'Cedar' revolutionaries want more reform for Lebanon

In the first round of Lebanese elections, voters backed the son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Stopping cars hurtling through Beirut's downtown, young protesters do something they could never do before: pass out flyers that urge Lebanese to cast a protest vote against the country's entrenched political class - including the leaders of this spring's Cedar Revolution.

A sedan with government plates squeals up. It's plastered with posters of Saad Hariri, son and political heir of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Serge Toursarkissian, a parliamentarian seeking reelection on the younger Hariri's slate, which swept all of Beirut's 19 parliamentary seats Sunday, barrels out.

"How can you tell people not to vote for Hariri?" he bellows. "Hariri's killing was a big crime, and the Syrians have left this country, and we should all go out and vote!"

But months after the Cedar Revolution, the movement ignited by Rafik Hariri's death that helped end Syrian domination over this country, Lebanon's government is showing few other signs of change. Dissatisfied with the elections, some are now questioning politics as usual - and, in some cases, the very opposition leaders who led their revolution.

The elections, which will continue for the next three Sundays, will usher in many of the same politicians who have dominated the country's political scene for decades. Though pro-Syrian politicians won't be as powerful as before, their continued political influence discourages many Lebanese who had hoped for more substantial change. Voter turnout in Beirut Sunday, the first in the four-stage elections, was only 28 percent.

But the popular protests had a ripple effect, and among the reverberations was an increasing willingness to challenge corruption, stagnation, and hereditary rule in Lebanon's government. Outside government circles, a growing civil society movement is now pushing for democratic reforms.

"Lebanon has changed in an interesting way since three months ago," says Rasha Jomaa, one of the young women debating Mr. Toursarkissian. "We would never have had the right to go down to the street and declare our opinions like this. And the topic of our group was a little bit taboo before."

Ms. Jomaa, a graduate student in sociology, joined the Cedar Revolution with fervor in March. When the Iranian-backed Shiite party Hizbullah held a pro-Syrian rally, Jomaa and other young people joined a massive counterdemonstration. After the rally, she went to a tent city where protesters were gathered and she stayed all night.

But as days in the tent city wore on, Jomaa saw "people-power" slowly giving way to party politics. Party officials would send out mass text messages instructing the revolutionaries when to gather, what to wear, and who to support. "They were dominated," she says. "They could not be frank and open for Lebanon."

As opposition leaders like Walid Jumblatt began negotiating with pro-Syrian politicians, some revolutionaries became disgusted.

Jomaa and other disillusioned activists formed a group called Hayyabina, orLet's Go, which calls for the abolition of Lebanon's confessional system. Based on religious affiliation, Lebanese law sets up a balance of religious sects in parliament. Although Muslims are more than half the population, the 128-member parliament must be split evenly between Muslims and Christians. Seats are set aside for specific religious sects, and politicians can only run for seats that correspond to their religion.

In theory, this confessional system keeps the country's Muslim majority from dominating smaller religious groups. But in practice, it is more complicated: The current electoral law, for example, forces many Christians to vote in Muslim areas.

Hayyabina's platform is simple: Instead of voting according to religion, the Lebanese should be allowed to vote according to traditional political platforms. "We want to find our rights as citizens, not as members of religious groups," says Lokman Slim, one of the group's founders. "We cannot find our rights through membership in confessional groups - we want them to be guaranteed in the Constitution."

Hayyabina is not the only group seeking to change Lebanon's political landscape. After the revolution, more than 13,000 Lebanese citizens signed a petition to add a clause to Lebanon's electoral law, allowing Lebanese expatriates to vote overseas. Nobody knows exactly how many Lebanese live abroad, but some estimates range as high as three times the country's internal population of 4 million.

In Lebanon, expatriate voting has always been politically charged, with critics claiming that it would tip the country's sectarian balance one way or another. But others say that as Lebanese citizens, they have a right to vote, regardless of who they might vote for. "The simple argument that is the basis of this campaign is that it is simply a constitutional right to vote if you are Lebanese, and the holder of a Lebanese passport," says Chibli Mallat, a law professor at Beirut's St. Joseph University. "So you cannot be deprived of this right."

Mr. Mallat and several others presented their petition to the Lebanese government a month before Sunday's poll, pointing out several ways in which voting could be conducted at Lebanese embassies abroad. But the government, absorbed in minute negotiations over the electoral law, did nothing. "The present government doesn't have the imagination or the guts to get it through," says Mallat. "I think we are still in the ancient world."

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