Voters tweak Lebanon’s rule by sects

In an election, the armed Islamist party Hezbollah and its allies lost their parliamentary majority, yet another example of Mideast youth seeking governance based on equality, not on religion-based political patronage.

Hania Zaatari, center, who was an independent candidate in the May 15 parliamentary elections, campaigns in Sidon, Lebanon, April 9.

More than three-quarters of Lebanon’s population lives in poverty. Among young people, more than 70% want to emigrate. The value of the national currency has dropped 90% in the past two years. And the electoral system remains rigged for religion-based parties. So last Sunday when Lebanon held parliamentary elections for the first time in four years, what did its voters decide to do?

They made sure the Islamist group Hezbollah and its Christian-based allies lost their majority in Parliament. They boosted the number of anti-Hezbollah members of Parliament. And most unexpected of all, they voted in 16 independent, reform-minded activists who could be kingmakers in forming a new government. The 16 include 12 first-time lawmakers and four women.

This election result fits a recent pattern in the Middle East of people not wanting to be subject to political systems based along religious lines and instead wanting to be treated as individuals in need of good, secular governance free of patronage by sectarian leaders.

In Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, and Iraq, Islamist political parties – which internally are not very democratic – have faltered in the past two years. In Turkey, the ruling Islamist party has lost popularity.

Before Lebanon’s election, pollsters found that half of voters had no confidence in Hezbollah, the pro-Iran militant group that controls much of the country’s Shiite areas in a dictatorial way. That sentiment had escalated in 2019 after mass protests against the country’s corrupt ruling elite. As one protester put it, “The people are one – Shia, Sunni, Christian, they’re all one here.”

A 2020 survey of Arab youth found most do not want their public society defined by religion but by individual rights and shared interests – especially job creation. The major religions of the Middle East teach their followers that God (or Allah) sees each individual as created in the divine image. Now voters in Lebanon have sent a signal that democracy relies on treating all citizens as equals, not as mere members of a demographic group. Or as one voter, Samer Arabi, told The National news website, “We want to change how politicians are playing with people and their religion.”

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