Entrenched political divisions
In many ways, Lebanon today is still struggling with the legacy of its civil war, which devastated the country from 1975 to 1990. The power-sharing political system that emerged in the aftermath institutionalized many of the divisions between Muslim and Christian factions. Political assassinations in 2005, the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006 and ongoing disputes about leadership have contributed to the country’s instability.
At the local and national levels, fear-based identity issues and political patronage often drive the agenda. Many Lebanese politicians exploit their constituents’ historical distrust of their neighbors to win elections and avoid accountability.
But in recent years, the status quo has begun to shift as more citizens have become engaged in the political process. Lebanese civil society took the lead in monitoring the 2009 elections, and voter turnout reached record levels. Across the country, young people called for a less corrupt and more effective government.
The CRS response
In March 2010, Catholic Relief Services sought to build on these developments by organizing the Youth Activists Leaders in Lebanon project (YALLA), in partnership with Nahwa al Muwatiniya, the Development for People and Nature Association and the Social Media Exchange. The program helped young people launch a nationwide media campaign to shift the election dialogue away from identity politics and toward issues such as government transparency and accountability.
Youth teams listened to community groups to learn more about local problems. Then they developed provocative questions to reframe the national political debate. Participants used social media and traditional media to raise awareness. Their message reached thousands of people through online discussions and surveys, text messages, video animations, fliers, posters, billboards, press conferences, local radio shows and face-to-face conversations.
The project organized 15 village youth teams. Members received valuable training in platform development research, social media activism, voter mobilization, election law implementation and conflict management.
The teams met with municipal councils to discuss local issues and to urge councils to establish youth committees. At the national level, the project received responses from 1,400 young people about their involvement in the public sphere. Participants shared their research with the Union of Mayors and the Ministry of the Interior to forge strategic relationships and promote pragmatic solutions.
Youth reported that they felt a new sense of empowerment and that they gained a greater respect for dialogue, tolerance and solidarity. The experience helped them realize their potential to bring about change through civic engagement. Few of the participants had ever before met with community leaders or attempted to influence public opinion, yet their campaign reached the cell phones, computer screens, radio sets, newspapers and dinner tables of people throughout Lebanon.
While Lebanon’s political system is largely still controlled by political and sectarian leaders, citizens and civil society organizations continue to make gains in pressing for more democracy. YALLA’s young leaders, and others like them, are modeling new values and behaviors in their communities. They are finding and using their voices as citizens, identifying common problems and working with the government and each other to solve them. These young people are helping Lebanese citizens to learn more about how a true democracy functions, how to act as good citizens and how to expect more from their leaders.