During a press conference held on September 3 in the historic Sodeco district of Beirut, the parliamentarians (MPs) who make up the “Change” block in the Lebanese parliament announced their program to elect a new head of state. They agreed that anyone running for president must meet a list of standards in order to earn their vote of confidence. The thirteen lawmakers, who were elected on the values of the 2019 Lebanese revolution, said “popular pressure methods” will be applied if a new president is not elected by October 20.
Lawmakers Melhem Khalaf and Michel Douaihy led the conference by reading aloud the group’s requirements for anyone wishing to become Lebanon’s new president. These demands included “maintaining the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon, both internally and externally. It is the unity and security of its territories, and being independent of regional axes and international polarizations on the one hand, but capable of recovering Lebanon’s external role.
The group has so far refused to make any endorsements. However, one of the legislators mentioned to me a few minutes before that the thirteen would agree on only one candidate.
They emphasize the election of an individual who “believes in a non-denominational citizen state”. In addition, the candidate must “take the side of the majority of the Lebanese people”. MPs’ demands for change also included resuming the investigation into the cause of the Beirut port explosion in August 2020, which was suspended months ago due to senior politicians demanding Judge Tarek’s removal from office. Bitar, the current prosecutor. Bitar drew criticism when he called on Ghazi Zeiter and Ali Hassan Khalil, powerful former ministers of the Shiite Amal party, to be questioned about their knowledge of the blast.
Zeiter and Khalil refused and demanded that Bitar be recused from the investigation, putting the investigation on hold. Those who still demand accountability, including the Thirteen Change Lawmakers, want the new president to ensure the port blast case is reopened. They have set a deadline for their demands and publicly declared that they are preparing to demonstrate their resolve in the face of an entrenched and corrupt system.
Other members of establishment parties like the Lebanese Forces (FL) have also demanded the truth about the origins of the port explosion. During a speech honoring the “martyrs” of the Lebanese Forces during the civil war, LF leader Samir Geagea said Lebanon needs a strong president with the will to fight corruption. The problem is that neither Geagea nor the new MPs who oppose the ruling class have decided which candidate has the courage to rise to the occasion.
The deadline for deciding is October 20, just ten days before the legal expiration of President Michel Aoun’s mandate. Until then, the group of independent deputies will organize a series of “consultative meetings” with citizens and politicians, as well as with segments of the Lebanese diaspora. It will be crucial for the lawmakers of change to reach Lebanese citizens living abroad. The May elections saw an increase in voter registration for Lebanese residing outside their country. Although figures vary, the accepted number of Lebanese expatriates legally eligible to vote was more than 220,000, 60% of whom turned out to vote, according to Lebanon’s foreign ministry. Despite the majority of external votes going to the traditional parties, the reformists understand that they still have to make an effort to reach the large Lebanese community living abroad. The majority of Lebanese want change. However, they are extremely pessimistic and have serious doubts about the ability of this new bloc to challenge the sectarian establishment.
The thirteen deputies of change and all those who fight for the survival of Lebanon will face a tiring battle. Nevertheless, their words must match their actions. Taqqadom lawmakers Mark Daou and Najat Saliba, both former professors at the American University of Beirut, spoke to me about the nature of their struggle to advance the kinds of reforms needed to save Lebanon. After the conference at the Sodeco museum in Beit Beirut, Daou noted the possibility of political paralysis in the selection of the president similar to what was experienced in 2016 before the election of Michel Aoun. However, Daou and Saliba are not deterred from insisting on a president who shares their values, including the principle of guaranteeing the new president the support of most Lebanese. In a meeting, Saliba called the politics a service and said she did not want to sacrifice the trust of the people. She also wholeheartedly endorsed term limits for MPs, which would require a vote in parliament and is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Saliba was criticized shortly after his election for making positive comments about Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, a man widely accused of being a major pillar of corruption, calling him a ‘school’ to be taken advantage of . Many Lebanese were outraged by his remarks and felt their votes were wasted when he was elected. Shortly after, Saliba clarified her remarks by saying that she and her colleague Daou need to learn what Berri knows from her years of experience in politics. Saliba told me that she had made a mistake in her choice of words and that she did not want to praise the speaker.
There is a real desire for change on the part of the new MPs. This is a good start, given that most established politicians have used their influence for corrupt and selfish gains. Yet without a concrete plan of action to overthrow and expose those who have dragged Lebanon into its current predicament, which must include addressing the problem of Hezbollah’s paramilitary wing, no lasting progress will be made. New MPs must not allow themselves to become merely a spectacle of cosmetic change in a cesspool that lacks the stomach for real reform. For now, Lebanon must wait to see if the proclamations will turn into action.
Adnan Nasser is an independent Middle East analyst with a BA in International Relations from Florida International University. Follow him on Twitter @Adnansoutlook29 and on Instagram @revolutionarylebanon.