In December International Alert held a two-day dialogue workshop in London that convened the leaders of the youth and student wings of the 17 main Lebanese political parties.
This was the first time in over five years that these parties1 met to discuss issues pertaining to the well-being of their country. Of course, various representatives from the political parties have been meeting over this time, but the particular participation of Hizb’allah and its allies (a.k.a. the 8th March coalition), along with the most powerful members of the opposing 14th March coalition is what made this event unique.
The other defining feature of this event was that it explicitly sought to address crucial issues of social policy and political reform. The idea is that in Lebanon “conflict” is more often manifested as political deadlock than it is as violent conflict. The five-month period between the 9th June (2009) elections and the formation of a Cabinet in October was but the most recent example of political deadlock and escalating tension between the major political factions in the last decade. In a sense, the political leaders and communities “choose” deadlock stalemate rather than direct confrontation – a choice of the lesser evil – but when stalemate goes too far, it can end in violence rather than compromise.
For most Lebanese, however, political deadlock means pressing issues of political reform and social policy are stalled and problems in dire need of solutions are repeatedly pushed to the side.
In their meeting in London, the group of youth leaders tackled the question of political deadlock head on by drafting a set of recommendations that specifically pertain to policy issues. They focused particularly on issues of educational reform as this is the main area where they – in their capacity of leaders of youth and students – feel they have the most hope to influence their own party’s position. Indeed, youth leaders in Lebanese political parties are powerful actors in their own right and have a voice, albeit limited, in their party’s decisions. Generally these youth leaders are between the ages of 25 and 50 (surprisingly) and they have autonomy in leadership over hundreds, if not thousands of younger party members. In nearly every case, these people lead the largest and most active wings of their party. In several cases, youth leaders have moved up the ranks of their parties and become MPs, cabinet ministers and so on, and almost all of them are positioned to form the next leadership in the parent party. The youth political leaders, therefore, are people who are positioned to shape dialogue and interventions around politics in Lebanon for the coming decades. It is an ideal layer of politics to work with to promote peace and stability not only because of their future capacity, but also because they do have the ability to take more flexible and consensual positions together – as a inter-sectarian group – than their party leaders may be able to do so.
In addition, when violence does break out, there are cases where the youth leaders are still in communication and speaking with each other across the lines of conflict – even when their leaders have ceased all communication at the elite levels. There are even examples of youth political leaders working together to contain conflict, especially on university campuses, during violent periods and outbreaks. They are an incredibly interesting group for Alert to be working with in Lebanon.
Although the work with this group has just begun, they have already held two follow-up meetings where they have designed specific plans for implementing the recommendations they drafted together in London. They have also scheduled meetings with the highest levels of politicians (as with Prime Minister Saad Hariri) in order to present the London declaration as a cooperating inter-confessional political group and, in their own words: ‘to give the country some hope’.
1. The participants represented Lebanon’s main political parties including: the Amal Movement, the Lebanese Communist Party, the Democratic Left Movement, the Democratic Renewal Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement, the Future Movement, the Green Party of Lebanon, Hizbullah, the Lebanese Forces Party, the Lebanese Democratic Party, the Kataib Party, al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, the Marada Movement, the National Liberal Party, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and the Tachnaq Party (Armenian Revolutionary Front).