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Scarred by Crisis, Election Newcomers Aim to Unseat Lebanon’s Elite

By Asharq Al-Awsat
A car passes near an electoral campaign billboard depicting Firas Hamdan, a lawyer who is running as an opposition candidate in Lebanon's parliamentary election, in Kfar Tebnit village, southern Lebanon, April 30, 2022. Picture taken April 30, 2022. (Reuters)

Shot by security forces during protests over the 2020 Beirut port blast and frozen out of his bank savings during Lebanon's financial collapse, Firas Hamdan has plenty of grievances against the authorities.

On Sunday, Hamdan hopes to start changing things for the better by winning a seat in parliament, one of several newcomers hoping to break the hold that dominant sectarian politicians have on power at a May 15 parliamentary election.

The vote is part of a struggle between Lebanon's political and financial elite and "the 99% who are victims in this society", the 34-year-old lawyer said.

The election is Lebanon's first since national finances imploded in 2019 - the result of what critics say is decades of state mismanagement and corruption - and since 215 people were killed and swathes of Beirut devastated by the port explosion.

Many demonstrators who took to the streets shortly afterwards blamed the disaster, investigations into which have stalled, on safety failings by top political and security officials.

"They knew!" was a popular slogan, a reference to the ruling establishment knowing about the presence of large amounts of ammonium nitrate at the port but doing nothing about it.

Senior political and security officials have said they were aware of explosive materials being stored there, but all deny responsibility for the blast.

With Lebanon in the throes of what the World Bank has called one of the world's worst ever economic meltdowns, some analysts believe candidates opposed to established parties stand a better chance than ever of winning some of parliament's 128 seats.

But opposition candidates still face an uphill battle.

Lebanon's sectarian political system is skewed in favor of established factions, and some commentators say newcomers have hurt their chances by failing to unite across the country around a single platform.

Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, said newcomers were disadvantaged by electoral regulations that force voters to travel to ancestral villages to cast their ballots, which leaves them more exposed to pressure from powerful local parties and is an expense many can't afford.

"It creates an unfair playing field," she said. Still, she added that a sizeable bloc of voices "not necessarily beholden to the current political parties" could be elected.

Hamdan said a win for any of the newcomers would mark progress: "Each person who gets into parliament is a victory."

Shot in chest

In the days after the Beirut port explosion, Hamdan, who is also a rights activist, was monitoring a crackdown by security forces on anti-government protests when he was hit in the chest by birdshot that pierced his heart, requiring surgery.

He blames security forces protecting parliament in Beirut. The force denied using such weapons in a public statement at the time and said this week it would not comment further on the matter.

Hamdan is running alongside like-minded candidates in southern Lebanon against politicians including Ali Hassan Khalil of the Shiite Amal Movement and Marwan Kheireddine, chairman of Lebanon's AM Bank.

The judge investigating the blast has issued a warrant for Khalil's arrest after he failed to show up for scheduled interrogations about what caused the accident.

Khalil, the top aide of influential parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and finance minister from 2014 until the economic collapse, denies involvement in the explosion and is one of a number of suspects who have sought the judge's removal. He declined to comment further for this article.

Kheireddine's bank is one of many that restricted depositors' access to savings amid the economic collapse due to a severe dollar shortage at the center of the financial crisis.

Those decisions caused widespread anger among swathes of depositors who have been dragged below the poverty line.

Kheireddine did not respond to a request for comment on the deposits or on the election more broadly.

In an interview with MTV Lebanon in 2020, he blamed the government, to which commercial banks lent billions of dollars, for mismanaging the economy.

"Should I apologize that your state are thieves? Should I apologize that the banks lent to the state and (the state) seized them (deposits)?" Kheireddine said during the interview.

Backlash from clan

When candidates running alongside Hamdan tried to launch their campaign last month near the southern port city of Sidon, a group of Amal supporters punched and kicked some of them and fired shots in the air, according to a Reuters witness.

Amal, headed by Berri and a close ally of the Iran-backed Hezbollah party who have centered their campaign on development and resistance to Israel, denied involvement in the incident.

Amal and Hezbollah have long dominated Shiite representation in a political system that has buttressed the influence of sectarian factions since the 1975-90 civil war.

Together with its allies, Hezbollah won a parliamentary majority in 2018.

Newcomers are challenging existing parties in all of Lebanon's 15 electoral districts. Jad Ghosn, a former journalist, is running in an area dominated by Christian factions including that of President Michel Aoun.

The party he is running with, Citizens in a State, has set itself apart by campaigning on a single program centered on fair distribution of financial-sector losses, of which ordinary savers have so far borne the brunt.

Ghosn contrasts this with the establishment and even some in opposition who are focused on divisive issues such as Hezbollah's military capabilities.

"We are not simply running 'against' something. We are running 'with'. There is a program," he said.

Sara Zoaiter, a 32-year-old opposition candidate running in the northeastern Baalbek-Hermel area, has encountered pushback from her own influential family clan. She lives in France but has come to Lebanon to campaign.

Relatives issued a statement to the media saying she did not represent them and that they are backing long-time lawmaker Ghazi Zoaiter, an Amal candidate on a Hezbollah-backed list.

Zoaiter, a former minister, has also been charged in connection with the 2020 port blast. The details of his alleged involvement have not been made public because the investigations are secret. He has denied wrongdoing and did not respond to a request for comment.

"The response of establishment parties is sometimes making us out to be traitors, sometimes fearmongering," Zoaiter said, pointing to two other candidates from her clan who withdrew their candidacies after the statement was issued.

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Dive Deeper:
Scarred by crisis, election newcomers aim to unseat Lebanon's elite
Shot by security forces during protests over the 2020 Beirut port blast and frozen out of his bank savings during…
Factbox-Who is running in Lebanon's election?
Lebanon holds a parliamentary election on May 15, with candidates vying for 128 seats that are divided among 11 religious…
Lebanon to vote in first election since financial meltdown
Lebanese vote on Sunday in the first election since their country's economic collapse, a test of whether Iran-backed Hezbollah and…
Lebanon holds first parliament election since financial collapse, blast
Lebanese voted on Sunday in the first parliamentary election since the country's economic collapse, with many saying they hoped to…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Hezbollah weapons at the heart of Lebanon's elections Sunday
The deeply divisive issue of the militant Hezbollah group's weapons has been at the center of the upcoming vote for…
Lebanon Vote Seen as Last Chance in Crisis-Plagued Nation
In households across Lebanon, it's likely that one or more family members are planning to emigrate - if they can…
Get all your news in one place