From protest to politics: Madinati ‘shakes up Lebanon’s old guard’



Several dozen people gathered outside a Future Movement office in Beirut’s Al-Tariq al-Jadideh area Thursday to demand payments. A source told The Daily Star that the protesters were staff hired to campaign for the Future Movement’s “Beirutis’ List” in Sunday’s municipal elections in the city:

However, Al-Jadeed television broadcast hidden video recorded by one of its reporters alleging that the protesters were voters who were promised payments for backing the Future list. The “Beirutis’ List” swept the city’s local elections despite a strong showing by a rival secular group, Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City), on Sunday…..The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE – left) said Monday it recorded 647 violations and incidents of harassment during the elections in Beirut and east Lebanon.

Municipal elections would not usually cut much ice in a city that has seen it all; massacres, assassinations and a 15-year civil war. But in the six years since the previous municipal election in 2010 the country has reached boiling point, The Economist reports:

A sense of civic outrage has evolved into something new for Lebanese voters: secular, issue-based politics. For the first time since the civil war (1975-1990), an independent coalition of concerned citizens took on Lebanon’s old guard for control of Beirut’s municipal council.

Beirut Madinati (Beirut Is My City ) is the political reinvention of last year’s “You Stink” movement, which fizzled out after failing to ensure the clearing of rubbish from the streets where it had piled up in a dispute over landfill sites. The movement, though, could reasonably claim success in the longer term, as a landfill site was eventually opened and the rubbish started to shift; and the protests helped give birth to the new party. This shift from street protest into Western-style democratic organisation has electrified Beirut’s disgruntled middle classes. Their modern campaign, financed through crowd-funding and individual donations, also attracted thousands of disenchanted millennials, both as volunteers and as first-time voters.

“We got tired of complaining,” said Gilbert Doumit, one of Madinati’s architects. “Finally we moved from demand to execution.”

Although Beirut Madinati did not win on Sunday, it remains the first time that such an initiative has been undertaken in Lebanon, and the political elites were worried about it enough to unite against it, notes Chatham House expert Lina Khatib:

In a country where political stagnation and apathy prevail, developments like Beirut Madinati show how limited the appetite for political change is in the country, but are also important milestones in the transformation of activism to challenge the status quo.

While there has been a tendency to argue that the results of municipal elections in Beirut were a defeat of sorts for Saad Hariri—given the low turnout and the unexpectedly high vote total for the Beirut Madinati list—the reality is somewhat different. Hariri faced a test in the capital and, despite a five-year absence, passed it, notes analyst Michael Young:

However, it is a very different Lebanese political environment to which the former prime minister has returned. The March 8-March 14 dichotomy no longer truly exists; Hariri is facing furtive challenges from within his own movement; and, generally speaking, many people believe his return was tied to the financial difficulties of his Saudi Oger company, so that he regarded politics as a means of compensating for this.

Bucking Arab world’s trend toward authoritarianism?

The group of Lebanese professors, architects and filmmakers has fashioned an unlikely alternative to the bickering feudal political bosses who for decades have kept their country mired in stalemate. Its bid for power seemed quixotic at first, The New York Times reports:

But it touched a nerve in Beirut’s municipal elections this week, gaining unexpected traction with voters and fueling the upstarts’ conviction that it is possible to buck the Arab world’s trend toward authoritarianism.

“You can’t just demonstrate and get tear-gassed,” said Jad Chaaban, an economics professor at the American University of Beirut who helped hatch the technocratic political movement, called Beirut, My City. “We need people like us in power.”

Although Beirut Madinati lost to the “Beirutis” list, the nascent social movement won roughly 40 percent of the vote, much more than was anticipated, analyst Amanda Rizkallah writes for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage:

However, in Lebanon’s first-past-the-post system, all seats went to the establishment list. Still, Beirut Madinati got more than 60 percent of the vote in the mostly Christian district of Achrafieh, and by some rough estimates, 30 percent of the Sunni vote in the city — a surprisingly high figure in light of widespread support for Hariri among the community. In addition to the well-oiled political machines of establishment politicians, Beirut Madinati also had to battle low turnout — partly due to Beirut’s many registered voters living abroad and partly due to the widespread voter skepticism about political change.

“And yet despite Beirut Madinati’s loss, social media and the Lebanese blogosphere have exploded in response to the results,” she adds, “citing the list’s relative success as an important symbolic victory and step forward for those seeking reform in Lebanese politics.“

Foreign friends of Lebanon should build on this occasion to press the government to move forward with presidential and parliamentary elections, adds Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy and Research at the Middle East Institute:

In Beirut, a dynamic civil society movement put together a list called Beirut Madinati that challenged the traditional political party list backed by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement. …..The fact that local elections could proceed smoothly undermines the argument of many in government and parliament that political and security conditions are ‘too sensitive’ to hold parliamentary elections-a reference to tensions over the civil war next door. Foreign friends of Lebanon should build on this occasion to press the government to move forward with presidential and parliamentary elections.

Not since the 2005 assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri and the so-called Cedar Revolution has a group of Lebanese risen up against the established order, notes analyst Michael Karam:

However, the Cedar Revolution proved to be a false dawn. It may have forced the withdrawal of the Syrian military and intelligence agencies, but the established political groupings at its fore eventually reverted to type and those of us from ranks of the non-aligned Lebanese eventually learnt that change would only be effected by those not weaned on sectarianism.

Nevertheless, other observers note, the country’s feudal lords still maintain a grip on Lebanese politics.

Beirut Madinati’s impressive share may be enough to give it momentum to make next year’s general election a lot more interesting, though it will be up against sectarian parties with much more at stake than a city council, The Economist adds:

Beirut Madinati has pledged to fight on. “We’re sending a message,” said one supporter, marking his ballot for Beirut Madinati in a core Hariri stronghold. “Don’t insult our intelligence, don’t take us for granted.”

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