Why did Lebanon’s Parliamentary “Change Bloc” Collapse?

لماذا انهار «تكتّل نواب التغيير» في البرلمان اللبناني؟

Thirteen “Change” candidates1 were elected to the Lebanese Parliament in the May 2022 national elections based on a common conviction that political reform was long overdue. Despite this broadly shared belief, in the lead-up to the vote, a dichotomy emerged within the opposition. Some Change candidates wanted to present a united front under a common platform based on a range of public demands, while others argued that without programmatic and strategic coherence, the alliance would not prove sustainable. Most opposition candidates opted for the former approach, arguing that voters wanted united lists and their demands had to be met to win more seats. While this decision aided in electing Change MPs, divisions within the nascent parliamentary opposition movement quickly became apparent during the first parliamentary session. This article examines divergent perspectives among opposition MPs, specifically those that shaped their political journey and led to the eventual collapse of the “Change bloc”.

Entering the Lion’s Den: Can "Change" MPs Navigate the Legislative Maze?
Nadim El Kak from our partner organization “the Policy Initiative” sits down with 8 Change MPs for a first insider account of their experiences in the Lebanese Parliament. This video is the first of a 2-part series that covers their experience in performing their legislative role. Watch Change MPs describing the systemic and structural hurdles that impede parliamentary work, including about how intimidation tactics and bureaucratic delays affect legislative activity.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AV48PyO8Vqs&t=22s

Change MPs’ unity was tested early, notably during the election of the deputy speaker of parliament. During that session on May 31, 2022, all 13 Change MPs voted for Ghassan Skaff. Skaff was backed by all March 14 parties and received 60 of 128 votes, losing narrowly to the March 8 candidate Elias Bou Saab of the Free Patriotic Movement. Change MPs were heavily criticized for that decision, as it appeared the March 14 camp had co-opted them early in their parliamentary tenure. It was later revealed that prior to the session, the Change bloc held an internal vote to determine for which candidate they would vote. Seven MPs voted in favor of Skaff, forcing the remaining six to concede or risk revealing to the public that the bloc was, in fact, not unified.2

Collectively voting for Skaff reflected an initial attempt by “Change MPs” to present a united bloc in parliament. However, one month into their tenure, opposition MPs disagreed again over who to designate as prime minister, with some endorsing diplomat Nawaf Salam, while three opposed that choice according to MP Mark Daou.

Problems reached a tipping point as the term of President Michel Aoun ended in October 2022 and Change MPs launched a joint initiative to elect a new president. According to multiple MPs, the initiative lacked organization and a clear direction. Moreover, some Change MPs refused to vote for candidates endorsed by establishment parties. Those disagreements first centered on some refusing to vote for Michel Mouawad and Salah Honein. Divisions became more apparent when MPs Halimeh Kaakour, Elias Jarade, and Cynthia Zarazir voted for Issam Khalifeh instead of Jihad Azour, a move indicative of the divide between pragmatic and principled political approaches. Yaacoubian explained what led most Change MPs to vote for Azour:

“When we voted for Azour alongside the Lebanese Forces, Free Patriotic Movement, and others, it was to stand against the Hezbollah-Amal candidate. We saw that voting for anyone else would strengthen Hezbollah’s position, who wanted it to seem like Sleiman Frangieh was the sole realistic option … The responsibilities of an MP are different than that of a street activist – you must go for the lesser of two evils when there are only two legitimate candidates.” (TPI interview with Paula Yaacoubian, October 2023) 

Kaakour, whose reasoning differed, emphasized the importance of managing expectations by recognizing that their vote for Azour would not have made a difference, as no camp holds a majority in parliament. She explained:

“There was a difference in approaches between “realistic pragmatism” and an admittedly harder path that is trying to present a new and revolutionary approach inside parliament. My goal is to revolt against the logic of “pragmatism” and “realism”. I know the system is very strong, but I am not here to take part in the realities it created. That is why my approach in naming a prime minister or president will differ. I am here to stand out through a new approach, and I do not have a problem if it only aligns with two or three other MPs. If I can be pragmatic while sticking to my principles that is great, but I will not take part in the establishment’s game.” (TPI interview with Halime Kaakour, September 2023)

Daou elaborated on these strategic differences, arguing that the Change bloc primarily failed because they could not establish decision-making mechanisms by which members would abide:

“The two approaches that divided us were the following: One approach believes in “flipping the table” completely – as in rejecting to take part in the political game – and the approach we believe in is “dividing those at the table” – as in fomenting clashes within the establishment to get concessions. Of course, we remain closest to Change MPs in terms of principles and programs, but in practice we differ in political and strategic choices.” (TPI interview with Mark Daou, September 2023)

Ultimately, the failure of the presidential initiative and the collapse of the Change bloc divided Change MPs into three unofficial groups, albeit ones that still coordinate. One group comprises Kaakour, Jarade, and Zarazir, who refuse to outright align with one of two establishment camps in the Parliament. The second is made up of Khalaf, Saliba, Mneimneh, Hamdan, Yassin, and Yaacoubian, who are willing to make strategic concessions but without directly aligning themselves with sectarian parties. The third group of Daou, Douaihy, and Sadek have closer ties with March 14 parties:

“While we were not able to form an opposition bloc with “change MPs”, we did succeed in forming a bloc of 31 MPs that blocked parliamentary sessions, prevented the election of Frangieh, blocked the French presidential initiative of Le Drian, and is succeeding in the parliamentary committees… We still coordinate with 9 of the 12 Change MPs but we need a larger and coherent opposition bloc that we now have.” (TPI interview with Waddah Sadek, September 2023)

The Policy Initiative
Watch Part 2 of the video series where The Policy Initiative Nadim El Kak sits down with 8 Change MPs. In this part the MP’s share their experience in exercising their oversight role over the government. They tell us how they actively engaged in uncovering corruption, halting questionable government contracts, and advocating for reforms in the context of a care-taker government and the deepening crisis.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dwxd2AXLBZY&t=41s

The parliamentary bloc Sadek referred to meets twice each week and includes the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb, Renewal Bloc, and affiliated independents alongside Sadek, Daou, and Douaihy. According to Douaihy, the impetus for forming this bloc was preventing Hezbollah and its political allies from forcing through the election of their preferred presidential candidate. Daou said that the bloc is aligned on presidential candidates, the investigation into the 2020 Beirut Port blast, and investigating the Central Bank but differs regarding IMF negotiations, socioeconomic reforms, and the role of religious institutions within the state.

Ultimately, the absence of a common agenda hampers the effectiveness of the opposition movement. While some MPs call for a shift from “symbolic resistance” to tangible practices, others emphasize the importance of aligning on core issues, principles, and political visions before calling for unity. Yaacoubian went even further, arguing that some members of the opposition are driven by personal interests and are content being the leader of a small political “shop” instead of working towards broader, common goals. According to her, if such a political bloc cannot be formed, the legitimacy and sustainability of the opposition movement will remain at risk:

“It is a shame that this opposition has so far failed to form a front through which it can work in an effective and organized manner. Forming such a front is the most important goal we can accomplish because the approach of only strengthening my own little shop and pursuing personal goals will lead us to the abyss, not towards building a solid opposition.” (TPI interview with Paula Yaacoubian, October 2023)

As MPs become accustomed to the inner workings of parliament, some like Daou echo those sentiments by calling for a move away from symbolic acts of resistance toward more concrete goals:

“We only know how to oppose things, but we need to learn how to get things done as well. With that experience, we can move from slogans and opinions towards tangible practices that leverage the cracks within the existing system.” (TPI interview with Mark Daou, September 2023)

Mneimneh offered a similar takeaway, stressing that “little by little, [Change MPs] are learning where we have room for maneuvering and how to identify and navigate the system’s different cracks.” When asked how they manage to continue finding the resolve to fight, Change MPs not only focused on long-term strategy but also highlighted their numerous small accomplishments. For instance, Mneimneh listed multiple successes at the grassroots level of which he is proud:

“We were able to penetrate specific communities in Beirut that seemed impenetrable from the outside. They see us and see how our interests intersect despite some of our differences. This allowed us to find means of collaborating or finding common ground in environments considered sectarian strongholds. To me, this is the biggest accomplishment.” (TPI interview with Ibrahim Mneimneh, September 2023)

These small steps forward have helped MPs deal with the demoralization that has swept across Lebanese society due to the financial collapse, sabotaged uprising, Beirut Port explosion, and political paralysis in Parliament. Despite myriad challenges in contemporary Lebanon, Mneimneh expressed some hope – based largely on Change MPs’ accomplishments to date – that future opportunities will emerge:

“It is normal for us to experience ups and downs. We are currently taking a step backward and we must accept this reality. But we also must be ready for future opportunities and that requires continuing to work and organize until that moment comes. We were not ready in October 2019, so that opportunity slipped away, and people were disappointed in us. Next time, we must be ready.” (TPI interview with Ibrahim Mneimneh, September 2023)

Lebanon's Change MPs find themselves on a paradoxical path to political change: reliant on the state as an entry point for broader transformation, yet disillusioned by recurrent gridlock and the hegemony of sectarian parties. As they navigate the complexities of unity and discord, the opposition must grapple with the challenge of balancing immediate socioeconomic priorities with the long-term goal of radical political transformation. It also must contend with changing on-the-ground realities, especially the emigration of youth activists seeking better lives abroad because of unmet expectations at home. These realities raise several existential questions for the opposition movement centering on coherence between Change campaigns and how united a front the opposition can present once in office. Answering those questions will in large part determine whether Change MPs and sympathetic groups will finally manage to salvage the legacy of the uprising. If they are unwilling to engage in such an exercise, the new opposition’s capacity will remain limited, as established parties continue to hold the state and its people hostage.

 

1. The number of “change MPs” in parliament dropped to 12 when Rami Fanj lost his seat to Faisal Karameh six months after the vote, following a successful appeal to the Constitutional Council. The 12 remaining MPs are: Paula Yaacoubian, Elias Jarade, Yassin Yassin, Waddah Sadek, Mark Daou, Najat Saliba, Halimeh Kaakour, Michel Douaihy, Ibrahim Mneimneh, Firas Hamdan, Cynthia Zarazir, and Melhem Khalaf.

2. Paula Yaacoubian, Rami Fanj, Elias Jarade, Yassin Yassin, Waddah Sadek, Mark Daou, and Najat Saliba voted in favor of electing Skaff while Halimeh Kaakour, Michel Douaihy, Ibrahim Mneimneh, Firas Hamdan, Cynthia Zarazir, and Melhem Khalaf were against it. 

This article is in collaboration with Heinrich Böll Middle East office Beirut.

Additionally, please read the full report.

Entering the Lion’s Den Lebanon’s “Change MPs” in parliament