Mona Fawaz is sipping coffee at Urbanista on Bliss Street. It’s 8am and she looks tired. “The last six months were very intense,” she says with a weary smile. “I’ve always been a scholar who thinks about how I can be meaningful and impactful and I’m someone who intensely believes in participation in democracy. But you don’t always realise how tiring it can be.”
Fawaz, an associate professor at the American University of Beirut, is exhausted. Little sleep, long hours and sustained campaigning for Beirut Madinati in the run-up to the city’s municipal elections in May have taken their toll. Now she is taking time to catch her breath.
Viewed by most as a continuation of last year’s garbage protests and a political manifestation of several years of Lebanese activism, Beirut Madinati – a non-sectarian, volunteer-led campaign to elect a municipal council of “qualified, politically unaffiliated individuals” – failed in its endeavour to enter city hall, but it managed to shock the city’s old guard and kick-start a country-wide shift away from the country’s ruling class.
Whereas the previous municipal election six years ago had resulted in a landslide victory for the cross-party alliance of Saad Hariri, the billionaire leader of the Future Movement, this was a very different story altogether. Beirut Madinati grabbed 40 per cent of the overall vote, won a majority in Achrafieh, brought issue-focussed campaigning to the fore, and arguably changed political discourse in Lebanon forever, despite having been in existence for only a few months.
As Rami Khouri, a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, wrote shortly after the results were published: “Though the Hariri-led candidates will run city hall for the coming six years, these election results are meaningful in Lebanon, and perhaps beyond it, because they reflect historic changes taking place in three linked arenas: citizen-state ties; the conduct of electoral politics; and the mobilisation of social discontent and its channelling into organised political action for change.”
Beirut Madinati had campaigned on a platform of change backed by an overwhelming discontent with Lebanon’s political reality. No electricity, no water, no security, no president, no garbage collection – all had shown that traditional political leadership had proven woefully unable to manage urban affairs. It was the first time since the civil war that an independent coalition of citizens had taken on Lebanon’s old guard for control of Beirut Municipal Council.
“Our message to the city was there’s an alternative kind of politics,” says Fawaz, a steering committee member. “It’s not about who your allegiance is to, but how you live your everyday life. And that is intensely political. Who do you talk to, how do you get your services, when do you become a priority as an urban dweller breathing air that’s more polluted than I can ever describe? When your kids are growing up and you’re having all this anxiety about how their brains are going to develop because they’re breathing this awful air. Our programme was about giving the city back to its people. And that means shifting every single priority, whether it’s transportation or housing or public space policy. All of these things need to be shifted back to the needs of everyday people.”
Were you demoralised by the defeat at the polls?
“No,” replies Fawaz. “We ran against all the warlords of Lebanon and more. The ruling class coalesced against us in one single block and yet they were surprised. I don’t think they realised how incompetent they are. To say that we got more votes than any of the blocks separately is just immense, and I think that speaks of their incompetence beyond belief. And that’s a message I think they’ve gotten now.
“This is really a ruling elite that doesn’t give a damn about how we live. Their kids are abroad and all they care about is the last few billion dollars they can make out of the real estate in this city before they get out. They’ve destroyed the beautiful sea coast that used to be the envy of every single person on the Mediterranean. They’ve destroyed the heritage of the city, they’ve displaced every single middle and lower income individual, they’re pushing people into sectarian divided suburbs and turning the land into real estate that they make profit from. These are people who don’t give a damn about us. And they’re going to keep doing the same thing.”
Hariri’s Future Movement-backed electoral list was in essence an alliance of all the political parties of Beirut, including the Free Patriotic Movement of General Aoun and the Amal Movement of Nabih Berri, against the secular candidates of Beirut Madinati. That Hariri ended up adopting similar soundbites to those of the volunteer-led campaign revealed to some extent the impact of the latter on political electioneering. And though it may have failed to gain a single municipal seat thanks to Lebanon’s first-past-the-post electoral system, Beirut Madinati still managed to take more than half of the votes in Christian East Beirut and a third in Sunni neighbourhoods.
Prior to the election, blogger Elie Fares wrote in A Separate State of Mind that “it is our chance as a country to vote against the establishment that has been screwing us for years. It is our chance to say enough is enough. It is our chance to challenge the entire political establishment that is united in trying to bring us down, again, and our chance to start reclaiming our country, starting with its capital”.
This discontent – to varying degrees – was repeated across the country, with municipal elections across Lebanon sending further shockwaves through the political establishment. In Tripoli, Ashraf Rifi, a former Future Movement-affiliated justice minister, won the majority of the city’s seats against a coalition list backed by Hariri, former prime minister Najib Mikati and billionaire businessman Mohammad Safadi. In Baalbeck, 49 per cent of those who voted did so against Hezbollah, with Baalbek Madinati (another citizen-led initiative) managing to capture 45 per cent of the vote.
“It is now clear that established political parties are not as popular as they once were and that voters, even in remote parts of the country, want change,” says Joseph Kechichian, senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. “That the Future Movement won by a whisker in the capital; that the Lebanese Forces could only pull victories when they aligned themselves with heretofore nemesis groups; that Hezbollah, allegedly ruling with an iron-first, lost 49 per cent of the votes in its Baalbek stronghold; and that the moribund Lebanese Communist Party could prevail over Hezbollah in the south are all concrete pieces of evidence that dramatic transformations are under way.”
Habib Battah, a journalist and editor at Beirutreport.com, agrees. “The very tenuous grip that some of our elites have on power was exposed,” he says. “They’re still maintaining their grip but it’s not what it used to be, that’s clear from the numbers. It’s clear there has been an impact.”
Do voting patterns indicate that the political status quo can be overturned?
“Yes, but only if more people vote, which means that the 20 to 60 per cent ratios must be emended,” replies Kechichian. “In Beirut governorate, barely 22 per cent of eligible voters bothered to cast ballots, whereas in the southern governorate the percentage reached 60 per cent. Elsewhere it hovered between 40 and 50 per cent.”
Increased voter engagement is vital. Beirut Madinati and other civil society movements are, however, working within a consociational political system that is fragile and inefficient and also helps to perpetuate the status quo. The fact that the majority of people who live in Beirut are ineligible to vote in the city’s municipal elections, but must do so in the towns and cities where their families are from, only heightens the problem.
Is voter apathy an issue?
“I completely disagree,” responds Fawaz. “I describe it as a planned and designed process that’s been imposed on us for the last 20 years to convince people that change is impossible. So when people don’t go to vote, it’s because they’ve been convinced that there is no way they can change things. And I spoke to so many people who, the day after the elections when they saw we had 40 per cent of the vote, were crying. They were like ‘if we had thought for one second that you could get all these votes we would have voted but we just felt it was impossible’.
“They call people sheep, they talk about apathy, it’s not true. It’s a population that’s been subjected to so much pressure and has been convinced that things can’t change.”
“What Beirut Madinati has done is drastically different from anything we’ve seen before,” adds Habib. “It set the bar much higher than usual. Usually campaigning consists of platitude-heavy speeches and general demagoguery, but it raised the bar on political campaigning and political practice in a country where we have this feudal, militia, clientelist approach to politics. They brought more substance to the table. Our politics is very light on substance because it’s really a personality contest – a clientelist system where just showing up is enough. Now that’s changed. Now they’re being asked what is your stance on public transportation, what is your stance on sustainable environmental protection, on better public services; all of these fundamental services that we don’t have access to in Lebanon on a regular and reliable basis. Beirut Madinati had a vision for the city that was utterly lacking. It also had a vision of participatory politics, and this, again, was totally lacking in our political system.”
What happens now? Should Beirut Madinati wait six years for the next municipal elections? Or should it participate in parliamentary elections in 2017, provided the general election goes ahead and the government does not extend its own term for a third time?
“National elections are a whole other ball game,” asserts Fawaz, who last year founded Social Justice and the City, an initiative by AUB to support activist groups trying to foster change. “Beirut Madinati as a brand, as a label, as a political framework, spoke of keeping local politics away from national politics and trying to make a difference at the local level by sidelining international alliances and other crap that’s been preventing our political system from functioning properly. So it seems to me that if we’re going to be true to ourselves, we are not going to take Beirut Madinati itself into national politics.
“We have six good years to prepare really well. As far as I’m concerned, I’m on target. If you think of yourself as someone who is trying to make this city better, the elections are one platform you use on the longer trajectory of rendering local government accountable, forcing its priorities to be that of people, and that’s how I see things.”
What do you do for the next six years?
“That’s what we’re debating right now,” she replies. “There are tonnes of ideas on the table. Lobbying should be part of it, but you can do so much more. One of the things that made Beirut Madinati so strong is the fact that it managed as a platform to coalesce all sorts of activists in non-governmental organisations that had been working for change. So if you can maintain that platform of coalesced power in the same place you empower everyone so much more because our voices are being amplified by being together.”
Is a shadow government possible?
“Yes. But a shadow government is not just about creating opposition, it’s about creating a group of people who understand what public service is. By shadowing local officials and learning public practice… you can build in those six years a much stronger popular base that actually will support you when you’re standing against the political class.”
Across town in Sassine Square, Yorgui Teyrouz, a pharmacist and founder of blood donation initiative Donner Sang Compter, is also talking politics. He was one of Beirut Madinati’s 24 candidates, running for election alongside the likes of director and actress Nadine Labaki, architect Ibrahim Mneimneh, and singer and songwriter Ahmad Kaabour.
“One of the things that Beirut Madinati created was this movement across the country,” says Teyrouz. “For the first time there were independent lists against Hezbollah, against Hariri in Saida, against Hariri in Tripoli, against all political parties in Jounieh and Keserwan. For the first time there was a list in Zgharta. It used to be two big families, now they joined together against independents. Now they’re too scared to lose any seats.
“We created a movement that we didn’t realise was so big. And we have to build on this. And this is why I – personally – say we have to go for the election of the parliament because we have nothing to lose. If this is going to scare them, then scare them. Why wait? Beirut Madinati is for Beirut. If we’re going to do anything bigger we have to create something bigger.”
Beirut Madinati has already elected an interim steering committee to draft a plan for its future, with the steering committee yet to convene at the time of going to press.
“The bigger trend here is a shift in Lebanese political culture,” says Habib. “Beirut Madinati didn’t happen in a vacuum. It comes out of at least four or five years of very active civil society movements in the country that have been involved in several issues. It has changed the way that a lot of those issues were handled; issues that traditionally were handled in a very elitist way.
“We are in a period of change. We have seen a completely different political landscape than previous municipal elections. It’s not only about the tally. The practices, the issue-focussed campaigning, the impact on mainstream parties, the new language that’s been brought to politics – all these are very significant things that I would add to any analysis that looks purely at the numbers.”
“At the end of the day you live in a city, you have Isis on one edge, Israel on the other, and you no have no other borders anymore that are not dangerous,” adds Fawaz. “You’re in the middle of a war, you don’t have a state, we’ve been without a president for two years, our parliament has not met. We suck. People are exhausted. And if you come and say ‘look, we’re here up against the political class, we’re going to win’, it doesn’t resonate, because people feel like ‘we know all of that and we’re exhausted’. So we want to give hope and show that the possibility of change is here, and I think that’s what we have done.”
* A version of this article appeared in Emirates Man, July 2016