rentier model, the left and its ideals were thought to be defeated.

But the emergence of a plethora of political groups since the Oct. 17, 2019 protest movement has changed the game.

“The 2019 thawra [revolution] has indeed filled the streets with left-wing slogans, calling for social justice, solidarity, rejection of the banking system that protects its shareholders at the expense of depositors,” explains Karim El Mufti, a political scientist.

“It remains nevertheless difficult to characterize the movement as being left, if there is one, given the very clear diversity of ideas and groups,” he adds.

While not all the groups close to the protest movement are necessarily left-wing, the thawra has nevertheless allowed the emergence of a “new left, whose political demands are sometimes similar to progressive movements in Western liberal democracies,” including, Li Haqqi, Beirut Madinati, Citizens in a State (MMFD), Minteshreen and many others.

This new Lebanese left calls for social justice, secularism, and equality between citizens. It represents a rupture, more or less radical depending on the party, with the traditional Lebanese left.

“Historically, there is an old authoritarian extreme left in Lebanon that is very present. The Lebanese Communist Party was part of it,” explains Karim Bitar, a political expert.

In the last century, this left, particularly popular in Shiite circles, advocated secularism and resistance against Israel.

“But since the implosion of the USSR, the left-wing parties have had to reinvent themselves. While the LCP is a shadow of its former self, Walid Joumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party has abandoned “socialism” as it no longer has any ideological content in the neoliberal Lebanon of political Harirism,” Bitar added.

The rise of the Amal Movement and Hezbollah among the Shiite community during the 1975-90 Civil War also weakened the Lebanese left. To uproot the communists, the Shiite formations did not hesitate to resort to violence.

In 2005, with growing opposition to the Syrian presence in Lebanon, the emergence of a new liberal left, opposed to Damascus’ influence, was aborted by political violence.

“George Hawi, former LCP secretary-general, who had been converted to the Cedar Revolution, was assassinated in June 2005. A new left was born at that time, the Democratic Left, and was also decapitated with the assassination of the intellectual Samir Kassir,” explains Mufti.

‘New communists’

The chessboard is different today, with much more diversity in the so-called left-wing political offer and lines of cleavage between different groups.

First, there are the parties of the so-called traditional left that do not intend to withdraw. This is the case of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, one of the oldest parties in the country, which takes up ideas from the socialist left and the nationalist right, whose two branches are presenting about 10 candidates for the legislative elections.

While the party has recently split into two factions, one around MP Assaad Hardan and the other around the new party president Rabih Banat, both remain loyal to their alliance with Hezbollah.

“You can’t be left-wing and oppose Hezbollah. The SSNP will ally itself with Hezbollah and the Amal movement in the next elections,” says Firas el-Choufi, the party's head of media relations.

“A party that wants to solve the social and environmental problems plaguing the country but at the same time does not wish to counter the Jewish project on the southern borders of Lebanon and the American imperialism that supports it, is simply inconsistent with itself,” he added.

For him, the left would be represented mainly by the March 8 camp, namely Hezbollah and its allies, of which the SSNP is a part.

Choufi’s arguments, however, do not seem to convince Bitar.

“The fact that Hezbollah is an anti-American movement does not make it a leftist movement. It is rather a right-wing movement with an neoliberal identity,on economic issues,” Bitar explains.

Hezbollah has supported (sometimes indirectly) successive governments on major economic issues, such as budget proposals, austerity measures or the appointment of the governor of Banque du Liban.

A segment of the left’s old guard does not share this view. This is the case for the LCP, especially in the South and the Bekaa. Within the group, the relationship with Hezbollah is seriously debated.

“We no longer want to be the branch of Hezbollah that drinks alcohol,” says Amr Hassan, a member of the LCP reformist wing.

For him, the Iranian-Syrian axis has done more harm to the Palestinian cause than anything else.

“In the Gaza war of 2021, Jordan and Egypt did much more for the Palestinians than Syria or Hezbollah,” he adds.

Hassan believes that a large majority of the group “opposes Hezbollah’s weapons, used against the Lebanese to defend the political system and the corruption of its allies.”

While committed to the fight against imperialism, these “new communists” believe that public policy issues, which impact the daily lives of citizens, should take precedence over anything else.

For the legislative elections, the Communist Party will join forces MMFD, founded and led by former Minister Charbel Nahas.

MMFD’s program is focused on the transition to a secular state, with the aim of creating an alternative non-sectarian parliament.

The MMFD radical opposition to Israel is what sets it apart from the rest of the parties of the new left, so much so that some criticize it for being ambiguous about Hezbollah.

“Parties cannot be classified as fundamentally left or right,” says a source close to MMFD.

“It is rather their political choices that one ought to consider. Several opposition parties claim to be left-wing but take right-wing positions on issues such as the political system, bank ownership or participation in elections,” the source adds.

“A party like Citizens in a State often makes political choices close to the left regarding such issues because it is not afraid to go against the tide of society,” the same source says.

MMFD defends itself from accusations of leaning toward Hezbollah, by emphasizing that its program calls for “using the military capacities accumulated by a group of Lebanese in the framework of a national resistance, and not limited to one sect.”

The LCP and Nahas's party are also set to confront Hezbollah and its allies in the May 15 elections , having formed a unified opposition list in South II.

Osama Saad, MP for Saida and leader of Nasserist Popular Organization of Saida, affiliated with the left, has also turned his back on the March 8 camp, and is now positioning himself as the standard-bearer of the thawra demands. He is entering the fray alone, with no electoral alliances.

The main schism

The new trend comes mainly from the new university groups forming a Western-style left, putting forward both social and societal demands.

This is the case of Lana, a fledgling “social-democratic” party, which is fielding a candidate in Mount Lebanon IV (Chouf-Aley), Halime Kaakour, on the list “United for Change.”

“On the economic level, we recognize the benefits of a modern and competitive economy, while stressing the need for a strong social safety net,” explains Pascale Abchi, a member of Lana.

“On the political side, we recognize the attachment that some Lebanese have to their faith. We are therefore in favor of a system that is certainly secular, i.e., a system in which citizens interact directly with the state, but that respects and protects freedom of worship rather than repressing religious identities,” she adds.

The party explicitly mentions the issue of weapons, wanting them to be exclusively in the hands of the state.

Other movements and campaigns, such as Taqaddom, Beirut Touqawem and Mada, although considered to be left-wing, have made Hezbollah’s disarmament a priority.

Positioning in relation to Hezbollah remains the main dividing line within the Lebanese left.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour.

In a country where the traditional political class has long since buried the idea of a secular and social state, took control of labor unions and steered the economy toward a rentier model, the left and its ideals were thought to be defeated.But the emergence of a plethora of political groups since the Oct. 17, 2019 protest movement has changed the game.“The 2019 thawra [revolution] has indeed...