Doing politics differently

From Alert's 2011 Annual Report

"Individuals have to find the courage to say what they fear to say."

Power-sharing is something of an art form in Lebanon. Many political parties are based on religiously-defined sectarian identities in a system dating back to an unwritten “National Pact” agreed between the Christian and Muslim communities at the dawn of Lebanon’s independence in 1943. The President of the Republic is by convention a member of the Maronite community. The Prime Minister has traditionally been a member of the Sunni community. And the Speaker of Parliament, long considered the third-most powerful position in Lebanese politics, comes from the Shia community. Every government is therefore a complex coalition.

This may be necessary in a deeply divided society but it makes it difficult to address issues that directly affect the safety and quality of life of its citizens – for example, the availability of small arms, the inflexibility of the political system, consequent corruption, and women’s political exclusion. The political parties can only resolve these issues if they talk with each other and ultimately work together. That’s what our work in Lebanon is about.

One problem in Lebanon has been the limited opportunity for genuine dialogue. But in 2011 we brought 60 youth leaders together for a seminar in Beirut on conflict and power-sharing, with international speakers. We set up a training workshop on communication skills in which 20 members of youth wings of political parties participated. And we took youth leaders on a study trip to South Africa that was followed up by a workshop in Beirut to discuss and analyse what they had learned and what they got out of the trip that was relevant to Lebanon.

How did we get there? It’s a slow and not always easy process. In 2009 we began to nurture a dialogue among representatives of the youth wings of Lebanon’s 19 political parties, some of whom may be Lebanon’s leaders of tomorrow. The effect is to create a safe space in which they can begin to tackle the more contested issues which divide them. We refer to this practice as “doing politics differently” – because they are doing it through dialogue.

The aim is to help the group deal with difficult issues. For this, individuals have to find the courage to say what they fear to say. This creates tension and conflict which the group has to work through as it identifies topics for discussion and develops practical ideas to bring about real change.

“A lot of debate was triggered by the idea put forward for a Beirut-based conference on the topic of youth in politics in the Arab world, which was to be planned by the party representatives. They thought that it had the potential for creating conflict amongst them; each would vie to bring their own regional networks into the process, thus undermining the idea of doing politics differently. In the end, they decided to cancel it. We asked whether it could be replaced by something else. They put forward the idea of having a dialogue with their Palestinian counterparts in Lebanon".
Reflections of an Alert staff member

Suggestions have to be aired, tested, and possibly replaced by another idea. Gradually the participants are moving towards more controversial topics. It is their capacity to deal with these that will ultimately indicate their abilities as political and community leaders to build and sustain peace.

Alert’s role as an outsider or third party combines facilitation of the meetings, advice and practical assistance. Sometimes, participants want us to take the lead. To get this right, we have to keep recalibrating our role so the process both remains theirs and maintains momentum.

These shifts happen slowly and there are often setbacks. The reward is when there is a sense that overall the process is moving forward. In Lebanon, the dialogue participants are gradually taking more of a lead, using the space created by Alert to discuss more difficult issues, instead of either avoiding them or going straight into public confrontation over them. In this informal, private space Lebanon’s young political leaders are having real conversations, challenging each other’s as well as their own positions. This continues to be difficult and requires courage on the part of all involved – the courage to trust and the courage to listen. For Alert, we never stop learning about what is involved in facilitating dialogue.

A recent comment by one of our staff members perhaps sums up the conflicting feelings we often have as peacebuilders privileged to be working with those trying to end the violence that eats away at their communities:

“Crossing the city on my way back home I realised I was feeling pleased and excited. I noted that in a not too distant future I might look back at this moment differently. For now though, I will hope that we are at a turning point; at the beginning of the path we had wanted to take".

Related publications: Emerging Voices: Young Women in Lebanese Politics

For further information, contact Phil Champain at pchampain@international-alert.org.

Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition (available under a Creative Commons License)