The phone has not stopped ringing since political novice Ibrahim Mneimneh won a seat in Lebanon’s parliamentary election this month.
Strangers, journalists, old friends, new colleagues: everyone wants to congratulate him and his fellow reform-minded newcomers whose victory has shaken the status quo in a country long dominated by political elites.
“We gave people hope for the first time in a long time,” Mneimneh, a 46-year-old architect and urban planner, said at his Beirut home. “It’s been a bit overwhelming.”
He is one of 13 new lawmakers with ties to the October 2019 protest movement that swept Lebanon as the country ’s brittle economy began to collapse. They are doctors, lawyers, professors and activists who together won votes in half of the country’s voting districts and across religious and social divides.
Their success mean Hizbollah, the political and paramilitary force that dominates the country, and its allies have lost their majority in the 128-seat parliament. No one party or bloc won the election outright and long talks loom before a coalition government will be formed. But the emergence of the independent MPs is a significant shift in a country long dominated by former warlords, scions of political dynasties or those backed by foreign money, say analysts.
“This is the first time we see 13 normal people coming to power,” said Sami Atallah, founding director of Beirut-based think-tank The Policy Initiative, which monitors parliament. “These are real people that we can all relate to.”
Mneimneh is one of the better-known faces among the new intake. His political career began in 2016 when he unsuccessfully ran for a council seat in Beirut’s municipal elections. Those came on the back of a nationwide refuse crisis in which rubbish went uncollected for weeks — one of many crises widely blamed on politicians deemed corrupt and inept.
Although unsuccessful, the civil society party he ran with garnered 40 per cent of the vote. “We could see people were eager for change,” said Mneimneh, who stood again in 2018’s legislative elections. He failed to win a seat but built the political machinery, combining local activism and social media campaigning, that propelled him to victory last week.
Mneimneh said his campaign was mostly funded through small donations and his own money. He, along with most pollsters, did not expect protest-linked candidates to win more than eight seats, particularly as Lebanon’s elections are often marred by fraud and vote-buying.
His win was even more surprising as it came in a Beirut district where establishment parties have dominated for the past 30 years. Former prime minister Saad Hariri and his Future Movement boycotted the poll, ostensibly citing Iran’s undue influence. “Because you didn’t have Hariri telling voters what to do . . . for the first time, people started having a genuine and healthy political conversation about how to select their candidates,” said Mneimneh.
That conversation was fuelled by widespread anger at the ruling elite, particularly among younger Lebanese who will bear the brunt of the country’s collapse.
Many of the anti-establishment independents promised political, economic and social reforms in their election campaigns but they all prioritised fixing the country’s broken economy. Most also promised to deliver justice for relatives of those killed or hurt in the 2020 Beirut port explosion which killed more than 200 people and wounded thousands more, prompting the government to resign. Najat Aoun Saliba, a chemistry professor and environmental activist who was among those elected last week, credits the blast for her decision to run.
“We felt like our dignity and our very existence was completely in the hands of corrupt people,” said Saliba, who spoke to the Financial Times by phone from her home in Beirut, in one of the districts worst affected by the blast.
Saliba is one of four women in the new cohort of independents and one of eight overall female MPs in the new parliament, a record number for Lebanon. Female voters were key to her victory, she said. “It’s extremely important to me that we get 50/50 representation in government and in all sectors soon.”
The independents’ ability to move forward on reforms depends largely on whether they can act as one, say analysts. Experts also caution against romanticising the power of the opposition, given that parliament remains dominated by the establishment.
“If they remain unified as a group . . . they could really bring parliament back to life,” Atallah said. “This parliament has been hijacked by the ruling political parties, and they have actually made it irrelevant. It’s just a rubber-stamp parliament.”
Mneimneh and Saliba both said their cohort understood its power lies in unity, and they hoped to operate as one bloc. “We all need to benefit from each others’ expertise and from each others’ support in order to move our agenda forward,” said Saliba.
But their disparate views on some of Lebanon’s most polarising issues including refugees, the arsenal Hizbollah has been allowed to maintain and the role of religion in the country’s politics threaten to create divisions.
Their approach to restructuring the banking sector and the economy is also unclear.
Maha Yahya, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, said “there wasn’t enough work done prior to the elections” to foster a unified ideology among the independents. “Issues like: how do you distribute the losses, how do you go about bank restructuring, what do you do with state assets? These are key questions . . . and it’s not clear that they’re on the same page on these issues.”
Late last week, most of the successful independents appeared on one of the country’s most popular talk shows, It’s About Time, billed as a celebration of parliament’s newcomers.
“Not all protest movements succeed,” Saliba told the audience. “But they weren’t able to shut us up in the streets, and now we’re going to parliament.”