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Bahbah: A Message from the People of Lebanon: The Power of the People is Stronger than the People in Power

posted on: Oct 23, 2019

Photo Washington Post: Omar Ibrahim/Reuters

By: Bishara Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist

The unfolding events in Lebanon and the recent elections in Tunisia are sending clear messages to Arab leaders – shape up or ship out!

Over the past week, Lebanon was rocked with protests involving hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life and from all corners of Lebanon demanding an end to the existing corrupt ruling elite that has been ruling the country for decades.  Lebanon has reached a stage whereby it is no longer a functioning country.

Last year, Lebanon’s economy barely registered any economic growth while its ballooning deficit and public debt are forecast to reach 155 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by year-end – one of the highest in the world.

While in Tunisia, the electorate handed the presidency of the republic to a professor, a largely unknown political personality and an unaffiliated independent, Kais Saied, a huge political victory with 73 percent win over his opponent, Nabil Karoui.  The latter, Tunisia’s millionaire media mogul, had been imprisoned on charges of money laundering.  The Tunisians’ vote was a “partial repudiation of a fractious political class that is widely viewed as ineffective and corrupt.”**

As Daniel Brumberg of the Arab Center Washington DC put it, “Saied’s meteoric rise to stardom has sparked a sense of a national awakening.  This sudden shift from despondency to a revived political passion has created a window of opportunity to mobilize Tunisians who felt totally abandoned by the system.”

Are We on the Cusp of a Second Arab Spring?

Photo Washington Post: Ali Hashisho/Reuters

Even though many observers noted that the recent crowds all over Lebanon were reminiscent of the 2011 Arab Spring that led to the fall of four Arab presidents, it is premature to predict if we are at the dawn of a second Arab Spring.

Unfortunately, the fallout from the first Arab Spring is still with us – Libya is in complete disarray, Syria is a divided and occupied country, Algeria is ruled with an iron fist, and Yemen is a war zone.  Despite being one of the richest countries in the world in terms of oil reserves, Iraq has been pillaged by its previous political leaders and their allies and to the point that its people live poorer than in some of the poor countries of Africa!

We are experiencing our own Arab Cold War pitting some Gulf countries and Egypt against Qatar and its non-Arab ally, Turkey.  And many argue that it is not without good reason.  Nevertheless, it sadly depicts a rather sad state of affairs among Arabs.

What Can We Surmise from What is Happening in the Arab World?

  • The people are frustrated and are tired of corruption and have reached a boiling point.
  • The youth are coming out in droves either in the streets or at the polling stations to overthrow the existing political systems.
  • People are fighting back for a better way of life, for their dignity, and for their children’s futures.
  • Existing political institutions are inherently corrupt. Any elections should be direct and unencumbered with the shenanigans of a fractious political class that is widely viewed as ineffective and corrupt.
  • The youth will oppose economic reforms that will impose economic hardships on the poor and the struggling middle class, as is the case in Lebanon now.
  • The consensus system of governments has produced legislative gridlock. It is a discredited model.  What is needed is a government that has garners a majority of 50 + 1 which is considered a parliamentary majority and a system of a loyal opposition.
  • Leaders must accept pluralism and allow democracy to work
  • Political Islam has been exposed. It is a strategy that uses democracy to advance a religious agenda.  Hamas used it and it failed.  Hezbollah is trying to use it and it is failing.  Ennahda in Tunisia has used it and failed.  Religion should be confined to the home and the places of worship.

No one will ever claim that the path to building democratic institutions will ever be easy.  In the United States, it took years of war and tremendous bloodshed to reach where we are and, most will attest, that we are still living in an imperfect democracy.  My only hope is that the Arabs do not keep repeating the mistakes of others while building their own democratic institutions.


** Daniel Brumberg, “By Electing Kais Saied, Tunisians Recast Their National Politics,” 17 October 2019, Arab Center Washington DC


Prof. Bishara Bahbah was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem based “Al-Fajr” newspaper between 1983-84. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security.  He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.

The reproduction of this article is permissible with proper credit to Arab America and the author.


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