In about an hour, downtown Beirut will be filled with angry protesters and jittery security forces. The “You Stink” demonstrations have grown in numbers, defiance, and ambition. In Lebanon, just like anyplace else, nothing succeeds like success. No longer content with a hasty fix to the trash collection crisis or even the proposed resignation of the Minister of the Environment, the movement’s organizers are now calling for full parliamentary elections and a reboot of the entire government.
I agree with this demand, but not because I think that Lebanon’s problems can be solved through elections. Dissolving Parliament carries with it the likelihood of further paralysis and stalemate, not the utopic rise of a generation of young and honest politicians who will safeguard the public trust. Lebanon has an abysmal record at negotiating political transitions. To recap the recent history of Lebanese government formations:
- 2009: Saad Hariri takes office as prime minister on November 9, after five months of trying to form a cabinet following parliamentary elections
- 2011: Najib Mikati spends five months forming a cabinet after Saad Hariri’s government is brought down on January 12.
- 2014: Tammam Salam spends nearly 11 months forming a cabinet following Mikati’s resignation in 2013.
If tonight’s protests resulted in the dissolution of Lebanon’s Parliament, very little would change. The country has effectively been operating under a caretaker regime in various guises since early 2011. After the extension of Parliament’s tenure in 2013, its constitutionality became suspect in the eyes of many Lebanese. And when the Presidency became vacant in 2014, the hollowing out of the government’s legitimacy was complete.
This is why dissolving Parliament is the only reasonable option left. Lebanon’s public institutions have never seemed more like shoddy pieces of stage scenery since the Syrian Army’s departure in 2005. It’s no surprise that the real estate magnates, construction conglomerates, generator monopolies, banking titans, and patronage networks that effectively run Lebanon’s economy should be able to thumb their nose at the government like a bunch of schoolchildren having their way with a helpless substitute teacher.
Parliamentary elections will not bring an end to corruption or inefficiency; they likely won’t even solve the trash crisis in the short term. But no progress can be made on any front — waste management, the electricity supply, telecoms reform, infrastructure development — without a government that possesses basic legitimacy.
The demands of the protest movement are aligned with the desires of a majority of Lebanese. Will the Lebanese MPs or party leaders currently fawning over the movement on Twitter or Facebook submit their resignations from Parliament or withdraw their party’s ministers from Cabinet? If the movement gathers steam, I wouldn’t be surprised if the impossible starts to look possible.