The rise and fall of the ‘club of 13’

The promise was alluring, but the reality soured. Within a few months, the MPs affiliated with the protest movement went from being unknowns to superheroes, only to ultimately face ridicule over their alleged amateurism and criticism for their disunity. A year after their election, L’Orient-Le Jour reflects on the club’s rise and fall.

The rise and fall of the ‘club of 13’

The 13 protest movemnt MPs: Elias Jaradeh, far left, Ibrahim Mneimneh, Michel Douaihi, Mark Daou, Melhem Khalaf, Halimé Kaakour, Paula Yacoubian, Najate Aoun-Saliba, Cynthia Zarazir, Rami Fanj, Firas Hamdan, Waddah Sadek and Yassine Yassine. (Credit: Photo montage Guilhem Dorandeu)

They were unprepared. Some didn’t even want to be part of the spectacle, and others were uncertain how they found themselves there.

On Thursday, May 20, 2022, in front of thousands of television viewers, they grinned at the camera. With a glimmer in their eyes, they hoisted their fists in triumph. A white rose clasped in their hands, they did what was expected of them: they put on a show.

On the evening of the parliamentary elections, the first since the 2019 popular uprising, the new MPs made their first collective appearance on Lebanese television.

The so-called protest movement MPs were Marc Daou, Najat Aoun Saliba, Michel Douaihy, Firas Hamdan, Melhem Khalaf, Elias Jaradeh, Rami Fanj,  Waddah Sadek, Ibrahim Mneimeh, Yassin Yassin and Cynthia Zarazir.

The MTV television studio welcomed all those who responded to Marcel Ghanem’s invitation to appear on his show. Only Paula Yaacoubian was missing.

The studio’s meticulous staging and light atmosphere offered the newcomers a moment of grace. The false notes of the campaign and the pitfalls of the aftermath vanished, leaving only room for the show.

To the public’s applause, the thawra anthem resounded on the stage of “Sar alWaqet” (It’s About Time). The euphoria was overwhelming — the notion of change had made its way to Parliament.

The “13” MPs were said to have entered through the back door.

With no electoral machine, modest means and limited experience, veterans of the Oct. 17 protest managed to navigate the challenges of an electoral law designed to favor establishment behemoths.

“We fought this battle with our bare hands,” Hamdan said from behind his desk during an interview with L’Orient-Le Jour one evening in December.

The victory was partial — the camp for change represented only about 10 percent of the new legislature. But with their election to Parliament, these non-establishment delegates have achieved what was unthinkable just a few years ago. MPs who identified as “a doctor,” “an activist,” and “a lawyer” would sit alongside Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and the representatives of Lebanon’s other mainstream political parties.

Although this milestone placed great responsibility on the new MPs’ shoulders, it also marked the beginning of new possibilities.

“The breakthrough they made is likely to change the system, beyond, or in spite of, their performance,” said Albert Kostanian, a journalist, economist, and executive chairman of the board of Kulluna Irada, a Lebanese advocacy NGO in November 2o22.

“Their presence at Parliament helps activate the oversight role, reinforce access to information, and spark public debate,” he added.

“By standing up to the MP in the [parliamentary] committees,” and through the “battles we waged in a bid to amend legislation,” according to Kaakour, the new MPs had the power to influence Parliament’s “political culture.”

“All this did not exist before,” the MP for Chouf added, stressing the importance of small victories as a prelude to the great upheaval.

For now, these theoretical musings appear to be far from yielding any tangible results, as the daily life of the Lebanese people remains unchanged.

In fact, the highly touted induction of the “taghyiriyeen” has turned sour. As the months passed, the so-called Forces of Change MPs fell into the trap of division and ended up becoming “colorless, painless, and ineffective,” as Tripoli MP Fanj put it.

Borrowed suits

The writing was on the wall, some would say.

As they took their places on the television screen, the newly elected MPs appeared to be wearing borrowed suits, tailored for others, as they sat down to play a game whose rules they had vehemently criticized. The stage can be a tricky farce sometimes.

“We are not clowns,” Fanj said, recalling Marcel Ghanem’s talk show.

Forced to grin and bear it, their smiles remain frozen in place. How long could they continue to parade as revolutionaries while being at the heart of the very system they sought to change? From the outset, there was a sense that something was amiss.

“When I assumed the role of MP, I accepted that I would have to engage in discussions with members of the traditional political class,” said Fanj, at the end of November while sitting in his office on the fourth floor of an old building in Achrafieh. “Otherwise, I could have stayed in the street fighting tear gas canisters.”

Little did the Tripoli MP know that his time in office would be cut short a few hours after he spoke those words.

The next day, on Nov. 24, the Constitutional Council invalidated his election amid troubling circumstances, forcing him to relinquish his seat to Faisal Karameh, after just six months in Parliament.

With Fanj’s departure, the 13-member group was reduced to 12.

He, however, was well aware that the group had started to disintegrate long before the court’s decision.

This is particularly true since the newly elected MPs come from diverse backgrounds, with little or no prior knowledge of one another and few commonalities.

They seem to be united behind a shared “cause,” and are certainly close to the street. But which street exactly?

On economic issues and secularism, the Forces of Change MPs embody a range of views spanning from the left to the right, through the social-democratic center. This is not to mention that certain issues or fundamental debates appear to be flying over the heads of some.

In fact, the 13 MPs seem to reflect the same contradictions and ideological gaps that divided the thuwar [rebels] of Martyrs’ Square in 2019, separated by the fault lines that fragment the wider political landscape.

Though all of them officially claim to oppose Hezbollah’s weapons, their stances differ. While they may use similar rhetoric, their concepts of “sovereignty” carry different meanings and their priorities are not the same.

“I am against Iranian intervention, but I am also against American and Saudi intervention,” said Kaakour. “I refuse to choose between the two. Killun yaani killun [all of them means all of them].”

Kaakour was also vocal about her reluctance to align herself with MPs identified as “sovereigntists.”

This perspective, which strikes a chord with a segment of the “revolutionary” voters or those who still hold on to the notion of “resistance,” perceives the armed militia as one of many evils — almost of secondary importance.

For some of the other newly elected MPs, such as Daou and Fanj, whose political backgrounds were shaped by their opposition to the Syrian presence in Lebanon, that discourse is difficult to accept.

They believe in the paramount importance of blocking Hezbollah and its allies, even if it means joining forces with the March 14 forces. For them, the country is being held hostage by Hezbollah’s weapons, which they consider to be the root of all evil.

This same main divide between the March 14 and March 8 camp is present like an old and persistent obsession, and continues to haunt the new MPs’ discussion, often sparking heated debates.

Yet, all of them claim to be independent of these two political factions.

“[We] are neither 14 nor 8 [March],” Sadek said. For his part, Fanj said, “I have reconciled myself with all that. I represent Oct. 17.”

Once the statements of principle are set aside, however, the individual nuances and loyalties of each MP begin to surface, indicating that these old political allegiances are slow to die.

“March 14, as an idea, not as a political party, is at the origin of the country’s sovereignty,” said Sadek.

“Everyone interprets slogans as they wish,” quipped Daou, co-founder of the Taqqadum party and MP for Aley.

The disagreements revolve around significant issues that bring out real incompatibilities. One of the main questions is whether the game of alliances can be reconciled with the revolutionary ideal, and to what extent. The breakthrough of the protest movement raises questions about the role and function of the elected MPs.

“There is a quasi-philosophical and structural divergence between, on the one hand, the revolutionary logic, which refuses to deal with the power in place and makes no concessions, and, on the other, the strategy of a political opposition seeking to forge alliances with the forces in place,” explained Kostanian.

Without compromise, the Forces of Change MPs seem to be condemned to a merely symbolic role. By forming alliances with traditional political forces, they give themselves the opportunity to have a say in the political arena. However, such a move also comes with the risk of alienating a segment of their electorate, who continue to believe in “Killun yaani killun.”

The divide was especially contentious during the election of parliamentary committees. Some new MPs chose to abstain from participating in these committees to avoid being discredited by being part of the typical political dealings.

“There is no question of striking a taswiyeh [compromise]. We have played the game of democracy,” said Khalaf.

Meanwhile, the more pragmatic MPs, like Fanj, perceive this uncompromising stance as “a lack of strategic vision,”

At each political juncture over the past year, the divide continued to gnaw away at the group’s unity, ultimately becoming an unsolvable issue.

“We cannot force nature,” said Fanj.

WhatsApp group

The significant differences between the members of the group explain why, after being elected, they were not entirely sure of their identity or purpose. The group was created almost against its members’ will as they came together almost accidentally, following an invitation to a television show.

“We met by chance,” said Fanj. “I don’t know how or why, I woke up the day after the results and I was part of a WhatsApp group with the 13.”

Some of them met for the first time on live television.

“The first time I saw them in person was at Marcel [Ghanem]’s house,” Elias Jaradeh told L’Orient-Le Jour, in his blue gown, between two surgical procedures at Beirut’s Eye Hospital.

This eclectic group was united by a common animosity toward the “manzume” [the political establishment] — an important point to remember.

“It was at the request of the Lebanese that we started working together,” said Aoun Saliba. After that, the group went on to have informal meetings at each other’s homes. We had “to get to know each other.” To press on things and to create a “sense” of unity that was missing.

“That’s how it started, we met and we started to work together in order to move forward and promote the interests of those who voted for us,” said Melhem Khalaf in his office in December 2022.

The group spent long evenings working, debating, and exchanging documents and proposals for the adoption of a decision-making mechanism. By the end of May 2022, the collective mechanism was in place.

A general secretariat, made up of representatives of each of the 13 MPs, was also created in a bid to strengthen group dynamics.

The challenge was that the bonds were still in their early stages, yet they were expected to represent a unified political front capable of standing up to the establishment.

Within the group, members were just starting to explore and understand their collective identity. But the group’s image had already been cemented in the minds of the Lebanese people — a discrepancy that hindered its natural development, which should have begun by answering basic questions. There was no time for reflection, however, as circumstances demanded immediate action.

“Priorities were always very short-term,” said Chahid Nakad, former chief of staff to Cynthia Zarazir. From elections to appointments, the constitutional calendar dictated the group’s agenda.

There was also intense media pressure, fueled by attacks from the traditional political class, which, at times, felt like bullying.

“Whatever we said or did, there were comments, mockery. The attacks were very targeted,” Najat Aoun Saliba said calmly.

One of the most aggressive episodes arose in July 2022, when Amal MP Qabalan Qabalan insulted Cynthia Zarazir by making a pun on her surname (“sarasir” for cockroaches). Despite the hostile environment, the 13 MPs were making efforts to form a common front.

“We have done everything possible to close ranks,” Aoun Saliba said.

Unity was successfully maintained during the first item on the legislative agenda, the election of a Parliament speaker.

“We were all naturally in agreement,” Khalaf said.

In order not to vote for Berri’s re-election, and in the absence of an alternative, the group chose to rally behind symbolic ballots, expressing messages of solidarity toward intellectual Lokman Slim, who was assassinated in January 2021, or calling for justice in the case of the Aug. 4, 2020, Beirut Port explosion.

Political differences within the group became apparent during the election of Parliament’s deputy speaker. The 13 MPs were unable to agree on an internal candidate, as Khalaf’s candidacy was not supported by all members.

After opting for a blank ballot in the first round, the group ultimately supported Ghassan Skaf, an independent MP from Rashaya, Western Bekaa, backed by Walid Joumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP).

Kaakour, along with some others in the group, did not agree with the choice of Skaf, but respected the majority decision (seven to six) to vote for him in the second round.

Eventually, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) MP Elias Bou Saab was elected with 65 votes.

Differences in strategy, however, began to surface.

The first real challenge arose during the parliamentary consultations for the designation of a prime minister.

“It was a moment of rupture,” Nakad said.

It was June, about a month after the parliamentary elections. Some of the group’s members were working behind the scenes to endorse the candidacy of Nawwaf Salam, widely regarded as the Forces of Change’s “natural” candidate.

But Kaakour and Jaradeh vetoed this choice.

For Jaradeh and Kaakour, Salam, the former ambassador to the UN and current judge at the International Court of Justice, was an emissary of the system, close to former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, supported by a fringe of the traditional political class.

Salam remained steadfast in his defense, saying: Judge the results of my actions and the content of my publications.

The episode mainly revealed a paralyzing concern about the possibility of internal divisions being exposed.

“Until the night before the vote, they remained at odds,” said Nakad. “I was on the phone all night with Cynthia. Every time they reached an agreement, someone would backtrack, and they would start over.”

On June 23, Najib Mikati, the head of the caretaker cabinet, was ultimately appointed prime minister-designated with 54 votes and tasked with forming Lebanon’s next government.

The incident marked the end of the honeymoon period but Fanj asserted that, at least for the time being, things were “still under control.”

It was a mess

After this setback, the 13 MPs made efforts to regroup, and the question of internal governance was once again on their agenda.

In September, the time frame for electing a new president began, creating the perception that the group was once again rallying together.

They held a conference to officially announce the profile of a new head of state, presenting a list of 15 names, including former MP and constitutional expert Salah Honein. Some of the group members, however, were not convinced of the choice.

“Opinions started to fluctuate in a way that was, in my opinion, unreasonable,” Fanj said.

New names were then added to the original list. “It was impossible for us to make a decision,” Fanj added.

During the successive parliamentary sessions for the election of a president, the Forces of Change MPs voted in scattered blocs, with some rallying behind the March 14-endorsed candidate MP Michel Moawad, and others behind academic Issam Khalifeh. Some chose to vote for the “new Lebanon.” Others shifted positions along the way.

“From then on, it was a mess, a real mess,” Fanj said. At this stage, the “club of 13” had become a thing of the past. MP for Zgharta, Michel Douaihy, left the group in mid-October.

“In its current form, the group is doing the establishment a favor,” Douaihy later said on the set of the television talk show 2030 to justify his decision.

Sadek soon followed suit. The group suffered another blow at the end of November when Fanj’s election was invalidated.

While the group’s collective ambitions have shifted away from its initial initiative — with group members now identifying as a parliamentary “gathering” (liqaa') — the bonds between them did not falter.

In January 2023, William Noun, (an activist and member of a collective of families of victims of the Aug. 4, 2020, port explosion) was arrested. The 12 MPs came together and joined the ranks of the victims’ relatives in their protest against Noun’s detention.

Led by Khalaf and Aoun-Saliba, a few group members staged a sit-in on Jan. 19 to voice their discontent with the institutional impasse in the presidential issue. The sit-in continued for several weeks.

“The obstruction policy in the country cannot go on,” Khalaf said in a press statement at the time. “This is our last resort.”

Unprecedented photos of MPs camping outside the Parliament building made the rounds on social media. The political equation, however, remained unchanged as the major political forces failed to agree on the name of a presidential candidate.

The 12 Forces of Change MPs continued to meet informally, to discuss and to vote together on bills, without overcoming the main point of contention.

“The main reason for our failure is the lack of a decision-making mechanism,” Daou said in December. “I presented a three-page document on this issue two months ago, and I still haven’t had any response.”

Meanwhile, what previously had been a collective concern within the group had transformed into an individual matter.

“We will proceed with our own endeavors and allow public opinion to pass its own judgment," Daou said at the time.

Elected in the Chouf-Aley district alongside Aoun-Saliba, the two MPs said they were leaving the door open to discussion with the rest of the group members, while “forging their own path.”

“I am focusing on climate change. My priority is to make sure we are present at the international level,” Aoun-Saliba, an academic specializing in environmental issues told L’Orient-Le Jour.

At that point, the group was hardly united. Eight months later, the situation was clear. The 13 MPs were collectively absent on almost all the major issues that marked the post-election period.

“Our mistake was to think that we were able to impose new rules on the regime,” Jaradeh said.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese people did not withhold their criticism, blaming the Change MPs for failing to meet the challenges at hand, being entangled in endless polemics, and perpetuating the shortcomings of the establishment.

Due to its inability to establish an internal decision-making mechanism, the group of 13 ultimately replicated the state of paralysis seen in the “vetocracy.” It was a disheartening end for a movement that aimed to bring about change.

In a system that has been marred by countless instances of corruption, the public debate against the taghyiriyin (forces of change) was intense. In comparison to the representatives of the traditional political class, Kostanian said, the Forces of Change “did not make any moral concessions or commit any significant ethical transgressions.”

Despite strategic errors and questionable management, the Forces of Change MPs were merely following through on their campaign promises. The daily concerns of the people still revolved around the principles that emerged from the Oct.17 events — demanding transparency and accountability.

Amidst the clamor of major elections, legislative work persisted behind the scenes, carried out in a discreet yet coordinated manner.

“It was only yesterday that we were advocating a comprehensive personal status bill,” Hamdan said in mid-December.

Yet, in the eyes of the public, a different perception has taken hold: the erstwhile heroes have been depicted as inept and ineffective.

This story originally ran in French in L’Orient-Le Jour, translated by Sahar Ghoussoub.

They were unprepared. Some didn’t even want to be part of the spectacle, and others were uncertain how they found themselves there.On Thursday, May 20, 2022, in front of thousands of television viewers, they grinned at the camera. With a glimmer in their eyes, they hoisted their fists in triumph. A white rose clasped in their hands, they did what was expected of them: they put on a show.On the...