‘We are the state': Lebanese citizens protest proposed parliament extension

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Student activists chanting during the rally. One sign reads, “The people are the source of authority.” August 28, 2014. Al-Akhbar English/Rashad Sisemore

By: Rana Harbi, Yazan al-Saadi

Published Friday, August 29, 2014

Hundreds of citizens and activists protested on Thursday the possible extension of parliament’s mandate, as MPs continue to argue the need to postpone the parliamentary elections, scheduled in November, under the pretext of ensuring stability.

At least 350 Lebanese, of all ages, sects, creeds, and from different areas of Beirut and outside the capital, gathered at the corner of Sanayeh Park, in front of the Ministry of the Interior, before they began to march towards Riad al-Solh Square not far from the parliament building in Downtown Beirut.

Prior to their arrival to the square, the demonstrators detoured into the Zarif residential area, chanting, “We are the state, we are the people,” and “down, down with the extension” as onlookers on balconies, stories, and sidewalks watched with great interest, many filming on their smart phones as the march lumbered on.

At the front of the march, elderly men and women locked arms, while behind them dozens of protesters holding up their hands with their palms marked by the Arabic word,”No.”

“The protesters have every right [to make these demands]. 128 MPs are all stealing from us. There is no electricity, no water. How dare they extend their term! I’m the one who’s supposed to decide!” an elderly business owner, who watched the march pass by, told Al-Akhbar English.

The 128 parliament seats, currently occupied by the same MPs since 2009, were up for grabs in June 2013, but failure to agree on a new electoral law led to a postponement of the election until November 20, 2014.

Today, the same parliament, that previously extended its own term, is expected to extend it once again after Future movement MP Nicolas Fattoush presented a draft proposal for the extension of the legislative body’s term by more than two years and 7 months.

Fatoush, who was also behind last year’s proposal to extend parliament’s mandate for 17 months, claimed that the “extraordinary security circumstances ” Lebanon is going through will hinder parliamentary elections and that the extension “will maintain civil peace.”

The proposal gained the support of several MPs, including MP Saad Hariri who feared the “collapse of the Lebanese system” if the elections were to be held as the security situation continues to unravel and as the presidential vacuum lingers. In addition, MPs have not reached a consensus about a new electoral law that has further delayed the ability to hold elections for the legislative branch of government.

However, Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri rejected bids to extend parliament’s mandate and The Free Patriotic Movement, which opposed last year’s extension of parliament’s term, said that it will vote against the draft proposal and warned that the extension was a blow “to the principle of the rotation of power.”

The common theme, heard time and time again, by both the organizers and their supporters is that the current MPs are making decisions on their own without the voice of the greater Lebanese public, which is ultimately a part of a grander struggle challenging the political status quo that continues to benefit only a few in the country.

“We are taking part in this protest because the most important pillar of democracy, the citizens’ right to representation and to vote, is in jeopardy,” Poliana Geha, president of the AUB Secular Club, told Al-Akhbar English.

For the organizers and different groups involved, the inherent problem of the decision to unilaterally extend parliament's term is seen as a violation of the fragile democratic process in Lebanon.

Geha considers the “security situation,” used as a justification for the extension of the parliamentary mandate, to be a “worn-out alibi” used by those who want to stay in power.

“As university students and social activists, it’s extremely important to get involved in such movements,” Geha assured. “We want to set an example for the young generation by showing them that we can take a stand and voice our demands.”

"One of the main reasons we established the Alternative Student Movement (ASM) is to revive student activism in Lebanon, a student has to be aware of all their rights,” Hassan Harb, an activist with ASM told Al-Akhbar English. “This demonstration today against the extension of parliament is part of that vision.”

ASM members distributed flyers in Hamra, Ashrafieh, and other parts of Beirut to invite people to participate in the demonstration.

“We are against the parliament extension because it is an infringement on the public's rights,” Harb added. "We took part in last year’s protests as well but this year it’s different because student activism is stronger, networks are better and we are more confident.”

“We are against this regime and how it implements the constitution and laws,” Samir Abdullah (Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, LADE) told Al-Akhbar English. “We believe that change can only be done through the democratic process such as elections. When [the government and MPs] are circumventing these democratic processes, we need to act against it."

According to Abdullah, LADE’s goal “is not to simply stop the extension of parliament, but to also encourage citizens to demand and assert their democratic rights.”

“The MPs may likely win this round, and the next, but we are trying to grow for the long term,” he added. “We are trying to build a broad movement and we seek to establish a unified public position.”

The Civil Movement for Accountability (CMFA), which already launched a campaign against the extension on social media, announced in a statement the birth of a civil and democratic resistance against the MPs whom they labeled as “occupiers.”

The CMFA also demanded that cabinet “complete the required preparations for the upcoming elections immediately,” and asked the judges “to take a historic stand and protect what remains of the Lebanese state and its institutions.”

The protesters arrived to the square just as dusk set in. They were unable to go further into Downtown Beirut, where the arliament building is located, due to barricades and a line of security forces waiting and watching silently.

“This space if our space, this parliament is our parliament,” declared the protesters, complemented by a rapid rhythm of claps.

“What’s your problem,” one protester, a mother, her teenage daughter by her, said to a policeman, standing on the other side. “Are you with us?”

“We’re part of the people,” he responded.

“Are you? Then join us!” she laughed.

(Click on photo for more)








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