Makram Rabah

A tale of two cities: Beirut elections revisited

Beirut Madinati, who underestimated the populist power of political parties, must learn from their mistakes if the movement is to survive

Lebanese security forces stand guard as women stand in line to cast their vote for the municipal elections at a polling station on May 8, 2016 in the capital Beirut. (AFP/Anwar Amro)

Once a famous big game hunter was out looking for prey. Having spotted a lion drinking water, he aimed his rifle towards the beast and fired. However, the rifle jammed and the lion, who had just finished eating, refrained from eating the man and merely slaps him around. Having been insulted, the hunter comes back on a number of occasions with a bigger rifle with a much bigger caliber, but the same situation repeats itself. The beast, having felt the man’s frustration, looks at the hunter and asks him “are you here to hunt or do you just enjoy being slapped around?”


This joke might just be appropriate to describe the recent municipal elections that took place in Beirut, or more accurately, how some of the people running for office approached the matter.


Sunday night at 7 pm marked the closing of the polling stations in the city of Beirut. A much awaited municipal elections, which many even doubted would even take place, went through with no major glitches. While four list were competing for the Beirut municipality seats, two main lists where the center of attention, a pro-government coalition list that included everyone but the kitchen sink, “the Beiruti List”, and a list which housed a hodgepodge of young professionals and activists sporting a progressive and seemingly modern platform, “Beirut Madinati” (Beirut my City).


The euphoria that the latter list generated over the past few weeks made many of the Lebanese hopeful that grassroots change was within reach. It is not difficult to explain the support that these people received from potential voters, who were frustrated with the traditional political parties that had failed them time and again. However, as the votes were tallied, this ecstasy quickly died down as the vote showed an overwhelming victory for their rivals, a slap to the face to many so-called ‘dreamers’.


These dreamers did not shy away from expressing their frustration over social media platforms, going so far as labeling the people that voted for their opponents, or merely refrained from voting, as ignorant or herd like. This unsportsmanlike behavior is understandable and rather expected, but how can one learn from this electoral and political debacle to perhaps prevent this movement for change from merely petering out?


Not by “Likes” alone


Social media, especially as an election tool, is a two edged sword. In street terms, Beirut Madinati (BM) “got high on their own supply”, as much of their messaging appealed to people that resemble them. The movement ended up preaching to the choir instead of reaching out to the real voting blocs.


Moreover, many of the supporters of BM believed that a like or a tweet on social media was enough indication that this person will cast his/her vote for their list. People throughout the day like, share and comment on many posts ranging from pictures of people they would like to date to cute babies to more serious political articles.


Nevertheless, when translated into votes in the ballot boxes this social media presence amounted to nothing. People who are on Facebook do not all vote in Beirut, and if they did, they would not do it over social media. The Colombian-Lebanese singer diva Shakira has over 102,806,134 likes on Facebook but she doesn’t hold office.


Elections are a science, not art


Perhaps the most striking failure of the BM list is their lack of what people refer to as an electoral machine, which is pivotal in any contest before, during or after the election process. It was obvious that BM could not muster enough volunteers to cover the numerous polling stations around Beirut, or if they did, these young men and women had no prior interaction with the traditional voting blocs and thus did not sway the vote. Running without a coalition of selectmen (مخاتير) to cover their flanks electorally amounted to virtual suicide. These selectmen, despite their outmoded function, are a source of block votes which no list can win without, especially in Beirut.


Publishing and circulating ones electoral lists, like BM did, four days ahead of the elections is certainly not a prudent move, especially if one wants to avoid what people refer to as sapping the lists (تلغيم). In practical terms, while the process is certainly flawed and requires a total overall, these outdated rules are the ones that dictate the game and BM, or any other movement, cannot expect to change anything if they continue to embrace this reality.


Political parties are not the enemy


Beirut Madinati went out of their way to stress that they are running as representatives of civil society and thus had no political affiliation whatsoever. Nadine Labaki, the renowned director running on the BM ticket, even went as far as declaring that she, or whatever she represents, would ultimately work towards abolishing political parties all together, a juvenile statement to say the least. Anyone who aspires to win office is certainly no civil society activist, but a political activist, and thus one cannot treat the existing parties, regardless of their role and standing, as pariahs. Like it or not, political parties play an instrumental role in capacity building, and thus people who are members of these groups are versed in elections and campaigning more than people realize.


Perhaps it is important that the YouStink movement, which emerged last year during the garbage crisis, committed the same cardinal sin of ostracizing the political parties and eventually found that they themselves were the real outcasts. Calling people who vote for the other parties “sheep” is neither a wise nor a civilized way of carrying oneself.


Beware of strangers baring votes


The final tally revealed that BM had done well in the Christian sector of the city and that the people of East Beirut, who hail from various ideological backgrounds, opted to vote for change. This might be one way of looking at the matter. However, sectarian realities reveal otherwise.


The Free Patriotic Movement and Lebanese Forces alliance, and even the Kataeb party, did not hide the fact that they did not approve of Hariri’s way of handling the municipal elections, nor his choice for the presidency of the republic, Sleiman Franjieh. The ballot box, for the aforementioned parties at least, was not a vote for change but rather a peasant-like way of settling feuds. Also important is the fact that Hezbollah used BM to further weaken Hariri’s position by simply following the age old adage “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”


Oligarchs are smarter than they appear


The people who rallied behind BM assumed that the ruling junta was weaker than it appeared and that this grassroots movement would be the final straw that would end their reign over Lebanese politics. Lebanese oligarchs have been around for a few centuries now, and they know when to play their cards and when to walk away.


Every time a movement such as BM, or any other movement for that matter, try to take them on and fails, these oligarch are further empowered. Contrary to what some might believe, the ruling class has the ability to soldier through these challenges and even use these actions as proof that the system cannot cope with such radical adventurous movements. Ultimately, this junta has the luxury of time, resources and experience. Something BM certainly lacks.


The elitist predisposition of BM also proved to be a liability rather than an asset, for unfortunately, not all people relate to the Ras Beiruti cosmopolitan outlook that most of the BM candidates represent. Traditional leaders are masters of playing the populist card, whether one likes it or not.


BM and whoever inherits this movement after them need to be aware of these aforementioned pitfalls. Life does not reward people for coming in 10th place and while certainly the 29,000 votes that BM garnered is an impressive feat, the reality remains that winning silver is losing gold. 

Lebanese security forces stand guard as women stand in line to cast their vote for the municipal elections at a polling station on May 8, 2016 in the capital Beirut. (AFP/Anwar Amro)

Every time a movement such as Beirut Madinati, or any other movement for that matter, try to take them on and fails, these oligarch are further empowered.