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Nabih Berri, symbol of sectarian power-sharing in Lebanon

The speaker of the Lebanese parliament is reelected for the seventh time and will extend his 30-year term in office
Nabih Berri Nasrallah

AFP/LOUAI BESHARA  -   Billboards depicting the leaders of Lebanon's Shiite groups, Amal, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (left) and Hassan Nasrallah, in Beirut, 14 May 2022, ahead of parliamentary elections

With the narrowest majority since he took office, Nabih Berri retained the presidency of the Lebanese Parliament for the seventh time with the support of 65 of the 128 deputies elected in the legislative elections of 15 May, a post he has held continuously for the past three decades and which, according to the sectarian distribution of the institutions that emerged from the ashes of the civil war, is reserved for a Shiite Muslim.

The octogenarian leader of the Amal Movement succeeded in 1992 former parliamentary speaker Hussein el-Husseini, who was the negotiator of the Taif Agreement (Saudi Arabia) that ended the fratricidal conflict that began in 1975. Since then, Berri has played a decisive role on the Lebanese political chessboard, holding up the system's house of cards as a counterweight to the different confessions and political forces.

His long-awaited re-election came to fruition within the legal deadline after he obtained half plus one of the votes in favour in a chaotic session that began with controversy after Berri refrained from reading the legislators' ballots, which contained harsh accusations against him and the parliamentary coalition that has backed his nomination as the main culprits of Lebanon's deep crisis.

Nabih Berri
AFP/ANWAR AMRO  -   Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri presides over the first session of the newly elected assembly at its headquarters in the capital Beirut on May 31, 2022

The son of a family of traders, Berri was born in 1938 in Sierra Leone, where his parents emigrated to leave the precariousness of Lebanon behind. Back in the Mediterranean nation, the long-serving President of Parliament graduated in law from the Lebanese University and completed his studies at the Sorbonne before going on to practice law and work in the judiciary. A record of service that soon attracted him to the world of politics.

It was not until he met the charismatic Musa al-Sadr, the Shia cleric and founder of the Movement of the Dispossessed, an organisation that provided social services for Lebanon's marginalised Shia community that would become the Amal Movement, that Berri landed in politics. Amal, which means 'work', took over the rank and file of the Shia left and put religion at the centre of its doctrine. Today, Amal shares space with the Shia militia-party Hezbollah, an Iranian-affiliated organisation that has created a parallel state in Lebanon with which it did not always have a good relationship.

Berri took over the leadership of the Movement in 1980, in the midst of the civil war, as part of the sectarian strife that reduced Lebanon to ashes. He discriminated against no one and fought against everyone, including Hezbollah, known as the 'Party of God'. The re-elected president then took over the leadership of the militias, establishing himself as one of the country's most important warlords. 

After the civil war ended, Amal made peace with Hezbollah, establishing a relationship of convenience that has lasted until the present day. Both have woven clientelistic networks in the south of the country that have allowed them to count on a large pool of votes; however, in the last legislative elections they began to show signs of wear and tear as a result of years of corruption and bad governance. The economic situation is not picking up either, and this weariness made itself felt at the ballot box.

"While his political strategy has long been advertised as one rooted in supporting communities and siding with the working class, he has failed to meet his promises in practice," explains Lebanese economist at The Policy Initiative, a Beirut-based research center and Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy Non-resident Fellow Hussein Cheaito. "He has gained so much wealth and power in a little time, while his constituency has been drenched in poverty and economic inequality".

Nabih Berri
REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER  -   Lebanese police officers celebrate the re-election of Nabih Berri as speaker of parliament in Beirut, Lebanon, May 31, 2022

The Shiite bloc formed by Amal and Hezbollah lost the parliamentary majority it held before the legislative elections in May. Together they hold 27 of 128 seats. Part of the blame lies with their 'number two', Ali Hassan Khalil, who served as Finance Minister between 2014 and 2020 and has been blamed as one of the main culprits of the economic collapse. In any case, this baggage will not prevent the leaders from maintaining their share of power in the Lebanese institutional architecture.

"Berri is also a protector of Lebanon’s financial system," argues Cheaito. "By engaging and enabling a debt economy, Berri, together with the Lebanese political class, led the economy to its demise. "Finally, Berri’s party, Amal Movement, is a key gatekeeper of social/economic justice. They have been completely silent and have taken part in stalling Beirut Blast investigations," adds the Lebanese economist about the deadly explosion that took place in the capital's port on 4 August 2020 for which no one has taken responsibility.

The sectarian distribution of power, where a Maronite Christian holds the head of state, a Sunni Muslim the head of government and a Shia Muslim the presidency of parliament, has not changed despite the continuous demands of the new generations. As a result of immobility and the economic crisis, a revolution erupted in 2019, and its leaders have burst onto the political scene. For the first time in history, the movement managed to win 13 MPs. Now the challenge is to confront Shiite domination.

"The business model of the 1975-90 civil war had been based on the material and political support of external actors who used Lebanon as an arena to contest the regional balance of power," said Heiko Wimmen, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, in his latest analysis.

Nabih Berri
REUTERS/AZIZ TAHER  -   Speaker of the Lebanese parliament Nabih Berri

Berri will remain speaker of parliament until time or the unblocking of the institutional paralysis decides. Considered the quintessential figurehead of the system, the Shia leader has a profile that makes him virtually untouchable. He is, in short, a useful figure for Hezbollah because of his conciliatory nature, which allows him to act as a valid interlocutor with Saudi Arabia, France and the United States.

But Cheaito points out that "Berri’s re-election, in times of economic crisis, banking crisis, and following the Beirut explosion, marks the beginning of a very grim and dark period for Lebanon. His reelection is a symptom of the strength and resilience of the Lebanese regime against all odds".

Since before the Beirut port explosion in 2020, Lebanon has been in the throes of an unprecedented crisis at all levels. The Mediterranean country is a failed state that needs stability in order to negotiate aid with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF wants to see a functional government in place that can carry out reforms.

The current prime minister, Nayib Mikati, could extend his term in office. Before that, however, a series of political negotiations is expected. What is certain is that Berri will preside for the seventh time over an atomised parliament prone to institutional deadlock. A deadlock that will be repeated before the elections to replace President Michel Aoun scheduled for the end of this year.