Secular Political Communication in Lebanon
Overview of Political Communication in Lebanon
It is almost impossible to trace back a certain political communication scheme pursued by the political class in Lebanon. As the domestic conflicts varied over the years, politicians adjusted their public discourse via a custom made approach primarily based on sectarian and confessional paradigms. Political communication in Lebanon is seldom based on a clear agenda or a coherent national vision. Direct political communication between officials and citizens stem from a practice of clientelism, which mostly arises around the election period. Usually, it is practiced in order to preserve the sustainability of the leaders’ political careers.
Lebanon was electorally detached for two decades (1972 to 1992) as the civil war shattered the nation amid this era. The parliament extended its tenure indefinitely as long as the security and political circumstances prohibited any legislative procedure. Likewise, the country is yet to witness a general parliamentary election since 2009 due to the alibi of governance labyrinth caused by security and political “instability”, which falsely entailed the political leaders to renew their electoral reign for two consecutive terms until June 2017.
Overlooking constitutional deadlines and mandates, is definitely paralyzing the remnant of state institutions. These chronic factors contribute to widen the gap between political leaders and citizens, especially as far as political communication is concerned. Only elections are used as a “platform” to disseminate any given political message, which is already distorted due to its production along rigid sectarian headlines. Typically, the Lebanese general public has an increasing sense of disengagement in the communal life since its social and political rights are considered as priceless; for instance, the insignificance of their voting and electoral practices. Therefore, appropriate tools to hold officials accountable are lacking, particularly in a political environment where the communicated content conveyed is manipulated, along with a limited access to public information.
The most serious concern is the fact that media outlets are dominated by sectarian tycoons, who contribute to frame a politicized communication environment that undermines the national interest. This skewed system offers no incentive to citizens to question their political leaders, and simultaneously acts as a safe haven for politicians not to pursue a transparent and candid communication channels with the public.
“The communication system is uniquely intertextual owing to its marked inherent historical and religious roots, and its confessional political regime (covering a series of powerful actors such as the political parties and their media outlets), and this is heightened by intense media scrutiny” (Khayyat, 2013).
Interpreting Communication of Confessionalism
As a general political doctrine, Lebanon is known for its sectarian consociationalism modus operandi. Historically being the central attributes of public governance, feudalism and clientelism have curbed the emergence of a trustworthy and effective political communication. Traditionally, religious figures, feudalistic leaders and eminent businessmen with political affiliations, all have shaped the domestic political life which eventually influenced the public communication spectrum.
Political communication in Lebanon can be best characterized as emotional due to its confessional and sectarian content. Subjectivity prevails when it comes to shape a common public interest and has led to a clear polarization of national belonging. In a panel discussion about Political Communication and Francophonie, Moukarzel pointed out first that political communication in Lebanon is somewhat chaotic, and elements with a negative connotations, like threats and intimidations, are often exchanged; secondly that this kind of communication becomes a multipolar catalyst which stimulates and calls at citizens based on their religious affiliation at the expense of national identity and belonging.
A decade ago, specifically back in March 2006, a National Dialogue Conference was initiated to tackle controversial issues such as Hezbollah’s military arsenal, the weapons of Palestinians outside refugee camps, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and other critical national issues. The sessions were halted and jeopardized upon several incidents across the years: for instance, the July 2006 war waged with Israel, the withdrawal of March 8th Ministers (specifically ministers pertained to the Shi’a sect) from the 2006 Cabinet, the May 2008 first internal armed clashes since the civil war (between Hezbollah and limited loyal supporters to the government) which ultimately was concluded by the Doha accord, the resignation of March 8th ministers from the cabinet in January 2011, at the time headed by former Prime Minister Saad El Hariri, the breachment of the Baabda Declaration in May 2013, among other political face-offs. With the Presidential seat being vacant since May 2014, a non-convening parliament and a paralyzed cabinet, the National Dialogue Conference continues to get revitalized yet almost none of the agreements was eventually implemented. Earlier this September, the conference was suspended once again due to the lack of any tangible progress and the upsurge of arguments about sectarian rights held by the Lebanese political parties. Above and beyond, the political crisis intensified amid talks of an ongoing Presidential vacuum, absence of a new electoral law, disagreeing on administrative decentralization and the demands to revise the Taef Accord (drafted back in 1989 to ensure that the rights of various confessions are preserved and to put an end to the Lebanese civil war) which is yet to be fully implemented and practiced.
The government’s apathetic and nonchalant approach towards building a decentralized administration of governance, has led to the regressive development of social, economical and political issues. This power vacuum has been filled with a sectarian communication in disguise, as promoters of such discourse correlate political texualities (which can be best considered as the elements that differentiate the analyzed content) to the fact that Lebanon is a distinctive case, in which sectarian diversity ought to be maintained to safeguard the consociational power-sharing nature.
Drafting a national unified discourse
When it comes to political communication, Lebanon is definitely situated in a regression phase amid the lack of a national unified discourse. Public opinion vis-à-vis domestic politics fluctuates as result of the factors that contribute in shaping the conveyed messages, such as sectarianism, feudalism and clientelism. These interlinked notions heavily defied the creation of a political communication guidebook due to the nonexistence of an authentic agenda, reliable content and most importantly of a clear vision and mission statement of politicians.
Drafting a national unified discourse has become an imperative duty. Convenient advocacy plans accompanied with effective policy briefs are vital to kick off a nationwide standardized communication. Without dwelling into the exhaustive technical mechanisms, key elements of a valuable communication strategy primarily revolves around the following pillars: first to identify clear national objectives; s secondly, to classify communication channels and recognise the exact target audience and participant groups; last but not least to set up a Monitoring & Evaluation scheme which provides a comprehensive approach to assess the results of the strategy, measuring its success rate, both quantitatively and qualitatively.
Secular Political Advertising: A remedy to avoid a failing state
Demoralizing the essence of a democratic political life has reached its utmost levels. Cohesiveness, objectivity and contemporary approaches are all still farfetched attributes of what the state necessitates in order to get back on course of a proper governance, and escape from its deadly bottleneck
Meanwhile, a new dynamic, which dictates a whole new communication mindset, has become more obvious in Lebanese politics: from a closer point of view, the”generation gap” is widening more than ever before, and thi si affecting the construction of different perceptions among those considered the “civil war generation” versus the “post civil war generation”. Arguably, the “post civil war generation” has a sort of a secular orientation in terms of civil rights and public aspirations, somehow distinct from the stiff sectarian affiliations pertained to previous generations.
A secular political advertising could prove to be a remedy to avoid a failing state. Meanwhile, according to the Fragile States Index 2016 conducted by the Fund For Peace, Lebanon ranks 40th globally with a “High Warning” status. The study involves socio-economic trends alongside political and military trends. Demographic pressure, group grievance, legitimacy of the state, public services among other reflective indicators are taken into account. The vast majority of the factors are alarming and require immediate solutions.
The Taef Accord which is yet to be thoroughly executed for more than two decades, stated that post-civil war Lebanon must progress towards eradicating political sectarianism. Unfortunately, the evasion from establishing a clear political discourse has blocked the opportunity for infiltration of secular beliefs into the civil society. It is time to listen to the vast majority, those who are neither associated to clientelistic networks nor to sectarian parties. With time, Lebanese secular aspirations might confirm to be a new national alternative; particularly this faction is highly perceived as the “neutral” side, which could act as a decisive electoral power in the country. Rather than being triggered by religious and ethnic instincts, by introducing a fresh and innovative communication culture, citizens are better informed and empowered regarding national interests and communal well-being.
It might be a bit too late for politicians to reevaluate their national agenda, as citizens outside sectarian and clientelistic attachments, have completely lost hope and trust in the political class and are relentlessly looking upon meritocratic leadership based on genuine competencies and qualified credentials.
Politicians ought to show readiness to bow to the democratic principles such as accountability, and aim to establish a clear public communication with the citizens based on reciprocal dialogue and feedback. Such efforts would brand and advertise a political life far from sectarianism and corruption, and would render all parties responsible stakeholders to produce a sustainable state-of-affairs model.
MA in International Affairs – (Lebanese American University)
Khayyat T. (2013), Political Communication in the Age of Dissemination: Media Constructions of Hezbollah. Retrieved September 28, 2016.
The Fund For Peace (2016), Country Data & Trends. Lebanon in 2016. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
Unileb (2016), Political Communication and Francophonie, Panel Discussion. Retrieved September 26, 2016.