April 2, 2020
What determines if a society is democratic or not? Is it the existence of three distinct branches of government? The separation of power between the branches? The text of the constitution? The presence of press? The availability of rules of civil and criminal procedure to ensure a fair trial? The possibility to voice one’s criticism of the political class? Economic liberty? Individual liberties? Although appealing, these answers fail to capture a fundamental premise: the rule of law. This principle, although indispensable to any democratic nation, is wanting in many countries, namely in the MENA region. It essentially purports to submit everyone, those holding government positions by the same token as those governed, to the authority of law and elevates it as the ultimate adjudicator and guarantor of discipline and rights.
Enshrined in this definition is the inherent assumption that the word of law derives from the power and common will of the people who form the nation and delegate representatives with the limited mandate of responding to and are accountable towards their principals. A democratic society is essentially one where the people create the law and where, consequently, public reprisals are the source of both, reforms and accountability.
Taking the example of Lebanon, without falling in the abyss of repeating outcries against the war lords still dominating the political class or against the unchecked series of renewal of congress mandate, it is only recently that lobbies and civil society movements have been able to pierce through the parliament and achieve progressive reforms. In a society where fake promises on the evenings of elections gain unconditional support from the public, the struggle has been real to overcome the power of politicians. A leading example of the new wave of change is ‘Legal Agenda’, a non-governmental, non-profit organization based in Beirut and which main mission is to make the law more readily accessible to citizens. It has been at the forefront of LGBT rights in the country and has successfully impacted the judicial system within the span of a few years, defying a legal system profoundly hostile and penalizing of LGBT rights. In fact, in November 2018, a Beirut court of appeal decision marked the culmination – if not the beginning – of an era of relentless fight and efforts in order to de-penalize homosexual relations, and protect the privacy of all people, on the basis of equal dignity before the law. The organization has also been actively cooperating with the Harvard Human Rights clinic on several projects involving the Arab region globally.
Another prominent lobby movement is ‘Kulluna Irada’, an activist organization for political reform, founded by Lebanese citizens both in Lebanon and abroad, and engaged in their commitment to a better state. Their goals consist of increased transparency and accountability. For instance, one of their ongoing calls for reform is enforcing the right to have access to information that concerns the public. Throughout many workshops they organize, they purport to nurture and inform the policy debates about socio-economic issues, tackling recent challenges such as the budget reform. ‘Sakker Dekkene’, another Lebanese NGO, further quintessentially stands as evidence of youth optimism and citizenship engagement rooted in the shared dream of achieving political prosperity. Its goal consists of washing away corruption on all levels, including benign ones. Operating on the established fact and studies indicating that corruption is the core and ultimate hurdle preventing Lebanon’s development, such an NGO is vital for economic improvement.
Cynics will undoubtedly highlight the stagnant results stemming from these initiatives, or the improbability of any real change in light of the past decades of repetitive political failures. However, the salient take-away from the above is the underestimated foundational power of the people that should prevail over temporary figures and small-scale hindrances.
Today more than ever, at the peak of a national crisis – not to mention a regional one –, all stakeholders bear the burden of joining hands in thinking above and beyond to improve the country and make it more attractive for the young generation to find opportunities in. Less devotion towards politicians is required, and more respect for the country itself is a critical step towards structural reforms and upholding the rule of law. Civil society movements, although hostile against the current political tides, will nevertheless stand by all those who are willing to engage in constructive debates over the economy, labor rights, human rights, the environment, and others. Copying Lincoln, the government should be one by the people, for the people and of the people.