By Joseph El-Khoury
2004 was a good year for the Left in Lebanon. After years of peripatetic confusion, previously disparate groups and individuals came together to found the first viable alternative to the symbolic heavyweight that is the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP). The result was the Democratic Left Movement in Lebanon (DLM). The attendees came from a variety of background, from the young westernised students to ex-party apparatchiks in addition to intellectuals and civil society activists. They had in common two main things: A problematic love and hate relationship with the communists and an antagonism towards the Syrian occupation and its Lebanese apparatus. During this process the organisers failed to notice the absence of any significant representation of the working classes or the rural sectors. That omission would be at the root of a major flaw in the party’s identity.
The name itself appears to have been chosen in order not to offend but also to reassure a mainstream section of a weary Lebanese public. Political parties and militant movements of various denominations had been struggling to regain popularity and were widely blamed for the demise of the pre-war prosperous and conservative merchant Lebanese republic. The emphasis on democracy was in opposition to the Soviet model of 'democratic centralism' still operational within the ossified LCP but also to reinforce the new party’s social-democratic credentials, which were clearly stated in the mission statement. The Leftist banner is at best a colourless one in the context of the Lebanese scene where well-defined words such as socialism and nationalism are routinely recycled to suit the narrow interests of feudal warlords without the hint of accountability. Nonetheless it at least denotes a progressive attitude motivated by the interests of the majority and a concern for human and social rights while distancing itself from any Marxist heritage. The term movement is fluid and reflects the intention to import a flexible internal, almost federalized, model which allows for official currents to form and fight it out within the boundaries of the party.
In essence, the DLM was modern and keen to break with the past. A 21st century party for a 21st century country. Until the assassination of the ex-prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the DLM remained embryonic and engaged with school ground skirmishes with its more powerful cousin to the left. It emerges to the public eye through its charismatic leader Samir Kassir and his role in the Beirut Spring movement which ends with the departure of Syrian troops from the country. Unfortunately Kassir is assassinated a few months later, leaving the organisation headless and directionless. Elias Atallah, former military commander within the LCP, takes centre stage and wins a seat in the Lebanese parliament carried by the sectarian weight of the pro-Hariri Sunni electorate in North Lebanon. From that point onwards the story of the DLM is that of the Anti-Syrian Alliance known as March 14th. Repeatedly Atallah fails to act as a promoter of secular, social and democratic values, preferring to align his positions to those of his old friend the Druze leader Walid Joumblat. While voices of discontent emerge within his own party, crystallizing in 2007 in the ‘Keep Left’ faction, they remain unable to formulate a strategy or a vision for their movement.
In 2008 the DLM is in disarray stuck in the moving sands of sectarian alliances that have defined the political scene for the past 3 years. Shaken by an identity crisis and hostage to a leadership taught at the school of organisational Stalinism this experiment is in need of a shake-up and productive soul searching. Only then will it be able to redefine its mission and sell it to a Lebanese people eager for a way out of the labyrinth.