It might sound strange to celebrate losing an election with a mere 20.6 percent voter turnout, but when it comes to Beirut’s 2016 municipal elections, the results only scratch the surface.
100 Years of Sykes-Picot
When a group of university professors got together in late 2015 to explore the idea of creating an independent slate to run in Beirut’s municipality elections, they didn’t expect their platform to take off the way it did, winning almost 40 percent of the votes. The slate, dubbed Beirut Madinati (Beirut Is My City), took on Lebanon’s leadership in a comprehensive and highly publicized campaign that certainly caught everyone off guard. They’ve been making the news regionally and internationally, but many in Lebanon are hoping that this victory is just the beginning for an uphill battle against the small state’s political establishment.
Sectarianism as a Weapon
Lebanon’s political powers are divided into two coalitions: the pro-West, pro-Gulf Coordination Council (GCC) March 14 alliance, and the pro-Russia/Iran March 8 alliance. Their leadership and families all played an active role in the Lebanese civil war, which killed 150,000 people between 1975 and 1990. Today, they still take advantage of Lebanon’s sectarian political system, and the culture that revolves around it, to maintain power. Despite officially opposing each other, they’re quick to come together in an attempt to stamp out popular movements and clamp down civil society, except for spineless NGOs.
Student movements struggle to grow as they compete with movements that represent different political parties of the establishment. Unions are bribed out of declaring a general strike. Professional syndicates are lackeys to the Lebanese establishment. When all else fails, they point at the chaos and destruction in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State group, or scare their constituency into believing that there is an existential threat. They have used excuses like these to openly oppose a secular government, and to even have parliament elections postponed indefinitely since the summer of 2013.
The garbage crisis that led to mass protests last summer was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This was an issue of policy and corruption; no sectarian rhetoric could get past the tens of thousands that demonstrated on Beirut’s streets. Even though the government resorted to tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, police brutality and mass arrests, it couldn’t halt the chain reaction.
To counter Lebanon’s official and registered media outlets, ordinary citizens created media collectives to shed light on different issues across the country, breaking boundaries that divided people based on sectarian affiliations. Unlike the generation that lived through the horrors of the civil war, a younger generation emerged willing to challenge Lebanon’s political and corporate establishment, including Beirut’s privatized waste collection and management company.
Reclaiming Beirut’s Municipal Government
Many saw reclaiming the Beirut municipality as a strategic move. It’s the richest municipality in the country, with an annual budget of US$250 million and a bit over US$1 billion in the treasury. However, Beirut is becoming unlivable: the government still doesn’t provide electricity without daily cuts, rent is soaring, health care is expensive and there is no reliable public transportation in the city.
What made the Beirut municipality elections ideal: direct democracy. With parliamentary elections constantly postponed, this was the only official democratic process left.
Beirut Madinati’s platform focused on using the budget wisely for solid infrastructure: safer roads, green and other public spaces, brightly lit streets at night for safety purposes, among other things. Unlike other elections, they campaigned intensely online, and organized open discussion events for people to meet and talk to the candidates. For the first time, there was an electoral campaign and platform where citizens could discuss issues in a public forum with the candidates. There was substance. It wasn’t about protecting the existence of a sect or a feudal leader with deity-like status; it was about picking the candidates they believe would make the city a better place.
No, Israel Should Not Flatten Beirut
The establishment’s slate, called the “Beirutis’ List,” included people from both March 14 and March 8 factions, spearheaded by Saad Hariri, leader of March 14’s Future Movement. They responded with intense campaigning of their own. It was the closest thing to a genuine electoral competition Lebanon has had since its independence from French colonial rule over 73 years ago. Many were baffled by this, even the establishment’s own supporters, who had mixed feelings hearing pleas from their leaders to support a slate which includes some of their most hated political enemies.
Lebanon’s establishment is definitely not going away anytime soon, but could this mark the beginning of a proactive and effective Lebanese civil society?
It’s Just the Beginning
Despite winning roughly 40 percent of the votes being an impressive feat, Beirut Madinati, Lebanese civil society, and other movements still have much more to do. Voter turnout was only at 20.6 percent, roughly the same as it was in the last Beirut municipality elections in 2010. There is a huge chunk of those eligible to vote in Beirut that either felt excluded from the Beirut Madinati’s plans, or like many in Lebanon, have simply lost hope. While Beirut Madinati’s campaign focused almost entirely on infrastructure, and didn’t extend their outreach to the most vulnerable of Lebanese citizens who live outside of the city, there are some problems that are beyond their control. Lebanon’s massive expat population doesn’t have the right to vote in absentia, and others take bribes from the government to vote for their slate.
What happens over the summer will be key to whether Beirut Madinati can open a new chapter in Lebanese politics. The victory is indeed admirable, but will we choose to remain silent over the next six years until the next municipal elections, or will we protest the over 467 reported cases of voting procedure violations and fraud and hold the current Beirut municipality accountable for its every move going forward? Will they reflect on the past six months to find ways to grow and improve?
I hope it’s the latter.