BEIRUT: Dozens of students, activists and scholars sat around with attentive ears last week listening to Tina Strikou, a member of Syriza, the left wing party that came to power in Greece this year, as she recounted the tale of her group’s political triumph. Lebanese civil society members had perhaps the most to learn from Strikou, as she explained how Syriza’s victory was due to a strong grassroots base, a quality many social movements in Lebanon notably lack.
Strikou, who is a member of Syriza’s Foreign Affairs committee and a master’s candidate at the American University of Beirut, suggested that the absence of a popular base might be part of the reason Lebanese civil society has yet to gain significant traction.
One month before the Greek legislative elections of 2012, Syriza, a coalition of leftist parties, announced its readiness to take over the government and lead the country. The party had previously spent eight years working with local committees to set political priorities and demands, which eventually became the base of their political platform.
It may be that Syriza is setting the trend in Europe, as the year-old Spanish populist party Podemos could receive 28 percent of votes in the next parliamentary elections, according to recent polls.
In Lebanon, the notion of general assemblies and local committees is relatively nascent and rarely factors into the action plan of most civil society groups. Social campaigns tend to adopt a top-down approach to advocacy, in which people are called to take to the streets.
“I don’t think there can be political change without the people organizing themselves and being the subject of change,” Strikou told The Daily Star in an interview after her talk.
The grassroots will only be ready to engage in a struggle if the cause is chosen by them and not imposed, she said.
“I think it is very important that they discuss what they see as important and urgent political issues and decide on some common positions and actions,” the Greek activist said.
This horizontal approach to activism might even help overcome one of the greatest obstacles facing civil society campaigns in Lebanon: sectarianism.
“It might be a good idea to make participatory movements before touching on this issue,” Strikou suggested, referring to sectarianism. “It is up to the people to determine how they will deal with this problem, and what their priorities really are.”
Named “Coalition of the Radical Left,” it is unlikely that Syriza will make drastic changes to the Greek economy and political system.
“It is rather about these small things that make people’s lives better and that brings back the democratic aspects that the system has lost,” Strikou said, referring to the party’s work.
In terms of democratic development, Lebanon lags behind Greece, with activists divided between the radical left, which concerns itself with geopolitical matters, and progressive democrats, who are more attentive to liberal reform issues.
“I think that on the left and the progressive [in Lebanon,] there are many people who are willing to move forward and build a better future,” Strikou said. “Maybe we should not classify them as left and progressive, but simply as people who really seek a better future.”
Strikou’s call is in line with the broad demands shared by various Lebanese activists, who have so far failed to spur a movement on the national scale. Lebanese activists are rarely divided on issues concerning secularism, transparency, gender equality, labor rights and economic security, so, following Strikou’s suggestion, they could rally together to form a joint leftist-progressive action plan.
Studies conducted by international organizations paint a grim picture of the socio-economic obstacles standing in Lebanon’s path to social equality.
According to the U.N. Development Program, 28 percent of Lebanese live under the poverty line. According to Credit Suisse 0.3 percent of Lebanese own half the country’s wealth and the World Economic Forum ranked Lebanon as the eighth worst country in terms of gender equality.
Issues related to security and geopolitics notwithstanding, problems related to social disparity could serve as a common denominator for Lebanese activists from across the spectrum, as the economy was for Greek leftists in particular.
But unlike the Greek example Strikou laid out, in Lebanon, post-Civil War activists have questioned the merits of actually running for elections and breaking into the dominant political class as opposed to mobilizing anti-establishment movements against politicians.
From Syriza’s experience, the two are never mutually exclusive, according to Strikou.
The party took a risk and supported the Greek youth riots of 2008, using the movement to bolster its political development. As Strikou explained, Syriza’s success was the result of both political and grassroots levels working in tandem.
“You cannot take the government before being part of a movement,” Strikou said. “If you do not take part in the movements, you will not gain the trust of the people and you will not be able to build a constant relationship with them and eventually mobilize them.”
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 02, 2015, on page 4.