Beirut’s Lovable Losers

In a shocking turn of events, a new Lebanese political movement took on the status quo establishment and … well, lost. But the change it’s inspired could be profound.


BEIRUT — They celebrated the results by gathering their candidates, volunteers, and supporters at a seaside events hall here in the capital. Several hundred people sang, cheered, and swayed to the traditional dabke line dance.

And yet Beirut Madinati, or “Beirut My City,” a group of 24 citizens who had just run in the city’s municipal elections — many of them young professionals, most of them secular, half of them women — had actually lost. So what were they celebrating?

The upstart movement, formed a few short months before the election and with only a small, underfunded ground operation, had taken on Lebanon’s entrenched political overlords and sectarian political establishment and garnered a staggering 40 percent of the vote.

By doing so, the candidates of Beirut Madinati showed their fellow Lebanese, and perhaps the rest of the region, that it is possible for civil society to organize, engage in politics, and start the process of political reform. Ibrahim Mneimneh, the head of the list, told me the group of concerned citizens had initially thought of fielding just a few candidates as a symbolic protest, until they realized there was an opportunity to seize upon citizens’ deep frustration with the current system.

Beirut — a concrete jungle where sidewalks are used as parking lots, monstrous traffic jams are the bane of daily life, and the only real public space is the seaside promenade — has suffered for years from mismanagement. Its problems reflect the wider political paralysis in the country, where parliamentary and presidential elections have been postponed for years. A trash collection crisis, which brought citizens to the streets last summer to protest the mountains of garbage piling up in the capital, has only been temporarily resolved.

Beirut Madinati was born partly out of the recognition that change requires active involvement in public life. The group was up against the massive, cash-rich electoral machine of Saad Hariri, a former prime minister and son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri fielded 24 candidates under the coalition name “Beirutis’ List,” which took on nasty undertones, as it appeared to hint that Beirut, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the region, was only for “real” Beirutis. Lebanese politics often play on people’s regional or sectarian belonging, and Hariri was hoping to encourage people to vote to protect their city — though he never made clear against what.

Most of the other Lebanese political parties helped get the vote out for Hariri’s list, in an effort to maintain their own stranglehold on the system that serves them so well. And yet, in the face of unanimous opposition from the political establishment, Beirut Madinati captured two out of every five votes.

But why does a municipal election in Beirut matter? In a region that seems overwhelmed by chaos and upheaval, even a minor election where independent actors make their mark is a hopeful sign that a new generation of leaders may be rising — a generation that is trying to move beyond ideas of revolution, or even civil society activism, to change the status quo. For the first time in my conversations in Beirut, I heard talk of forming new political parties. Aside from Tunisia and now Lebanon, there have been too few examples of a new type of leader emerging, and while civil society activists may remain engaged from Egypt to Yemen, the impact of their work is limited.


Playing politics

Beirut Madinati didn’t win, but it certainly put politicians on notice. Its detailed platform — which offered a 10-point program proposing solutions to the trash crisis, public transportation plans, and poverty alleviation — sent rivals scurrying.

Hariri only announced his own list of candidates after Beirut Madinati had made its candidates’ names public. He also made sure to include the kind of technocrats who could speak of public spaces and public transportation just as well as their rivals. The new municipal council may not deliver on its promises — but politicians in a post-revolution Arab world may be beginning to grasp that they need to do better and offer real improvements to citizens’ lives. Fear of chaos is not enough to justify the status quo.

Beirut Madinati also introduced a new way of doing politics. The group publicly reported donations to its campaign and budget and held town-hall meetings to present its program, where citizens could speak for two minutes each to lay out their concerns. It launched a real “get out the vote” operation, helping people figure out which polling station to go to, their rights as a voter, and what documentation they needed to cast a ballot. All of this is practically unheard of in the region.

With its social media campaign and filmmaker candidates, Beirut Madinati was criticized by some as an elitist coalition that represented only a sliver of the city’s population. Mneimneh, the head of the Beirut Madinati list, admitted that as they visited neighborhoods to introduce their platform and get the vote out, they were “taken aback by the poverty and difficult conditions that people were living in, so perhaps our campaign and goals could be better adjusted to the different sections of society.”

But he pointed out that the coalition also did reasonably well in areas with voters who were not Beirut’s Western-educated elite, attracting 37 percent of the vote even in predominantly Sunni, middle- to lower-class neighborhoods that are typical Hariri fiefdoms.

Beirut Madinati was also hampered by its refusal to play the typical political game of using local patriarchs to bring voters to the polling stations in large numbers, usually in exchange for money. Its reasoning was admirable: The movement didn’t want to offer payoffs to individuals in exchange for their vote, but instead wanted to win on the basis of policy solutions that guaranteed communities a better life in Beirut.

“We didn’t work on getting the support [of these patriarchs],” Mneimneh said. “We were reluctant to use the traditional approach because we want to encourage people to make their own choice at the voting booth, not have it imposed on them.”

And this is the conundrum: How do you challenge the system, without using those elements of the system that would allow you to actually win? Well, it requires slow, painstaking work — and a willingness to play politics.


The Cairo hangover

In March 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Cairo and met with the activists who had led the protests against Hosni Mubarak. The organizers of the movement were still high on the adrenaline of their astounding success in bringing down a man who had ruled the country for 30 years. Clinton asked them how they were getting organized for the upcoming parliamentary elections that year. The activists’ answers stunned her. “We don’t do politics,” one of them said dismissively. They were certain that the momentum of what they had started would help sway people at the voting booth.

They have yet to recover from this miscalculation. Faced with the highly organized Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of the previous regime, the revolutionaries barely made a dent. Their ability to affect the country’s politics has decreased even further with the coup that brought to power President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose rule is being described as even more repressive than Mubarak’s.

The transition from the idealistic fervor of uprisings to the hard work of change has been a tricky one. Politics has been a dirty word for so long in the Arab world; it’s hard for young people yearning for change to accept that civil activism will not be enough.

The other mistake activists made, especially in Egypt, was to believe that toppling the head of state was the equivalent of changing the whole system. What Egypt’s revolutionaries quickly faced after the ouster of Mubarak was the solidly entrenched state — the military, security services, and the bureaucrats loyal to them — which continues to stifle real change.

Lebanon never had a dictator; but in 2005, it had its own uprising against oppression, dubbed the “Beirut Spring” by many. At that time, hundreds of thousands of protesters, enraged by the killing of Rafik Hariri, took to the streets, forcing the withdrawal of Syrian troops that had occupied the country for some 30 years. Believing that the end of the Syrian occupation was the end the road, the protesters left the rest of the structure intact: the politicians who still served the interests of Damascus and the traditional feudal leaders, who upheld the sectarian system.


Ripple effect 

It may have taken 11 years until an alternative political movement emerged in Lebanon, but Mneimneh told me he had heard from friends around the region that people in Morocco, Egypt, and elsewhere have been keeping an eye on Beirut Madinati and trying to learn from its experience.

“If we had won, the impact would no doubt have been greater,” he said. However, he hopes their example will still create ripples, just as he believes Lebanon’s ability to bring an end to the Syrian occupation in 2005 inspired those watching around the region to realize that peaceful change to the status quo was possible.

Perhaps it’ll take another five years, then, before we see a new generation organizing in Egypt. But there is no doubt that we are in the post-revolution period, when people are tackling the difficult question: How can we accomplish real change, which makes our lives better?

Beirut Madinati’s approach is already being copied in other cities in Lebanon for the next rounds of municipal elections, and the coalition is looking into how it can build on its initial success, potentially by forming a shadow municipal council, possibly even a political party, or fielding individual candidates in legislative elections.

Groups like Beirut Madinati show that, politically, the Middle East’s youth and new political leaders are slowly coming of age. Their path forward will be long and arduous. But the onus is now on them to turn their recent achievements into a sustainable political movement.


Kim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a senior visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of "The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power." Twitter: @BBCKimGhattas

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