The Lebanese Left: The Possibility of the Impossible

The following was written by Hussein Yacoub for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in (RLF) 2013 and republished here with permission. It was written as part of RLF’s ‘Mapping the Arab Left’ publication which can be found here. Hussein Yacoub is a Lebanese writer and researcher. He has many critical political, social, and cultural contributions published by Lebanese, Arab, and foreign magazines and internet sites. He published the “534 Faqat La Ghayr” (535 only) study in 2009 and has written for the Arab Organization for Human Rights, the “Wahm al-Silm al-Ahli” (The Illusion of Civil Peace), Sharikat al-Matbouat lil Tibaa wa an-Nasher wa al-Tawzea, and “The Lebanese Left” for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (2013). (Bio written in the original publication)

Cover of the original publication (source)
Cover of the original publication (source)


The Lebanese left (1) defined as parties opposing the sectarian quota system in Lebanon since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, has been facing a crisis of presence and influence in the local political map. The absence of the left can largely be attributed to the country’s political system, which is governed by sectarian quotas from the day of Lebanon’s independence in 1943 and until present day. This system, which attempts to balance out religious balances in the country between Muslims and Christians, completely shapes all aspects of Lebanon’s government. This sectarian political system gives Christians a numerical majority (Fifty percent plus one) to Muslims in all state functions. This power structure was a leading contributor to the civil war which engulfed Lebanon for fifteen years between 1975 and 1990. Although the war started under the slogan of abolishing the sectarian system, in fact the war further exasperated sectarian divides in the country and created much more animosity between the various groups. In addition, it has further enhanced the numerical parity between Muslims and Christians which has given predominance to national and Islamic political parties with radical orientation and who are allies of the Syrian regime.

The Lebanese leftist parties, since the formation of the first party with social leftist ideas in the first quarter of the twentieth century under the name of the “People’s Party” (2) and later under the “Lebanese Communist Party,” up to the present day, were and still are struggling to change and topple the sectarian political system of the country. Unfortunately, the Lebanese Communist Party, for a plethora of reasons detailed below, has started to confuse the specificity of Lebanon, in terms of its sectarian composition, and the party’s regional and international alliances. The Lebanese left has remained restricted by the idea of dependency on socialist countries and their course of action, which was often been incompatible with internal national interests of Lebanon. This first started with the party’s support of the Popular Front government in France in the mid 1930’s. Through its support it gave blind approval to the annexation of the Iskenderun region to Turkey. In addition, like other leftist parties, it gave blind obedience to the Soviet Union, even after the Soviet Union had approved the partition of Palestine into two states and was found out to be funding many various detrimental groups in the Lebanese Civil War. This policy has made the Lebanese left, as opposition forces protesting the Lebanese sectarian political system throughout its long years, torn between various burdens, the most important one being a geographic one. Lebanon is geographically stuck in a turmoil fueled region which has seen many dozens of coups and military dictatorships since the second World War. This has made relations with neighboring countries tense, hostile, and temporal due to changes in internal alliances. Moreover, it has made the sectarian and ethnic groups that make up the fabric of the Lebanese society live in a state of permanent anxiety and fear. The second most important burden is the sectarian nature of Lebanon’s governing system with sects sharing power based on constitutional and electoral customary practice. This has made it very difficult for left-wing, non-sectarian, and secular parties to work in all the Lebanese areas.

1. The “Lebanese left” is a term used to indicate all leftist parties, movements, and groups. When necessary, the name of the party, movement, or group will be directly used.
2. The Lebanese Communist Party was officially founded on 24 October 1924, in the town of Hadath, south of Beirut. The first meeting was made up of union workers, scholars, academics, writers, and journalists who were active in their speeches and writings in promoting the ideas of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity, and who were familiar with the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and others and with the Russian Revolution of October 1917 led by Lenin and its first achievements.

The Left from its Beginnings and Until the Civil War

Lebanese factions were well acquainted with Marxist-Leninist ideology and international communism in the early phases of its modern history starting from the emergence of the modern Lebanese state in the 1920’s and throughout the various phases of state development before and after independence. The experience of the left in contemporary Lebanese political life can be divided into three phases. The first phase began with the emergence of Lebanon during the French mandate period and beyond up to the civil war in 1975. The second phase was the Lebanese civil war (1975 – 1990), and the third is the current phase, which began following the announcement of the cessation of hostilities between the contending parties and the start of the implementation of the National Accord Document [The Taif Agreement] in 1990 (3).

Communist and socialist ideas started to emerge in Lebanese political life during the establishment of the state of Lebanon in 1920. Similar to most Middle Eastern countries, the process started off as a natural result of the movement taking shape among intellectuals who were shaping what became a renaissance movement. The first stages involved some of the most important Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals such as Ahmad Fares al-Shidyaq, Farah Anton, Shibley al-Chmayel, George Jabbour, Nicola Haddad, Abdul Rahman al-Kawakibi, and Khairallah Khairallah. The Lebanese left, specifically the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) during the first phase, worked on the basis of trade union politics, seeking change by peaceful means. It fought a number of hard battles to achieve some social gains for the working class and the poor. The LCP was able to establish a number of trade unions, which were able to pass the first labour legislation, the Lebanese Labor Law, following the 1946 trade union strike. (4) The party also contributed to the establishment of the Lebanese University, and participated in the parliamentary elections of 1943, 1947, 1953, 1964, and 1972 which was the last one to be held until 1996 because of the Civil War. After the war, the LCP participated again in the elections but was not able to win any parliamentary seats because of the sectarian nature of the electoral system. In 2005, the Communist party won a single seat when the candidate of the Democratic Left, Elias Attallah, who nominated himself on the state’s lists, became a parliament member. It was then that the left parties and the secularists started demanding a proportional and a non-sectarian election law in order to break the hegemony over the parliament by sectarian parties. The sectarian system played a major role in pushing Lebanon into a civil war (5) because of key powerful political actors who were insisting and persisting on retaining and maintaining the sectarian quota system. It is for this reason that the Lebanese left, together with other parties and organizations of the National Movement (6) became engaged in the Civil War. There were other reasons for the Civil War as well, including the growth of exploitative capitalism, the deteriorating conditions of the middle class, student and labor protest movements, rampant price rises, and the emergence of new progressive social forces who saw in social change a remedy for Lebanon’s conditions and problems. In addition, there were many armed Palestinian groups who had taken control of various parts of the country and were causing many problems for the Lebanese population. Thus, the Lebanese left, with all of its parties and organizations, became engaged in the Lebanese civil war. It fought throughout the war utilizing its many capabilities and networks, and it participated in the battles like other Lebanese parties and organizations. Leftist parties and organizations saw their participation in the Civil War as an expression that armed struggle is the best form of national struggle. At the same time, the Lebanese left considered itself a defender of the Palestinian resistance against the ruling power. (7)

3. Farid al-Khazen, a joint work, “Tajribat al-Ahzab al-Siyasiya fi Lubnan,” (The experience of political parties in Lebanon),” The Lebanese Foundation for Permanent Civil Peace in collaboration with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, October 1995 (Beirut).
4. Muhammad Dakrub, “Juthur al-sindiyana al-Hamraa, Hikayat Nushu’al-Hizb al-Shuyouei al-Lubnani (The roots of the red oak tree, the story behind the emergence of the Lebanese Communist Party), Dar al-Farabi, Beirut, 1984.
5. For more information on this issue see: Theodor Hanf, Co-Existence in Wartime, Lebanon, Decline of a State and Rise of a Nation, (London: The Centre for Lebanese Studies in Association with I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd Publishers) first editions 1993, Ahmad Baydoun, Ma ‘alimtum wa-dhuqtum: Masalik fi al-harab al-Lubnaniyah, Arab Cultural Center, first edition 1990, (Beirut; Samir Kassir, The Lebanon War (Dar al-Nahar, Beirut) 2009; Samir Khalaf, Lubnan Fi Madar Al’Unf (Arabic Version of Civil and Uncivil Violence), (Dar al-Nahar), second edition 1998.
6. The Lebanese National Movement (LNM) was a front of socialist, pan-Arab, and leftist parties and organizations formed in 1969, but its actual start date was 1973. It is based on a joint program calling for political and economic reforms, as well as a clear stance in regards to Lebanon’s Arab identity. The front, headed by Kamal Jumblatt, was composed of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), the Lebanese Communist Party, the Communist Action Organization, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a Syrian-led Ba’ath Party branch and an Iraqi-led Ba’ath Party branch and the Independent al-Nasiriyeen Movement. At the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, LNM allied itself with the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and made many military achievements by that time which enabled it to control 70% of Lebanon’s territory. Soon, the LNM witnessed divisions on the backdrop of conflicts with Syria. The LNM received big blows from the Syrian miitary intervention in June 1976 and the assassination of Kamal Jumblatt in 16 March 1977. Walid Jumblatt, who became the head of the LNM after the murder of his father, presented himself as a partisan and Druze leader and sought to improve his relations with Syria. Later on, the LNM lost its role and in June 1982, the Movement was virtually dissolved after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
7. In the beginning of the Lebanese civil war, the term “Isolationist Lebanese forces” was widely used by the National Movement to describe Christian parties: the Phalangists and the National Liberal Party (al-Ahrar).

The Civil War and its Aftermath

It was only natural for the leftist parties, by joining the civil war, to change the organizational and partisan methods and working techniques that had prevailed ever since Lebanon’s independence. As a result, various leftist parties started to focus on mobilizing young people who could carry arms and participate in street battles. This led to a change in the structures of the left-wing political parties from trade union politics to military populism, and they became heavily influenced by the tactical rhetoric of various military leaders.

Quickly,the Lebanese Civil War took a new dimension. Although it began under the slogans of toppling the sectarian system and changing the social and economic realities, the fighting in the streets took a different path with the emergence of real militias benefiting from the war system, the internationalization of the crisis, and the intervention of foreign armies such as those from Syria and Israel. These forces had their own soldiers and militias who obeyed their orders. Therefore, after the first two years, the war over the shape of the political system became a sectarian civil war with the right-wing and left-wing Lebanese parties, which raged on another 15 years. The left did not understand, even after the end of the first two years, that the war it had fought under progressive titles and slogans was no longer a progressive war. Due to this, the left parties could not return to its pre-civil war status, and it remained during the 1980’s, a prisoner of the National Movement idea and its alliance with the Palestinian resistance, despite the collapse of both of them on the organizational as well as on the program level, after 1982.

The Lebanese left, especially after the PLO withdrawal from Lebanon in 1982, had tried with all possible means to limit its role to resisting the Israeli occupation in Beirut and in south Lebanon and kept some military skirmishes here and there with other militias. In this area, the Lebanese left carried out a big number of military attacks against the Israeli occupation forces and the South Lebanon Army (SLA) (8) during the years 1982-1985. However, internal in-fighting between the different militias was growing. This caused the Communist Action Organization in Lebanon, (9) a militia participating in the war in the mid eighties, to call for an end of the war for the first time since its eruption and called it a “futile war.” It also called for holding a national conference to stop the war and solve the dispute through diplomacy and dialogue. It started organizing demonstrations with the trade unions and the Lebanese Communist Party to help erase the sectarian lines which were exasperated by the war. Unfortunately, when the Syrian army entered Beirut in 1987 after fierce fighting between militias, the organization stopped its activities, started to demobilize its members, and then paid compensation until it gradually stopped its activities and ceased to exist. By doing so, the Communist Action Organization was the first party to announce that it had abandoned the war and was the first one to apologize to the Lebanese people for participating in it.

8. The South Lebanon Army (SLA) or the Lahd Army was a militia formed with the support of Israel from southern villages and units which split from the Lebanese army. This militia was established in 1976 by members of the Lebanese army in the city Marjayoun .The majority of its Lebanese members were Shiite Muslims and Christians who had had problems with the Palestinian resistance factions, who seized control over southern Lebanon at the time. After the Israeli invasion in 1978, known as the Operation Litani , the area controlled by this militia – formed of Israel’s agents – expanded because of Israel’s field control over these areas. This militia fought against Israel’s enemies, i.e., the PLO, the Lebanese resistance, the Lebanese communist party, the Murabitoun Movement, and Hezbollah, the new enemy.
9. The Communist Action Organization in Lebanon is a Marxist political party formed in 1970 through the merger of the Organization of Lebanese Socialists and Socialist Lebanon, whose members are affiliated with the nationalist- leftist stream, and the Arab Nationalist Movement. The organization played an important role in the Lebanese National Movement because its secretary-general, Muhsen Ibrahim, was the secretary-general of the movement. Its militias, together with the Movement’s militias, fought many battles against the Lebanese Front at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War. It maintained close relations with the Palestinian organizations with similar ideologies. It was among those who wrote the communique on the formation of the “Lebanese National Resistance Front” after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and it has participated in its operations. Today, it has no presence in the Lebanese politics.

Regional Transformation and the Changing Roles of Lebanese Actors

In the early 1980’s, the Lebanese left, specifically the Lebanese Communist Party and the Communist Action Organization, became resistance parties against the Israeli occupation. However, this change conflicted with local and regional transformations and the emergence of Hezbollah on the internal military front. Hezbollah was implicitly tasked to exclusively resist the Israeli occupation but the communist party was not able to well-understand this strategic transformation led by Syria and Iran. It continued to be obsessed by the idea of resistance without developing its methods and rhetoric with regard to the Lebanese situation and this has made the party, after the cessation of hostilities against Israel, susceptible to splits and disintegration. At the beginning of the 1980’s, while the Civil War was at its peak, the Middle East was changing and new ideologies were emerging. Iran, which did not have an active role at the beginning of the Lebanese war, became a key player when it emerged as an Islamic Republic after the 1979 revolution. (10) Shiite Iran started in the late 1970’s, after the success of the Islamic revolution, to establish a Lebanese Shiite force loyal to Iran and was able to penetrate the Shiite “Harakat al-Mahrumin” (the Movement of the Deprived) and the Amal Movement, founded by Imam Musa al-Sadr in the mid-seventies to stop the leftist tide within the Shiite community. This community, during the reign of President Fuad Chehab, was slowly integrated and employed in the Lebanese state institutions. For the first time, Chehabism was able to integrate wide sectors of Shiite citizens, who had been marginalized in the Lebanese political equation since the country’s independence because of their diminutive middle class and weak bourgeoisie and political representatives. This move led to the expansion of the Shiite middle class and its members became a party in the Lebanese political equation through leftist parties and other secular forces during the 1970’s.

Shortly after the success of the Islamic revolution, Iran was able to penetrate the Lebanese political landscape through the formation of Hezbollah as an Islamic resistance movement. The formation of the party coincided with the Israeli withdrawal from Beirut in 1982 and under conditions of armed resistance to the Israeli occupation which invaded Lebanon in the summer of 1982. As for Syria, which was a party in the Lebanese internal conflict, it became an important focal point for its future policies and its regional role in the region. As a result, it agreed to support Hezbollah, supply it with weapons, and re-draw the map of power in Lebanon in harmony with Syria’s vision of the international and regional transformations. As a result, Syria contained or marginalized, through a series of procedures, most of the Lebanese national forces (leftist and nationalist) which at that point had an active role in resisting the occupation since the early 1970’s. The marginalization of these forces was further strengthened by cutting down material and military supplies and by preventing them from exercising any military resistance to the occupation without the pre-approval of Syria. Moreover, many of the left’s party symbols such as Hussein Mroweh, Mahdi Amel, and others were assassinated. The isolation of these forces was further enhanced by the al-Taif agreement in 1990 which stated that all militias, with the exception of Hezbollah, should give up their weapons.

10. The revolution was unusual for the surprise it created throughout the world, the profound and rapid changes it produced, and the leading role of religion in the revolution. It was thought that the regime was well-protected by the army and the security apparatuses, on which it had spent huge amounts of money. It lacked many of the customary causes of revolution such as defeat at war, a financial crisis, peasant rebellion, or disgruntled military. Among the reasons for the revolution were the Shah’s relations with the West and with Israel, rampant corruption, and the increase in inequality in the country. The outcome was an Islamic Republic under the guidance of an 80-year-old exiled religious scholar, supported by interrupted but popular demonstrations according to reports on this topic.

The Lebanese Left at the End of the Civil War

When the war ended in the early 1990’s, the political and moral popularity of left-wing parties, especially the Communist Party and the Communist Action Organization, were at their nadir. The slogans they raised had fallen and the programs they adopted before the outbreak of the war were completely ignored by most of the population. The Communist Action Organization and the Lebanese Communist Party had become absent from the political scene because they had not gained a parliamentary seat in 1992 according to the al-Taif Agreement despite their participation in the national dialogue conference. The status of the Lebanese left, as represented by the Lebanese Communist Party in the post-civil war era had become, to a large extent, a party representing the Druze community in the state. Secondly, they became a part of the Ba’ath Party which became more of an intelligence party allied with the Syrian regime. Their roles can be summarized as follows:

First: After the Taif Agreement, which was sponsored by major powers and which Syria was supposed to implement on the political and security levels, the Lebanese left parties, had not been given any real role in the post-war political arena. In fact, they had been prohibited from exercising their role in resisting the Israeli occupation, a role which was initiated by the left forces in 1982. Their role has been strictly controlled and their weapons were confiscated together with the rest of the Lebanese militias’ weapons. The resistance role was exclusively given to Hezbollah.

Second: The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc played a major role in the decline of the Lebanese left-wing parties’ influence and the disappearance of many of them for good. The Lebanese Communist Party, since its inception and in the different phases of its development, had adopted the Soviet intellectual and organizational orientation and had established Marxism as its desired structure of governance. Moreover, the left-wing parties, by adopting Marxist-Leninist party organizational formula, deprived itself of political pluralism and democracy. Thus, the Lebanese left parties were deprived of the opportunity of creating a party more capable of dealing with the Lebanese situation specifically. As a result, the collapse of the Soviet Union has had a disastrous impact on the Lebanese left-wing parties because it was the sole model for their brand of Marxism and they lost much credibility by not having said model to point to.

Third: The involvement of the Lebanese left and its organizations in the Civil War has played a significant role in placing it under the mercy of regional actors who were providing financial and logistical aid to them. This has contributed to the militarization and the bureaucratization of the leftist organizations. Indeed, the involvement of the Lebanese leftist parties in the Lebanese National Movement, while each has kept its special relations with socialist countries and some Arab countries, has liberated these parties from the responsibility of providing resources for their organizations’ activities by relying primarily on party members as well as parties’ private investments. This has given party leaders a wide degree of independence from the party’s base, and it made these parties deal with their popular base on the basis of a semi-rentile mentality (the leadership provides for its popular base and its cadres). This involvement also made parties employ fulltime staff until it became difficult to find any party member who was not a full-time employee. This shift has created a “bureaucratic class” which has its own interests and visions for the future. There is no doubt that the involvement of the left parties in the Lebanese Civil War has contributed to the militarization of their organizations and to the inflated size of their military, security, administrative, organizational, and media apparatuses. Moreover, it has contributed to the consolidation of military and bureaucratic structures under which democratic practices cannot grow.

Fourth: With the end of the civil war, internal conflicts started to emerge within the remaining left-wing parties, namely the Lebanese Communist Party, on the party’s future orientation. Some had wanted to transform the Communist Party into a resistance party against the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon, and others wanted it to become an opposition party to the Syrian regime which was dominating Lebanese political life and to demand the implementation of the al-Taif Accords.

Fifth: The Lebanese authorities, after the al-Taif Agreement, refused to allow the Lebanese left to participate in power. Therefore, the left was not within the formation of the Lebanese parties who participated in the government similar to the other national movement’s organizations such as the Progressive Socialist Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party, which are all secular parties. Instead, they became part of the power structure along with Hezbollah and the Amal movement and took their share in public institutions and in the parliamentary, ministerial, and official departments.

Sixth: The Lebanese left was negatively affected by the repercussions of the Civil War with regards to the division of the official Lebanese University, which had played a significant role in the education of large segments of the Lebanese society’s poor who could afford private universities’ fees. The dominance of the de facto forces on the university’s campuses led to vast restrictions being put in place on leftist student activities, who before enjoyed an open and robust community to express their views. (11)

Seventh: One of the most important factors which has weakened the Lebanese left during the Civil War is the consolidation of sectarian attitudes in Lebanese society. This has created feelings of antipathy among Christians towards the left parties, which sided with the national forces (i.e. Muslim forces at that time) and supported the Palestinians against the Christians. Unofficial boundaries that divide Lebanon along sectarian lines have made it difficult for the leftist cadres to operate freely, mobilize people, and to clarify their positions on key issues to their opponents. Thus, the presence and activities of leftist parties during and after the war, have remained restricted to Muslim majority areas.

As a result, most leftist parties left the Civil War in an extremely vulnerable state and unable to recruit new members due to the entrenched sectarian divides in Lebanon. All leftist parties, and especially the LCP, have see depleted membership and trust bestowed upon them. Unfortunately, time has not done much to alleviate this situation for leftist parties as a whole.

11. Sana al-Jak, “Harb Ahliya Saghira wa Kabira dakil al-Hizb al-Shoyouei al-Lubnani” (Small and big civil war within the Lebanese Communist Party), Al-Sharq al-Awsat Newspaper, 8 February 2003, issue no. 8838.

The Mid-Nineties and Signs of the Emergence of a New Left

The post-war political system was formed by two main factions. First, a Syrian faction which took over the administration of Lebanon militarily and politically, and a Saudi faction, represented by the Saudi Lebanese businessman Rafik Hariri, who served as prime minister and handled the economic and reconstruction issues. The two factions administered the country through negotiations and understandings reached between them. The Syrian regime had fully handled the security and political process throughout the postwar period and created a police state which no one dared to challenge. It has supported the strengthening of the security forces and helped them in imposing their control on public and political life. It has also protected alHariri’s economic policies from accountability or opposition. The forces in power, which were allied and protected by the Syrian regime, worked hard to fragment the trade unions and control them through imposing parties and forces loyal to them. (12) They had established phantom unions, arrested some trade unionists and opposition figures, and stopped them from exercising their trade union activity (13) after they formed active forces to oppose Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri’s policies. Opposition to the ruling system in the mid 1990’s was growing and signs of an emergence of a new leftist stream were becoming clear. The General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL) during this period was still struggling against the dominance of parties backed by the Syrian security apparatus and was trying to mobilize people against al-Hariri’s policies. MP Najah Wakim, head of the People’s Movement, (14) began to attract young people because he was strongly against al-Hariri’s policies and has accused him of implementing a US oriented project in Lebanon. At private universities, some independent leftist groups started to emerge such as the “No Frontiers Group” at the American University of Beirut (AUB), the “Pablo Neruda Group” at the Lebanese American University (LAU), the “Tanyous Shaheen Group” at Saint Joseph University, and other groups in other universities. The Communist Party was moving along the sidelines of the CGTL’s movements and was preparing its members for the 1996 elections. Some intellectuals and academics started to take another path, the civil society path, and they established the “Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections” to monitor the election and ensure its integrity. Nineteen ninety-six was a landmark year whereby numerous leftist groups and parties started to show their potential. In that year, Lebanon witnessed another Israeli aggression. Tens of thousands of people living in the villages of south Lebanon fled their homes to safe areas to escape the violent Israeli shelling of the border villages and the southern suburbs of Beirut. People volunteered with relief agencies to help affected southerners as did the young leftists who joined the “People’s Relief Foundation,” a leading association in the health field founded by leftist and communist doctors at different stages of the civil war to fill the vacuum in health services in the south. This younger group formed the nucleus of leftist and student youth groups formed at a later stage.

The 1996 elections produced a political map which fully supports the guardianship system of the Syrian regime because most of the opposition Christian forces were reluctant to participate in the parliamentary elections. None of the candidates of the forces opposing the ruling system won in these elections. After the elections, there were some voices calling for the implementation of the al-Taif agreement and putting an end to the Syrian regime’s hegemony over Lebanon. This opposition was positively received by some of the leftist students and youth groups from among those who saw that it is important to distance the military from politics. During this newly created atmosphere, the other part of the country was witnessing the crystallization of the Christian Aounist youth, which opposed Syrian presence in Christian areas. This leftist student and youth environment was able to combine economic, social, and security issues and its supporters considered these issues to be completely interrelated. This is contrary to the approach of the Communist Party and Najah Wakim, who opposed al-Harir’s policies without approaching the dialectic relationship between al-Hariri’s economic project and the Syrian guardianship system. At this same phase, conflicts between the members of the Lebanese Communist Party flared up. The conservative stream, which was against the renewal and development of the party’s structure, controlled the partisan committees and was against any change in the Party’s internal and external policies. However, the “reformist” stream was demanding proportional representation which would allow representation of different streams and accept them in the party’s structure. The group also demanded an end to the party’s leadership interference in the active partisan sectors’ affairs (students, professional and trade unions) and the abolition of “democratic centralism,” which gave the Party’s political bureau the right to interfere in the sectors’ policies. For example, the political bureau was interfering in universities’ elections and was attempting to control the various parties through political pressure. In addition, the party leadership refused to engage in a battle with forces allied with the Syrian guardianship system which sought to control the trade unions and the CGTL. Some of the unionists refused to yield to the party’s decisions and they were fired (this has happened to a number of trade unionists who had tried to put an end to the dominance of these forces over the CGTL but their fate was dismissal). (15)

The Communist Party’s Reform and Democratic Forces, (16) and independent leftist groups, were among the first groups to advocate the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon and to call for an end to the security and intelligence control over the public political life. With time, reform and democracy forces, together with some youth and student groups, started to call for the creation of a new left-wing party which would give the issues of sovereignty, the state, democracy and the rule of law priority. This call was met with great acceptance and enthusiasm by the vast left-wing sectors. Some of these actors were members of the Communist Party, some had quit their political activism some time ago and some were leftist intellectuals who were tempted to join a new partisan experience. The call voiced by these groups was not a new one. It came as a result of lots of hard work in the opposition and conflicts within the Communist Party. The seeds of the “Democratic Left Movement” date back to the sixth National Congress of the Communist Party, which was held in 1992. Discussions were initiated on a number of issues such as the democratic path within the party, the needed for critical review of the party’s experience, its regional relations, its internal stances, and its political programs. This stream became more crystallized when it called for integration within the party’s ranks and later on when it called for introducing proportional representation in the party’s elections. It is for this reason that a working document was presented to the seventh Extraordinary National Congress bearing the signatures of nine party members. This document, in its content, was not different from other documents drafted by the leadership of the party and submitted to the Seventh Congress except in the “tactical differences in views with regard to the Lebanese-Syrian relations,” and the “proportional representation in the party’s leadership bodies.” It is for this reason that this document was closer to “a statement expressing disagreement with the party’s political and organizational approach” than anything else. (17)

The stream’s features have further crystallized in the political document presented to the Eighth Congress in the name of the “Democratic Left Movement” in October 1997. This stream clarified its opinion with regards to the party’s experience after the sixth congress and called for the deepening of democratic reform because it is the only entry point to solve the party’s impasse. It also called for making the eighth congress a founding congress. In February 2003, the “Democratic Left” stream presented a draft action plan on behalf of the “democratic reform forces of the Lebanese Communist Party” in order to address various issues. It announced its presence as a political framework outside the structure of the party in a document signed by the “Democratic Left Movement in Lebanon” in 2004. On the basis of this declaration, it held its founding congress on 17 October 2004 in the Estral Theatre in al-Hamra Street in Beirut. (18)

12. The General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL) was established on 25 April 1970. Its creation was considered one of the most important achievements of the labor movement in the 1970’s and 1980’s. During this period, the trade union movement fought a hard struggle which covered all productive sectors. However, when the Civil War started in 1975 and continued until 1990, it had a negative impact on the trade union movement. Sectarian divides and civil strife have deeply affected the trade union movement and reduced its role and effectiveness in a clear and tangible way. The situation remained unchanged even after the end of the war because the ruling system, after al-Taif, was aiming at achieving a major objective and that is the halting of the trade union movement, subjugating it, putting it under the control of sectarian leaders, making it completely unable to operate and ending its effectiveness. The state exercised an organized policy in this field by creating new unions on sectarian basis and which have no labor members to interfere in the CGTL’s elections and to impose their candidates. It has restricted the struggle of the labor movement and suppressed its movement freedom. The trade unions battle for freedom and preservation of their independence became a central issue during this phase.
13. In 1997, the army and the security forces did not allow unionists to enter the CGTL premises on the day set for electing a new CGTL leadership.
14. The People’s Movement is a Lebanese political party founded by former MP Najah Wakim in 2000 together with a number of leftist and pan-Arab figures.
15. Adib Abu Habib, a trade unionist and the former president of the General Confedration of Trade Unions (CGTL) in Lebanon, an exclusive interview with him in 2012 – see the full text of the interview in the “Yasar Lubnan”(The Lebanese Left) book by Hssein Yacoub, Rosa Luxemburg (Ramallah), 2013.
16. The communist party’s reform and democracy forces is an opposition group that has worked from within the party’s structure and it was the nucleus of the Democratic Left Movement.
17. See Shaukat Ashti, “Al-Hizb al-Shyouei al-Lubnani, al-Mawrooth Thaqeel wa al-Waqea Aleem wa Masar al-Dimocratiyah Aseer” (The Lebanese Communist Party, a heavy legacy, a painful reality and a difficult path to democracy,” on different websites:!msg/fayad61/1CIG0WWSPEo/autCrDH76f4J%5B1-25%5D
18. Ibid.

The Left and the Collapse of the Regional and International Consensus

On February 14, 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who represented international and regional consensus, was assassinated. However, the regional and international consensus that ruled Lebanon for fifteen years (1990 to 2005) disintegrated and turned into clashes after al-Hariri’s assassination.

His assassination was a declaration that the national reconciliation phase had ended and Lebanon had entered a new civil and sectarian conflict phase. Rafik al-Hariri, as described by Amro Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian writer, “did not only represent the international consensus on Lebanon’s ruling system, but also the international political and economic developments which have dominated the world since the early 1990’s. Al-Hariri came to power with the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the collapse of the Eastern bloc, and the start of a new wave of capitalization. This approach was characterized by states’ interventionist tendencies in the production and distribution processes and in the whole social engineering.” (19)

Lebanon provided the ground for this transformation. On the one hand, it had emerged from the Civil War with the help of Gulf capital, and it was this capital that has allowed the re-production of a Lebanese bourgeoisie class which is a strong supporter of this new wave. From the geopolitical perspective, Lebanon basically became the only country confronting Israel because almost all other Arab actors in the Middle East had adopted a peace option with Israel. This is not to mention the specificity of the Palestinian presence in Lebanon. Ideologically, Lebanon had become the place for one of the Islamic ideology conflicts with the West through confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran.

In this sense, the new Lebanon which was coming out of a civil war, was partly built in a neo-liberal way. The Lebanese state was required to revert back to sectarian, regional, and tribal groupings. Due to this, it was difficult to properly regulate and advance the economy for the benefit of the working class. During the two decades of the Civil War, there was no state in the traditional sense of the word. Political parties and sects were in control of the country’s economy and this has continued during the postwar phase. There were no investments made in necessary sectors of the economy and this has continued to plague Lebanese society. As a result, corruption and cronyism have become normal in Lebanon. Everybody is responsible for this result, including the Shiite parties and Hezbollah, the party which has monopolized the representation of the Shiite community since the beginning of the 1990’s. Civil groups established their businesses, which depended on the cross-border capital, and did not enter into confrontation with the militias. They dealt with them as a reality which further advanced corruption, and one of the pillars of these processes is the understanding between former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. This reflects the state of regional understanding as a whole. (20)

Internally, the assassination of al-Harriri has had a negative impact on Lebanon. After the assassination of Hariri, the country became divided into two parties. The first party accused the Syrian regime of being involved in al-Hariri’s assassination. Among the strongest advocates of this accusation were the traditional Christian forces rejected by the state since the end of the Civil War, such as the Phalangists, the Lebanese Forces, and the Aounist groups who found in the assassination an opportunity to return to the political arena. These were joined by the Sunni masses which Prime Minister al-Hariri belonged to, as well as the Progressive Socialist Party led by Walid Jumblatt, a prominent Druze leader. The second party is composed of forces close to the Syrian regime such as the Ba’athists, the Pan-Arabists, the Syrian Nationalists, the Shiite Amal movement, and Hezbollah, led by its Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah during this time had much support from various sectors of the Lebanese populated due to its strong fighting against Israeli occupation which ended in 2000, mostly due to Hezbollah resistance operations. In addition, Hezbollah is primarily backed by Iran and Syria.

The conflicts and divisions within the Lebanese left continued even after the assassination of al-Hariri. The Lebanese Communist Party and the People’s Movement did not change their rhetoric. They kept repeating that the priority should be given to resisting the “neo-liberalism” of Rafik al-Hariri and supporting the resistance and protecting its weapons. For them, the assassination was a conspiracy against the resistance and an opportunity to accuse the resistance movement of the assassination. The other left, such as the Democratic Left and some intellectuals, were convinced that al-Hariri’s neo-liberalism cannot be resisted without the restoration of Lebanese sovereignty which was stolen by the Syrian regime, the withdrawal of its military forces, the implementation of the al-Taif Accords, and the removal of security forces from internal politics. This other left was convinced that the assassination of al-Hariri occurred because he opposed the Lebanese and Syrian security services’ control over the state, and it accused the Syrian regime of masterminding the assassination.

Thus, conflicts between the leftists, who suffered from a vertical split, culminated in the creation of the Democratic Left Movement. The Lebanese left held many different opinions regarding many heated internal and external issues. They did not agree on political orientations and they charged each other with treason, betrayal, and perversion against class struggle. These differences have made each party a very heated affair. The Communist Party and the People’s Movement, with its pan-Arab orientation, tended to support Hezbollah because they were convinced that it is important to protect the resistance and its weapons against Israel and the West. On the other hand, the democratic left, indep e ndent leftist groups, and communist opposition (21) within the Lebanese Communist Party and some leftist intellectuals demanded an end to the “military rule,” and the redeployment of the Syrian army in accordance with the al-Taif Agreement. This left began to coordinate with March 14 forces, especially with young people and students. Student and youth movements, for the first time since the pre Civil War era, started to take place in coordination with independent leftist groups, Aounist (those affiliated with Michel Aoun who joined March 8 after 2005) students, and the Lebanese Forces.

19. Amr Abdel-Rahman, “Al-Azma al-Lubnaniyah wa Khitabat al-Yasar al-Masri: Aselat al-Imperialiyah wa alMuqawama wa al-Taharur al-Watani” (The Lebanese crisis and Egyptian left discourse: Questions of imperialism, resistance and national liberation), al-Busala magazine, 18 October 2009.
20. Ibid.
21. Even after the creation of the Democratic Left, some opponents of the Communist Party’s leadership continued to exist within the party such as the “Salvation Movement” and some student and youth groups.


When the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia ad Egypt, the Lebanese left as well as other Arab leftist parties, who were subjected to arrest, exile, and who were not allowed to participate in any political activities during the reigns of the ousted regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, all welcomed the uprisings. Once the protests reached Syria and became vulnerable to regional and international interventions, the Lebanese left became divided again. One can also say that the Arab leftist parties have also become divided. Once the US and its allies in the region announced their support for protests demanding the overthrow of the Syrian regime, the traditional leftist forces, such as the Lebanese Communist Party and some pan-Arab leftists, said that popular protests in Syria are fabricated and they are an indication that there is a conspiracy against “resistance.” The remaining democratic left and some journalists and intellectuals felt that “if the revolution in Syria is plotted, we agree with this plot.” By taking the regime’s stance, the Lebanese leftists repositioned themselves according to the 2005 lines and the subsequent divide on interpreting the situation and taking stances.

With their interpretation of the current Syrian crisis, the two leftist groups were not able to distance themselves from the impacts of the al-Hariri assassination crisis and its repercussions on the Lebanese political scene. The left, as represented by the Communist Party, the Peoples’ Movement, and some radical leftist groups did not move away from their traditional view that Rafiq al-Hariri was part of the American project and his assassination is nothing but a conspiracy to end the resistance and disarm it in order to serve Israel and undermine the Syrian regime’s resistance to the West. The other left, the “Democratic Left,” sided with the rebel forces in Syria and the Lebanese intelligence services. The Democratic Left Movement joined a broad alliance to demand the disarmament of Hezbollah and to find al-Hariri’s assassins and hold them accountable. For the first time in the history of the Lebanese left, the Democratic Left was able to win a single parliamentary seat by listing the name of its candidate and the secretary-general of the movement, Elias Atallah, on the March 14 forces’ list in the city of Tripoli. This parliament seat would not have been won had it not been for the efforts made by Samir Kassir, (22) a writer and historian, who called the March 14 Forces to list the name of the movement’s candidate on its lists. The Movement has been able to present to March 14 its candidate as a military commander who resisted the Israeli occupation in the 1980’s. In other words, March 14 accepted the Democratic Left Movement’s candidate to reward it for its role in the independence uprising of 2005 and because of the history of some of the movement’s members in resisting the Israeli occupation. It did so to challenge Hezbollah and the March 8 forces accusations that the March 14 forces are agents of the United States and Israel. Thus, the Lebanese leftists sided with the March 14 and March 8 groups although conflict between these two March movements had taken a sectarian dimension from the first moment of the assassination of Hariri and during the subsequent increase in sectarian incitement. As a result, two leftist groups emerged, the resistance left which supports March 8 (23) and the modest left which supports March 14 forces. (24) The two left groups were not able to come up with a real political project which moved beyond sectarian lines.

The Communist Party continued with its romantic discourse, and continued to use its slogans of “resistance,” “anti-imperialism,” and other terms but without translating their discourse into concrete political practices. This is the case of the Communist Party. The remaining members have become nostalgic for resistance and the Civil War era. This means that the Communist Party today is facing a multifaceted crisis. It has lost its aim, it has disintegrated, and its leaders continue to say that it is an independent non-sectarian and democratic party which seeks to bring about change. This seems to be an attempt by the leaders to assert that the Communist Party is still an active and relevant force in Lebanese political life today. Critics of the Lebanese Communist Party say that it suffers from the burden of having to make decisions and taking a leadership role. It seems as if the goal of the party is to let time pass in order to preserve its current fragile status on the national forces and parties’ map. It was not able to develop its leftist ideology to accommodate the global change in a manner consistent with the Lebanese situation, much like other leftist forces in the world. (25)

This is how the Lebanese Communist Party developed. The Democratic Left Movement, on the other hand, did not succeed in maintaining its organizational structure for more than two years (2004 to 2006), although it still exists by name. The Democratic Left movement, even before its inception in 2004, when it was an opposition movement within the Communist Party together with some youth groups, had two demands. First, the liberation of the south from Israeli occupation which was later achieved by Hezbollah in 2000. Since then, the Democratic Left has been unable to provide any distinct solutions for the Lebanese crises other than its support of participation in the meetings of the “General Secretariat of the March 14 forces.” This participation means nothing to the Lebanese people. In addition, after the July 2006 war, the movement split between those who accuse Hezbollah of fabricating the war and those who supported resistance and opposed the movement’s blind submission to the March 14 forces. Ever since then, the Movement has become completely absent in political life. The presence of the movement’s MP in the parliament could not give it any momentum, and in fact, it might have done harm to the movement. The final blow to the Democratic Left Movement came when it approved the nomination of another member, Amin Wehbeh, to the parliament on the condition that he nominate himself on the lists of the Future Bloc, led by Saad al-Hariri. By doing so, the movement disappeared and did not exist any more except in name. This movement, which many of the Lebanese left saw as a model of a new left capable of coping with global, regional, and local changes, has not been able to accomplish anything tangible. On the contrary, it has contributed to the disintegration of some youth and student groups who have worked hard since the mid 1990’s against the neo-liberal reforms and the rentier economy, as represented by al-Harirism.

There are some emerging civic groups and trade unions such as the “My Nationality is a Right for me and My Family Campaign,” (26) and “the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform” (27) with a semi-leftist agenda, but these groups work in separate sectors and do not complement each others’ work. From time to time they try to highlight some of the legal issues, such as women’s rights, an issue of concern to many civil society institutions and associations, and the right to work and to form associations, an issue highlighted by the Trade Union Coordination Committee (TUCC). (28) Today, TUCC is fighting fierce trade union and labour battles against the government, and there is solidarity among its members. It has tended to keep a distance from political parties. There are also some leftist youth and student groups, which are still working in universities and in their areas but without coordination among them. Under the prevailing conditions, these groups have not, until now, been able to provide a framework for their activities within an integrated opposition that coordinates between all of its components to come out with a clear working paper which specifies the mechanisms of action for the next phase. Dalal al-Bizri, a Lebanese sociologist, wrote about the makeup of the Lebanese leftists under the title: “Leftists and Former Leftists.” (29) The article came as a response to a call launched recently by Walid Jumblatt, one of the Lebanese sects feudal leaders and the head of a left-wing party. On the occasion of the Arab revolutions in general and the Syrian revolution in particular, Jumblatt called for the revival of the Lebanese left. In her response al-Bizri raised the following question, “Who is the leftist today? What does it mean to be a leftist today?” She added by saying that “leftists are a human repertoire, nothing holds its members together other than personal hatred. They are a group that lacks any party solidarity spirit or any kind of fraternity or similarity. As for their ideology, it lacks harmony and everyone has his interpretations of it… It is a failed doctrine, especially when it comes to its actual implementation be it in the form of Putinism (relative to Putin, the Russian leader), savage capitalism led by the one-party, or the lack of answers by the Europeans on the challenges of financial capitalism. The spoils, dominating the minds of the people, is close to zero, especially with the start of an Islamic era supported by the masses’ enthusiasm. Thus, no party spirit, no doctrine, and no spoils. So what do we have? Some nostalgia for the good old days of youth…But also a legacy, an accumulated cultural modernity legacy which under its banner many personal and collective experiences have been fought and these need to be reviewed now by those who are preoccupied with what is happening now. It is a revolution. And the revolution should be also against what was in the past a revolution and today became flabbiness and aging but not an early one.”

With all these aforementioned issues, one easily concludes that the Lebanese left is facing a multifaced crisis. There is no clear agenda for nation-building practices or how to integrate various sectors into a left movement. This is further exasperated by regional and international circumstances which make the Lebanese state very fragile. Lastly, sectarian divides have only become worse since the end of the Civil War and these plague Lebanese life across all spectrums.

22. Samir Kassir (1960–2005), a Lebanese journalist and professor, was born to a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother. He was a history professor at Saint-Joseph University, and he also taught at the Sorbonne University in Paris. He is one of the preachers of democracy and an opponent of Syrian intervention in Lebanon. He carries French nationality. In 2004, he participated in the establishment of the Democratic Left Movement. On 2 June 2005, he was assassinated by a car bomb and the perpetrators are still unknown.
23. The term “Axis of Resistance” was used to describe countries that oppose the US policy in the Arab world and support Arab national liberation movements. This axis includes Syria, Iran, and some resistence movements such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine (Hamas has now joined the axis closer to Egypt, Qatar and Turkey). There are many parties that oppose this axis and different opponents have different reasons for their opposition. Most of the opponents of this axis believe that this axis, extending from Tehran to Beirut, wears the mask of resistance to conceal other aims. They believe that Hezbollah and Syria, supported by Iran, are entities acting to achieve the interests of the Iranian leadership. Some of the opponenets believe that there are sectarian and ideological reasons behind the existence of this axis. They believe that this axis was created to confront the Sunni Muslims, spread Shiism, and restore the glories of the Safavid dynasty. There are also those who oppose this axis because they line up behind the moderation axis supported by the US and Western countries.
24. The term “Axis of Moderation” was given by the United States to Arab states which oppose Iranian policies. These include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states. These countries have excellent relations with the West and the US in particular. They call for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause and for an end of the Iranian intervention in the Arab region.
25. Sana al-Jak, “Harb Ahliya Saghira wa Kabira dakhil al-Hizb al-Shoyouei al-Lubnani” (Small and big civil war within the Lebanese Communist Party), Al-Sharq al-Awsat Newspaper, 8 February 2003, issue no. 8838.
26. “My Nationality is a Right for me and My Family” Campaign grew out of a previously implemented program linking gender and information. It is a regional initiative launched in 1999, aimed at capacity building in the field of gender analysis through training transformational (envisages events change), research, communication, and advocacy. The main objective of the campaign is to contribute to the achievement of full citizenship for Arab women through the reform of citizenship laws and the full implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
27. Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform is an alliance of civil society associations concerned by the electoral reform. They were founded in 2006 ahead of the draft electoral law proposed by the National Electoral Commission headed by former Minister Fouad Boutros. Today, it includes more than 85 associations spread all over Lebanon. It has been working on reforming the electoral systems, namely the parliamentary and municipal elections. Since 2006, the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform has been able to introduce the electoral reform concept into political life. It was capable of influencing the general debate on reforming the last municipal and parliamentary election laws. The Campaign lobbied for the adoption of a large number of reforms within the parliamentary election law 2008/25. In addition, it was seeking to amend the municipal and Ikhtiyary election law. It prepared a comprehensive draft law and submitted it to every minister and MP, urging the Parliament to adopt it. The campaign, since its inception, organized a large number of meetings with the various age groups in all Lebanese areas, especially with students and young people where it worked to spread awareness of the election in their classrooms to help put pressure on political parties and forces in the approval and adoption of reforms.
28. The Lebanese Trade Union Coordination Committee (TUCC) is composed of six trade unions, namely: the private school teachers trade union, the public secondary school teachers trade union, the public elementary school teachers trade union, the vocational education teachers trade union, the Lebanese University professors trade union, and the public sector employees trade union (which includes all state departments). Today, the TUCC constitutes the most prominent trade union movement, and it has almost become the single movement after a major split with the CGTL. TUCC continued for a long time to work within the framework of the CGTL but decided to walkout because of the CGTL did not abide by the wage ceiling agreed upon when negotiating a raise in the minimum wage in the private sector with the government this year. This divorce between the TUCC and CGTL took place after several battles which they have fought side by side against the the various governments, regardless of their affiliations. Politics has always been able to manipulate trade union movements, but today it stands powerless while confronting a coherent committee that works on demand away from the political pressure to demand the approval of the wage scale.
29. Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, Sunday, 29 January 2012, Issue No. 4241.

2 thoughts on “The Lebanese Left: The Possibility of the Impossible

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