[Published here on May 5, 2016]
Beirut (AFP) – Armed with a 10-point platform and a shot of ambition, an unlikely alliance of Lebanese citizens will for the first time take on Beirut’s powerful political class in Sunday’s municipal elections.
Beirut Madinati — Arabic for “Beirut is my city” — is a civic campaign of 24 candidates, equally split between men and women, and Muslims and Christians.
And they aren’t backed by politicians, which makes them a breath of fresh air for many voters in a country as divided as Lebanon.
“We don’t have a lot of political experience as Beirut Madinati, but we’ve been able to win people’s hearts because we’re independent,” says Ibrahim Mneimneh, an architect by trade and the campaign’s leading candidate.
“When election day comes, we’ll be ready to win,” Mneimneh says, hoping to capture the majority of the 470,000 registered Beirut voters, although the city’s actual residents are estimated to be four times as many.
Municipal elections in Lebanon take place every six years, with political parties often forming joint candidate lists.
Sunday’s vote is the first of any kind in Lebanon since the last municipal elections in 2010.
A parliamentary vote in 2013 was cancelled when its members controversially extended their own mandate.
Since the end of its brutal civil war in 1990, Lebanon’s political scene has been dominated by a handful of parties often formed along sectarian lines and led by former warlords.
Beirut Madinati will face the formidable challenge of breaking through that entrenched political class in a bid to win all 24 seats in the Lebanese capital’s municipal council.
– ‘Never thought it’s impossible’ –
The campaign was founded in 2015 shortly after a dispute that closed Lebanon’s largest trash dump and sparked protests to demand not only an end to the growing piles of waste, but an overhaul of paralysed government institutions.
Beirut Madinati seized on that frustration to put together a 10-point platform — the campaign’s magnum opus and a rallying call for young voters.
It includes plans to improve public transport in the notoriously traffic-ridden city, introduce more green spaces, make housing affordable and, of course, implement a lasting waste management solution.
The platform was developed by consulting residents of Beirut through open-houses and neighbourhood visits, and “is centred around the daily life of the person, the citizen,” says soft-spoken candidate Rana Khoury.
Khoury is the step-daughter of slain Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir and one of the core founders of Beirut Madinati.
“We began this campaign in September, because we felt that it was no longer possible for us to demand change from the people in power,” she tells AFP in the campaign headquarters in the edgy Badaro neighbourhood.
“We never thought it was impossible, because the whole time we were thinking that it was necessary, that there is no other choice.”
Once the platform was ready, Beirut Madinati put together its candidate list, including celebrated Lebanese director Nadine Labaki and the head of the country’s fishermen cooperative, Najib al-Deek.
– ‘Today, there’s a choice’ –
Beirut Madinati has been infectious, garnering thousands of views on videos it posted on Facebook in lieu of plastering traditional candidate portraits on the walls of Beirut.
But the movement still has to face off this Sunday against other electoral lists, chiefly the seasoned politicians who have formed a super-list of candidates.
The “Byerteh List” — or Beirutis’ List — includes well-known figures agreed upon by all of Lebanon’s political parties and is backed by leading Sunni politician and former prime minister Saad Hariri.
“The biggest challenge we are facing is our rival. We are facing a regime, a regime that has been in power for 40 years — and we’re outsiders,” says Beirut Madinati electoral strategist Rayan Ismail.
Indeed, for decades, Lebanon’s political class has cultivated a strong grassroots presence through clientelism, particularly in lower-income neighbourhoods.
Manned by a group of activists and intellectuals without the political cunning of their rivals, Beirut Madinati has struggled to build up similar support there.
One former Beirut Madinati volunteer said candidates were “naive” in thinking a well-developed platform without backing from working-class neighbourhoods would be enough to win.
“We’re not in la-la land. We’re in Lebanon,” he says.
Beirut Madinati is also up against a disillusioned electorate, many of whom believe that a change from the entrenched clientelism and corruption of Lebanese politics is simply impossible.
“I won’t vote for anyone — not even my brother who’s a candidate… They’re all liars,” says Beirut resident Issam Ghlayen.
Still, Khoury says that hasn’t stopped her.
“There were a lot of people for a while who were saying that the same people will be re-elected, and that nothing will change in Lebanon,” she explains.
“Maybe that was true when there was no choice. Today, there is a choice. There’s Beirut Madinati. And we can vote for it.”