A new reality television competition is booming in Beirut and Ramallah: democratic politics.
BEIRUT — When reality shows such as Arab Idol and Star Academy first hit the Middle East, an influential Saudi sheikh denounced them as "weapons of mass destruction that kill values and virtue." It wasn't just the shows' less-than-conservative social mores, the short skirts, or the racy lyrics -- the specter of democracy in their voting processes made authoritarian rulers nervous. Yet as political change sweeps the region, a new subset of the genre is being born: political reality TV.
BEIRUT — When reality shows such as Arab Idol and Star Academy first hit the Middle East, an influential Saudi sheikh denounced them as "weapons of mass destruction that kill values and virtue." It wasn’t just the shows’ less-than-conservative social mores, the short skirts, or the racy lyrics — the specter of democracy in their voting processes made authoritarian rulers nervous. Yet as political change sweeps the region, a new subset of the genre is being born: political reality TV.
The two places where the format is being pioneered — Lebanon and Palestine — are particularly in need of a political spark. Lebanon’s elections, scheduled for June, are likely to be postponed due to wrangling over an electoral law and the ongoing war in neighboring Syria. Palestinians, meanwhile, haven’t had presidential elections since 2005, due to the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. But now broadcasters are offering wannabe politicians a viable path to a political career — on air, at least.
The Lebanese show is called Al-Zaim ("The Leader") — a word synonymous with tribal and political chieftains whose legitimacy stems from patronage networks rather than merit. The program’s goal was to undermine these omnipresent figures by empowering the audience to choose a leader free from gerrymandered districts and religious affiliation. Local broadcaster al-Jadeed TV promised to fund the winner’s political campaign as an independent candidate in the upcoming elections.
Over the course of 10 weeks, contestants had to fulfill several challenges, ranging from scrutinizing the effectiveness of municipalities and working with officials to implement a project to organizing demonstrations to negotiating a settlement between two clashing factions. There was no lack of drama — at one point, contestants were chased by men with knives as they tried to bring together supporters of Lebanon’s rival political groupings. Another episode saw contestants face off against angry armed gunmen in the streets of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
"The main target was getting the contestants to go through challenges that many politicians never go through," explains Mazen Laham, the show’s producer. Contestants received feedback from judges drawn from the worlds of business, politics, and media. But it was the Lebanese viewing public who then decided who should stay and who should go. The final five weeks of the show, once the pool of contestants had been whittled down, saw the challengers develop into full-fledged independent candidates, complete with electoral platforms that addressed Lebanon’s most pressing issues.
The finale of Al-Zaim opened with dancers wearing Guy Fawkes masks — adopted by young revolutionaries across the world. They are symbolic for what the show tried to achieve, says producer Laham. "It’s all about revolution and for young people to be part of the parliament."
There’s good reason a youth movement would gain traction among the Lebanese public. The average age of Lebanon’s main political leaders hovers around 70, while the average age of the Lebanese population is 30. Even the young faces are representatives of old political dynasties: Nadim Gemayel, the second youngest deputy in Parliament at 31, is the son of former Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel and the grandson of Pierre Gemayel, who founded one of the country’s most prominent Christian parties. The first paragraph of his biography proudly trumpets his family’s credentials rather than his own accomplishments.
Al-Zaim is trying to break this political mold, offering those without family connections a chance to succeed in Lebanese politics. And yet the 15 contestants chosen for the show, in a concession to Lebanon’s political reality, were largely representative of the country’s sectarian composition. This was to accommodate viewers’ sensitivities, said Karma Khayat, head of political programming at Al-Jadeed TV.
There was no lack of enthusiasm. More than 1,200 people applied to be on air and the ratings were very high for a political show, said Khayat. The program created quite a buzz, both at home and abroad. "Everywhere we went people were talking about it," she says.
In the end, it was unemployed development economics graduate Maya Terro who triumphed, winning the votes of the judges and the public, who texted in and cast ballots online. The 27-year-old had thought of running for office before, but didn’t think it would be financially possible. It costs 8 million Lebanese pounds ($5,333) just to register as a candidate. "And then there’s the campaign, which will cost millions," she explains. Terro, who hails from a mixed Christian-Muslim marriage, plans to focus her upcoming real campaign on secularism and she’s crafted a catchy election slogan focusing on change and personal responsibility.
In a surprise twist during the show’s May 7 finale, the judges announced that they would also fund the runner-up, Nicolas Harouny. Like many current politicians, Harouny — a former member of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia active during the 15-year civil war and a current political party — alluded often to this martial past, and included compulsory etiquette lessons in Lebanese schools in his 10-point electoral platform.
Terro, on the other hand, is the antithesis to traditional politics. Sporting a head full of curls, rather than a sleek Lebanese style, her speeches were peppered with dialect and slang. Rather than blame politicians for the failings of the Lebanese state, she turned the tables on viewers. "It’s you, me, everyone else, sitting on their ass and cursing the government," she recalls. "Aren’t you the one who voted for them?"
It worked. Terro went on to claim victory in the show’s final round with 65 percent of the vote. She attributed her victory largely to the lack of a youth voice in politics. "Nobody represents us," she says.
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In Palestine, too, reality TV is offering youth a platform to speak out. In a similar program called al-Rais ("The President"), all of the contestants are below the age of 35. "We wanted a program that would teach youth how to be political leaders and let them be part of political life," explains Raed Othman, the director of the independent Ma’an network, which broadcasts the show in the West Bank. (Contestants from the Gaza Strip participate via a video link.)
Like with al-Zaim, contestants are grilled by a panel of judges and challenged to complete tasks meant to shed light on their ability to handle high office. Last week, for example, the contestants had to officially greet a visiting president during a mock state visit, and were judged on their knowledge of protocol and etiquette. Suddenly, the contestants were subjected to a staged assassination attempt. While gunshots rang out, the key to completing the challenge was to display steady nerves. "If you are a president you have to act very calm and confident," says Waad el Fararjeh, the youngest contestant on the show at 21.
"We haven’t had elections for 8 years," explains Othman, when asked why he made al-Rais. Now, viewers can vote every week in front of their TV sets until a winner is chosen at the end of June. The winnings are more modest than in Lebanon — the victor will win a car, and be named
as a youth ambassador for Palestine.
Bashar Farashat, who works for the European Union on youth issues, is one of the eight contestants still in the running. Entering Palestinian politics is near impossible, he claims, without joining Fatah or Hamas, the two main political parties in Palestine.
But emboldened by the show, he has started a new political party — the Youth Party — which advocates a two-state solution. "All of our political leaders are over the age of 50, there is nothing good for the youth in Palestine," he exclaims. "And as the youth, we form more than 60 percent of the population!"
Farashat’s support for the two-state solution is shared by most of the candidates on the show — a stark contrast to the 61 percent of Palestinians surveyed by Pew recently who say it would be impossible for a Palestinian state to co-exist with Israel. But Othman says the program is attempting to harness the political ideals of the future. "Through this program, we will start to read the Palestinian street for the next 10 years," he says.
Part of that new generation feels that there should be a greater role for women in politics. "I am trying to be a feminist, I want to change the view for women," says Fararjeh, the last remaining female contestant. "I want to say to everybody that even though we are women we are not less than men, we have abilities. We have minds, we think."
Both shows include women as judges. Lebanon’s Al-Zaim actively promoted a role for women — almost half of its original 15 contestants were female. "We wanted to show that women also can be part of the parliament, and to break this mentality that women can’t be a leader," says producer Laham.
Terro also wants to show Lebanese voters that women have valuable contributions to make in Lebanon. She will actively be courting the youth and female vote during her campaign. It remains unclear whether the polls will open on the scheduled date of June 16, but if elected Terro will join a small but illustrious group: Currently, only four of Lebanon’s 128 MPs are women, and all of them hail from political dynasties.
But some believe that rather than empowering women, al-Zaim used sex appeal to boost its ratings. The Lebanese program courted controversy by selecting singer Myriam Klink as one of its contestants. Khayyat, however, defends Klink — best known for her curves and her hit single "Anter," about her pet pussy cat — saying that she fit the show’s criteria for leadership, and blames criticism on the same stereotypes the show is trying to break. (Not that it matters: Klink pulled out of the contest early, live on-air.)
Still, critics aren’t so quick to label the show a revolution. Jad Melki, an assistant professor of media studies at the American University of Beirut, argues that while the show "brings some degree of intelligent discussion," it is trafficking in cheap thrills rather than political ideas. He worries that the shows will inevitably succumb to the baser instincts of reality television: choosing candidates on looks rather than political prowess. "It’s really a cash cow for TV," Melki says of Al-Zaim.
Khayyat says that the show’s aim in its first season was simply to break even. "The cost of the program is quite high, especially since it’s a political show. Politics usually scares away sponsors," she says.
Nevertheless, some contestants are turning eyeballs into political clout. Four of al-Zaim’s contestants have announced they, too, will run in Lebanon’s next parliamentary elections. Farashat, meanwhile, says his youth party has received 3,000 emails from young Palestinians who are willing to volunteer. The candidates have been flooded with job offers, and any political party will be happy to field them as a candidate, predicts Othman. "They are stars," he says simply.
Both shows are planning to take their format across the border. Al-Zaim’s Laham is currently in talks with both a production company and a TV station in Egypt, and thinks the program could work in Europe and the United States as well. Ma’an’s Othman is exploring options to take the format to South America.
Both shows are scheduled to start their second season next year — and Othman says interest in al-Rais is off the charts. "Thousands have applied already," he boasts.
Yet without elections to run in, the political empowerment remains confined to TV screens. And there’s a long way to go before the real world mirrors that virtual reality, says Melki. "It’s not going to change politics unless we get tons and tons of programs and activities and a real electoral law that does not aim to preserve the status quo," he argues. "Then we can start talking about change and youth getting their voices in the parliament, not just on TV."
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