The Evolutionaries: Transforming the Political System and Culture in Lebanon
Degree awarded: Ph.D. School of International Service. American University
The Evolutionaries poses the question: How can grassroots activists broaden the space for political participation in a factionalized and elite-centric, as opposed to citizen-centric, polity? This question is explored through a case study of a new `civic' segment of civil society in Lebanon, which after the end of the 1975-1990 civil war managed to carve a space in which to operate and established itself as a factor in Lebanese politics. This `civic movement' employs an incremental change approach in order to transform their patron-dominated `republic' into a republic, which recognizes the rights and responsibilities associated with citizenship. To this end, civic activists link with political elites in time- and scope-limited campaigns. The temporary character of these coalitions reduces the risk of cooptation, and the limited scope reduces the number of stakeholders threatened by the campaign. However, while the Lebanese state demonstrates relatively low levels of constraints to civic activists, constraints emanating from society are at times severe. The historical development of the Lebanese state, especially the construction of a confessional political system, has reinforced a political culture centered on kinship and sectarian collective identities. Consequently, in times of high tension and political polarization, the civic movement struggles to construct movement frames that resonate among the broader populace. Opportunities and constraints are traditionally sought on the level of the state, while culture and collective identities are examined as strategic tools, or invoked to explain the outcome of a movement after it has formed. However, a long-term perspective that captures the low-intensity dynamics that precede and succeed high-intensity popular mobilizations suggests that the social environment should also be understood as permissive or restrictive to movement formation. For instance, a `social opportunity' can arise when the hegemonic political culture becomes contested in broad layers of the populace, as was the case when broad popular discontent with the traditional leadership during the civil war provided Lebanon's civic movement with a constituency. Thus, the findings of this study suggest that shifts in the way individuals understand and interpret their environment can provide opportunities for Lebanon's `Evolutionaries' to initiate a slow process of political and societal transformation.
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