Activism, Change and Sectarianism in the Free Patriotic Movement in Lebanon
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Activism, Change and Sectarianism in the Free Patriotic Movement in Lebanon

Joseph P. Helou

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eBook - ePub

Activism, Change and Sectarianism in the Free Patriotic Movement in Lebanon

Joseph P. Helou

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This book explores the thirty-year trajectory of the Free Patriotic Movement that aimed to achieve the freedom, sovereignty and independence of Lebanon from the Lebanese political elite and Syrian hegemony. It sheds light on the movement's activism, changes and sectarianism throughout the stages of movement emergence, persistence and party transformation. The author shows how the movement built on opportunities that culminated in its rise, both in civil society and nationally, despite a number of challenges. The book also reveals the formation of intricate units and communication channels to mobilize activism and increase commitment to the movement's cause. While discussing the significance of Michel Aoun and GebranBassil to the future of the FPM, the author asserts that various party dimensions and practices are conditioned by regional and international politics.

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© The Author(s) 2020
J. P. HelouActivism, Change and Sectarianism in the Free Patriotic Movement in Lebanon Reform and Transition in the Mediterranean
Begin Abstract

1. Introduction

Joseph P. Helou1
Department of Social Sciences, Lebanese American University, Beirut, Lebanon
Joseph P. Helou
End Abstract
The self-immolation of the Tunisian fruit-cart vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010 sparked a nationwide protest movement in his country, which quickly inspired protests in several other Arab countries that toppled long-standing dictatorial regimes. Some of the ensuing protest movements evolved into bloody civil wars, as in Libya and Syria, where the external military intervention of state and non-state actors further complicated prospects for a peaceful transition to democratic rule (Lynch 2016).
The political process generating these protests quickly became the topic of concern in several research works examining some of the influencing factors: the role of the media in the 2011 protests (Lynch 2014, Chap. 5); the political elite in prioritizing political reform while dismissing economic reforms to preserve their interests (Abdelrahman 2012); and the leaderless nature of the protests, which often transformed into broad coalitions of ideologically opposed actors that fractured the political scene and provided an advantage for the more organized actors, such as the Muslim Brotherhood (Durac 2015). Prior to the Arab uprisings of 2011, this political process hosted Islamist actors as organized forces providing breeding grounds for often violent activism (Hafez 2003; Wiktorowicz 2004; Wickham 2015) and labor movements that were infiltrated and manipulated by the regime (see Beinin and Lockman 1998; Beinin and Vairel 2011; Beinin 2015). Although dimensions of the political process varied across Arab states, different authoritarian practices were a hallmark of the Arab state system, which, in turn, decreased the access points to government and limited avenues for political participation. Therefore, examining the composition, ideas and mobilization of social movements and other forms of protest activity became important to understand how people expressed their demands collectively outside the institutions of the state.
Perhaps Lebanon stood out from among its Arab counterparts because its political system allowed for a wide margin of political participation, with minimal intervention of national security forces in national politics. Yet, as the Syrian suzerainty of Lebanon weighed in heavily on Lebanese post-war politics in the period 1990–2005, some authoritarian practices seeped into the Lebanese political arena by diffusion (El-Khazen 2003). Lebanon’s political system can be characterized as a state with fragmented institutions undergirded by elite practices mired in high levels of corruption (Leenders 2012), and as a sectarian system incentivizing people to pledge allegiance to a group of political, financial-economic and religious elites at the expense of the state (Salloukh et al. 2015), which, in turn, gains its vitality from a vast network of patron–client relations that often provide citizens with access to resources and public goods through the intercession of elites that are influential with the state (Hottinger 1961; Khalaf 1968, 2003; Cammet 2014; Helou 2015). Its domestic politics can be understood by closely examining the nature of the political and constitutional order prevailing in the country both before and after the Lebanese Civil War that began in 1975 (Hudson 1968; Picard 1996; Leenders 2012), the factors contributing to the conflagrations of the Lebanese Civil War (Salibi 1976; El-Khazen 2000; Randal 2012), and the Lebanese post-war elite who were allied with Syria (El-Husseini 2012). While this book recognizes the complexities embedded in Lebanese politics, it does not seek to adopt any of the aforementioned aspects of Lebanese politics as the focus of this study.
In fact, this book chooses to focus on the experience of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) in a political context governed by the dialectic of the complex nature of Lebanese politics, which on the one hand hosts democratic avenues for participation, and on the other buttresses a sectarian system with fragmented state institutions and a network of patron–client relations. This context shows that the 30-year-old trajectory of the FPM includes the early formation of the movement during the final stages of the Lebanese Civil War in 1989, its emergence and persistence as a secular freedom movement during the period 1990–2005, and a transformation into a sectarian political party following 2005.
Such a diverse and often contradictory political history can provide valuable insights into an experiment in social movement activism for many aspiring political movements and parties throughout the Middle East region. This book speaks to practitioners and intellectuals and mostly addresses those whose interests lie in collective activity, social movement and political parties, especially in the Middle East. It also makes a valuable contribution to Middle Eastern politics by illuminating the role of political activists whose backgrounds happen to be predominantly middle-class Christian, which, in turn, adds a new empirical case study to the fields of social movements and minority politics.
The FPM began taking shape when supporters, comprising largely Lebanese Christians, rallied in support of the political proposals of Lebanese army commander Michel Aoun, whose public appearances in 1989 won him popular support. Following his defeat in a Syrian-led military attack in 1990 and his expatriation to France, Aoun’s supporters marched in the shadow of their leader in Lebanon, forming what became known as the FPM, which launched collective activity—that is protests, demonstrations and the distribution of pamphlets—and called for the freedom, sovereignty and independence of Lebanon, despite the many challenges imposed on the movement by the Lebanese political elite. However, this social movement not only managed to survive throughout the period 1990–2005, but even transformed itself into a political party after the return of Aoun to Lebanon in 2005. Even today, the FPM continues to exist as a powerful player in Lebanese politics, with a sizable bloc in Parliament and members serving in the Council of Ministers.


This book seeks to present an empirical analysis of a Lebanese political movement that had an important impact on the course of national politics, especially in the country’s post-war scenario, as a sizable movement that was disenfranchised from formal participation in conventional politics (Parliament, Council of Ministers, positions within the state bureaucracy, etc.) in the period 1990–2005. Although this movement conveyed secular political ideas in relation to its counterparts, the sociological composition of the movement’s membership was clearly tilted toward middle-class Christians, while simultaneously welcoming activists from various Muslim denominations into its ranks. Therefore, the disenfranchisement of the FPM from Lebanese politics and the expatriation of its leader, Michel Aoun, spelled the exclusion of Lebanese Christians from actively engaging in national politics.
Despite the FPM’s exclusion from national politics, the Lebanese political system was never too authoritarian to prevent the rise of opposition voices in civil society, including the FPM. With more than 20,000 troops based in Lebanon, a political elite favoring their policies and sectarianism pervading every nook and cranny of politics on the national and societal level, Syria was able to dominate and manipulate Lebanese politics, but never controlled every aspect of its existence. The political environment prevailing in Lebanon throughout the period 1990–2005 can best be described as “authoritarianism by diffusion,” as suggested by Farid El-Khazen (2003), which bore witness to a number of non-transparent political practices in the country that were sponsored by Syria or its allies among the Lebanese political elite.
Ironically, the prevailing political conditions in post-war Lebanon accommodated sectarian practices, corruption and democratic avenues for participation, which, in turn, challenged the rise of opposition movements, such as the FPM, but without rendering their emergence a mission impossible. Therefore, this book seeks to explore the rise of the FPM amid a fluid and nuanced, but no doubt challenging, political environment. This work will analyze the opportunities that favored the emergence of the FPM after the expatriation of its leader, Michel Aoun, to France in 1991. It will uncover the kind of opportunities and ideas that incentivized FPM activists to partake in collective activism by organizing strikes, protests, sit-ins and so on, to voice their objection to the sectarian practices and corrupt dealings of the Lebanese political elite and to Syria’s overshadowing role in Lebanon. This analysis seeks to anchor the pivotal role that civil society (members of syndicates and unions, university students and ordinary individuals across towns and villages) played in building the FPM as a social movement across Lebanon.
Another aspect this book aims to uncover is the role that FPM activists—that is, university students, members of syndicates and individuals in a number of towns and villages—played in ensuring the persistence of their movement’s activism. With numerous challenges to overcome, FPM activists could not have built a movement without a semblance of organization to mobilize for activism, resources to ensure the persistence of their movement, and ideas and incentives to deepen activists’ commitment to the FPM throughout the period 1991–2005. By shedding light on its operations, this book seeks to reveal the role of both Aoun and FPM activists in forming the FPM. Typically, accounts of the movement exaggerate the role attributed to Aoun in its organization. Therefore, the analysis will strike a much-needed balance by revealing the role of various other actors.
Since this book examines the three-decade trajectory of the FPM, it will seek to analyze the institutional transformation that occurred within it following the return of Aoun to Lebanon in 2005. The institution of the FPM as a political party, the assignment of individuals to positions within the newly established party, and its participation in conventional politics (Parliament and Council of Ministers) led to a series of issues within the party that clearly characterized a transitioning social movement. Therefore, this work aims to uncover the impacts these struggles had on the shape of the party and its activities.
In addition, the book will show how the FPM turned from a movement that expressed a relatively secular political outlook and ideas to one that adopted sectarian political discourse, practices and strategies to compete against its sectarian counterparts in conventional politics; that is to say, how its members emerged victorious in parliamentary elections in the post-2005 period. They also sought to maintain their movement’s position as the defender of the rights of their support base, which predominantly comprised middle-class Christians. Yet precisely why the FPM turned sectarian and how it managed to evolve in order to preserve its support base is a puzzling aspect that will be explored in this empirical account.


The primary rationale warranting a study of the FPM is to fill a gap in the Lebanese social movement’s literature. The main reason no one has analyzed the movement is because a study of it during the period 1990–2005 was almost impossible, given the tremendous challenges imposed on the FPM, which, in turn, obliged the movement to maintain a certain level of secrecy to ensure the success of its activism. Researchers who might have been willing to study the movement during the period 1990–2005 would have encountered difficulties in gathering data, since FPM activists were quite cautious about sharing information with anyone regarding their political activism within the movement for fear of being hunted down by national security institutions, such as the Lebanese army, Internal Security Forces, General Security Directorate and State Security Directorate. Therefore, studying the FPM, which was clearly opposed to the political elite of Lebanon and the intervention of Syria in Lebanese affairs, only became possible following the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, which provided the movement with the right to assemble freely.
Of course, an important rationale for the study of the FPM, and movement politics in Lebanon generally, is to understand how these movements interact with their broader political context. In this respect, the Lebanese state, which is driven by a complex set of disunited and fragmented institutions, a disunited and quarreling political elite, and sectarian politics, which, in turn, is manifested in high levels of post-war corruption, cannot be treated as a unitary actor as such. Since the FPM was faced with this type of fragmented state, this author was interested to analyze to what extent it was able to reject the established order on the one hand, and to what degree it coexisted within the established order on the other.
In addition to studying the interaction of the FPM with the Lebanese political system, the extent to which the movement was able to combat Lebanese sectarian politics or otherwise succumb to certain features of sectarianism constitutes an essential rationale for this research. Sectarianism is not only a power-sharing agreement that assigns members of a sectarian community to the positions designated for their specific sect within the Lebanese political system, but also a political-economic system fostered by the political elite to share in the spoils of government and then use some of those resources to mobilize the loyalty of their supporters. This book embraces the definition of sectarianism advanced by Salloukh et al. (2015, p. 3), who define it as “a modern constitutive Foucauldian socioeconomic and political power that produces and reproduces sectarian subjects and modes of political subjectification and mobilization through a dispersed ensemble of institutional, clientelist, and discursive practices.” Those authors view sectarianism as a holistic political-economic and ideological system that pervades many aspects of Lebanese life, which is underpinned by clientelist patronage networks and a symbolic repertoire that incorporates large segments of society into corporatized sectarian communities. This sectarian system results in a distorted incentive structure that redirects individual loyalties away from state institutions and symbols toward sectarian communities and their political and religious elite (ibid.).
Although the FPM expressed forms of collective action that resembled many other social movements, such as protests and demonstrations, what makes a study of it extremely significant is the way it was able to run its political activity in spite of limited access to resources and exclusion from the institutions of the state, such as Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Therefore, it is possible to further appreciate the significance of this research and its aims by pinning down the precise nature of this partial exclusion from the Lebanese system, which allowed the FPM to emerge in professional syndicates, student elections on university campuses, on municipal councils and in towns and villages, while remaining officially banned as a political movement. This work seeks to clarify to what extent the Lebanese political elite consciously determined for which political positions FPM activists were allowed to strive or in which particular areas they were permitted to emerge. It will investigate to what extent FPM activists were able to build on political activities that were regarded as insignificant by the political elite, to emerge and persist as a movement throughout the period 1990–2005.
Yet another rationale for an analysis of the FPM is to contribute to the expansion of the Middl...

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