Lebanon’s New Lawmakers and the Potential of Parliamentary Friendship Groups

In May 2022, Lebanon held parliamentary elections with a turnout of 49.2 per cent, including the votes of Lebanese expatriates living abroad[i]—a 0.5 per cent drop since 2018. Yet the electoral stakes were higher than ever for the population. A multi-layered economic calamity, a protracted political crisis, the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut port explosion, sporadic protests taking over the Lebanese streets, and a global COVID-19 pandemic are challenging the country’s already decaying health infrastructure and people’s livelihoods.[ii]

The election’s results introduced new faces into the Lebanese parliament, including many who previously had participated in the widespread demonstrations that occurred as recently as 17 October 2019.[iii] Commonly dubbed the ‘October Revolution,’ the civil and generally peaceful protests came in response to the government’s corruption, the high cost of living and an endemic political crisis rooted in the country’s consociational system.[iv] Markedly, the October protest movement was decentralised in nature; numerous Lebanese towns and cities witnessed mass demonstrations with similar demands echoing across the country.

Lebanon’s new lawmakers have the diplomatic capacity and vision to produce positive outcomes for their country.

New Faces in an Old House

This year’s elections resulted in thirteen Members of Parliament (MPs) from the opposition making their debut in the legislature[v]. This was a far cry from 2018 when the opposition won only one seat, that of MP Paula Yacoubian—suggesting that perhaps change would finally come to Lebanon’s broken and highly-sectarian political system. The election results also contained some surprising victors: The first of these shocks came with the election to parliament of independents Elias Jarade and Feras Hamdan, who both come from the South III governate—a region that has been historically dominated by the Shi’a parties of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. The South III governate experienced the highest voter turnout among all Lebanese regions (with a total of 54.7 per cent compared to 48.9 per cent in 2018)[vi]. A second surprise was recorded in Mount Lebanon IV governate with opposition candidate Mark Daou winning a seat that was formerly held by the head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, MP Talal Arslan. Former MP Arslan, a Druze politician who is both an establishment figure and a Syrian-regime ally, had held his parliamentary seat since 1992.

The importance of these parliamentary victories stands in contrast to Lebanon’s elusive electoral law and political system, which is governed by identity-based power-sharing dynamics. After the Lebanese Civil War ended in 1990, Lebanon’s ruling structure was organised as a consociational democracy[vii] which was intended to be representative of all of society’s different groups, and their interests, without discrimination. Unfortunately, reconciliation between Lebanon’s various intergroups never took place, and the Saudi-brokered 1989 Taif Agreement, which established equal political representation between the country’s Muslim and Christian factions, inflamed political sectarianism and zero-sum politicking[viii]. This is the system that the new MPs that were elected to Lebanon’s parliament in 2022 wish to fix. Indeed, they campaigned on supplanting Lebanon’s highly charged politically sectarian system with one rooted in civil, and somewhat secular, practices.

“Friendship Groups” and Parliamentary Diplomacy

For the time being, Lebanon’s new MPs have their domestic agendas, arguably, set in place. Nevertheless, questions remain as to their positions on Lebanon’s foreign relations. The protracted nature of Lebanon’s system of governance, before and after the civil war, has permitted various foreign actors to penetrate Lebanese society with impunity, putting its very sovereignty[ix]. For the Lebanese, it is almost unfathomable to imagine a Lebanese political system that can operate truly independently of regional and international actors.

In this context, Lebanon’s parliament has been one of the principal institutions that has created relational networks with foreign actors, including through the establishment of parliamentary friendship groups[x]. These friendship groups, or more accurately, parliamentary contact groups (PCGs), refer to bilateral clusters that are established between two legislative assemblies of different states through a number of selected MPs[xi]. These PCGs are established for several reasons: economic and political cooperation, industry-related restoration, cultural-based exchanges, and security-related bilateral interactions between MPs.[xii] PCGs can be fashioned between country-to-country and/or between country-to-region, and are not unique to Lebanon. For example, Germany’s Bundestag has friendship groups with specific regions, such as the Arab countries of the Middle East[xiii]. Another example of a region-based friendship group is between the Jordanian House of Representatives,[xiv] the Hashemite Kingdom’s Lower House in its bicameral parliament, and the EU[xv]. Meanwhile, an example of a country-based friendship group is the Qatari Shura Council’s friendship group with South Korea.[xvi]

In principle, these friendship groups can reinforce parliamentary diplomacy and help strengthen, or establish, relational networks between various legislative houses and their respective MPs. Recently, the topic of parliamentary diplomacy was on international display with the official visit of US Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan[xvii]. During the visit, Speaker Pelosi emphasised the interparliamentary exchanges[xviii] between the American and Taiwanese legislative assemblies while pointing to the continuing “friendship”[xix] between the two. This event reinstated how international diplomacy can be effectively navigated through interparliamentary exchanges and how the legislative branch can influence global politics. 

Lebanon’s Parliamentary Friends: Diplomatic Hope?

The Lebanese parliament has played a prominent role in the country’s governance over the past decades, and currently hosts over seventy parliamentary friendship groups across five continents (even if it does not provide an accessible directory for all of these groups)[xx]. It would be safe to assume that such groups and their respective international networks, in the long term, may affect governance issues within Lebanese politics. This is mainly argued due to the history of “acute foreign interventionism”[xxi] in Lebanon’s parliamentary construction and further development, especially during and after the country attained independence.

In the meantime, Lebanon was able to appoint a Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, after 54 of the Lebanese parliament’s 128 MPs voted him into office last summer[xxii]. However, this has not solved the country’s chronic political impasse and ongoing financial meltdown. Lebanon’s economic survival is dependent on obtaining $3 billion from the International Monetary Fund—which has demanded that Lebanese authorities first enact a series of necessary reforms[xxiii]. This situation is creating opportunities for Lebanon’s parliamentarians to leverage their regional and international friendship groups and strengthen their ties with important international actors. Having adopted a realpolitik approach in their electoral campaigns that called for an end to political sectarianism, Lebanon’s new lawmakers have the diplomatic capacity and vision to produce positive outcomes for their country. All things considered, these prospective diplomatic initiatives, taken by the new MPs, could generate multilateral political exchanges and socioeconomic cooperation that could help in saving Lebanon from itself.

[i] “Voter Turnout by Election Type: Lebanon,” 2022. https://www.idea.int/data-tools/country-view/169/40.
[ii] Azhari, Timour, and Maya Gebeily. “Analysis: Political and Banking Deadlock May Plunge Lebanon Deeper into Crisis.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, June 30, 2022. https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/political-banking-deadlock-may-plunge-lebanon-deeper-into-crisis-2022-06-30/.
[iii] Maddah, Meray. “Political Participation in Lebanon: A Look into Emerging Political Movements.” LSE Middle East Centre Blog. LSE’s Middle East Centre, September 20, 2021. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2021/09/20/political-participation-in-lebanon-a-look-into-emerging-political-movements/.
[iv] Chérif-Alami, Anis. “Twenty Days of Lebanese Protests: Between Continuity, Innovation and Uncertainty.” Arab Reform Initiative. Arab Reform Initiative, November 6, 2019. https://www.arab-reform.net/publication/twenty-days-of-lebanese-protests-between-continuity-innovation-and-uncertainty/.
[v] “Lebanon Elects a New Parliament: A Breakdown of Divisions, Winners and Losers.” L’Orient Today. L’Orient Today, May 17, 2022. https://today.lorientlejour.com/article/1299886/lebanon-elects-a-new-parliament.html.
[vi] Salamé, Richard. “Final Turnout by Major District.” L’Orient Today. L’Orient Today, May 17, 2022. https://public.tableau.com/app/profile/richard.salame/viz/FinalTurnoutMajorDistrict/FinalTurnoutMajorDistrict.
[vii] Lijphart, Arend. “Consociational Democracy.” World Politics 21, no. 2 (1969): 207–25. https://doi.org/10.2307/2009820.
[viii] Cammett, Melani Claire. “Political Mobilisation Strategies and In-Group Competition among Sectarian Parties.” Book Chapter. In Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon, 58–61. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2014.
[ix] Najem, Tom Pierre. “Background.” Introduction. In Lebanon: The Politics of a Penetrated Society, 1st ed., 1–3. London: Routledge, 2012.
[x] Giesen, Michael, and Thomas Malang. “Legislative Communities. Conceptualising and Mapping International Parliamentary Relations.” Journal of International Relations and Development 25, no. 2 (2022): 523–55. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41268-021-00251-x.
[xi] As illustrated by Giesen and Malang (January 2022), these friendship groups can also be denoted as Parliamentary Groups, Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Groups, Parliamentary Diplomatic Groups, Contact Groups, or Parliamentary Group of Friendship. For this reason, I use PCGs and “friendship groups” interchangeably.
[xii] It should be underlined, however, that if one parliament forms a friendship group with another state’s assembly, this does not indicate, ipso facto, that the latter parliament has a friendship group with the first state. Put simply, parliamentary friendship groups are categorized based on the parliaments that establish them, not based on the parliaments that receive these groups.
[xiii] “Parliamentary friendship groups.” Deutscher Bundestag. https://www.bundestag.de/en/europe/international/int_bez.
[xiv] “Friendship associations” – Jordan’s House of Representatives https://representatives.jo/Ar/pages/FriendshipAssociation?CouncilID=.
[xv] “The Jordanian-European Parliamentary Friendship Association.” Jordan’s House of Representatives. https://representatives.jo/Ar/pages/FriendshipAssociationMembers?FriendshipAssociationID=1584&CouncilID=.
[xvi] “The Qatari-Korean Friendship Group in the Shura.” Qatar’s Shura Council. https://www.shura.qa/ar-QA/Pages/MediaCenter/News/06102022.
[xvii] Wu, Huizhong, Eileen Ng, and Lisa Mascaro. “US House Speaker Pelosi arrives in Taiwan, defying Beijing.” Associated Pres. 2 August 2022. https://apnews.com/article/china-asia-beijing-malaysia-a5a6acc391511c99b1b4c2d69e67b133.
[xviii] “Pelosi Statement on Congressional Delegation Visit to Taiwan.” Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House. 3 August 2022. https://www.speaker.gov/newsroom/8322-2.
[xix] “‘We Come in Friendship’, Nancy Pelosi Tells Taiwan’s Parliament – Video.” The Guardian. 3 August 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2022/aug/03/we-come-in-friendship-nancy-pelosi-tells-taiwans-parliament-video.
[xx] In August 2022, Free Patriotic Movement’s MP Simon Abi Ramia returned as the chairman of the francophone parliamentary friendship group between Lebanon and France. Meanwhile, one of the thirteen opposition parliamentarians, MP Najat Aoun Saliba, has been appointed as the group’s head of the Women Parliamentary Division. Interestingly, MP Saliba ran her electoral campaign in the same reformist coalition, called Taqaddom, as her successful counterpart MP Daou. Another example of a parliamentary friendship group is the Lebanese-Ukrainian Parliamentary Friendship Committee headed by the Lebanese Forces MP Elias Stephan.
[xxi] Salamey, Imad, and Rhys Payne. “Parliamentary Consociationalism in Lebanon: Equal Citizenry vs. Quotated Confessionalism.” The Journal of Legislative Studies 14, no. 4 (November 7, 2008): 451–73. https://doi.org/10.1080/13572330802442857.
[xxii] All 13 opposition MPs either opted for a blank vote or voted for Mikati’s contender, former ambassador to the UN Nawaf Salam.
[xxiii] “IMF Reaches Staff-Level Agreement on Economic Policies with Lebanon for a Four-Year Extended Fund Facility.” International Monetary Fund. 7 April 2022. International Monetary Fund. https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2022/04/07/pr22108-imf-reaches-agreement-on-economic-policies-with-lebanon-for-a-four-year-fund-facility.

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