Is This the Way out of Our Awful Situation?

Support grows for the political movement Beirut Madinati and its vision of responsible government.

It will take some time to grasp the many potential consequences of the 40 percent of votes that the upstart Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City) movement of technocrats, young professionals, academics, and progressive activists won in the Beirut municipal elections last Sunday. It is beyond doubt that this was a significant development, even though its slate of twenty-four candidates did not win a single seat on the city council.

This small movement has achieved something meaningful in a small corner of Lebanon and the Arab region, and even then its 40 percent of votes cast was a harvest among only 20 percent of eligible voters who went to the polls last Sunday. Despite this, this is an important development for several reasons that may have repercussions across the region.

1) Beirut Madinati seem to represent that elusive element that people have been for across the modern Arab World for many decades: the middle ground between Islamist populism and hero-worshiping great leader authoritarianism that is usually anchored in military or security sectors. Beirut Madinati is neither the Muslim Brothers nor Field Marshal-turned-President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, but something new that reflects an attempt to translate citizen discontent and citizen expectations into a political movement that can respond to those sentiments.

2) Beirut Madinati represents that rare, perhaps unique and unprecedented, success in translating Arab populist street anger into organized political and electoral action. They would seem to be the response to the big question that many in Lebanon, including myself, asked last August and September, after tens of thousands of Lebanese from all walks of life broke through their sectarian straightjackets and demonstrated on the streets against their moribund and uncaring political elite that had allowed uncollected garbage to pile up across the city: Would these expressions of mass individual anger, rather than organized sectarian mechanical street marching and flag waving, be translated into an organized force that could achieve the desired change in the conduct of the government and the political elite as a whole?

Arab citizens who feel disrespected by their own governments usually have only had a few obvious options to respond: demonstrate in the streets, join Islamist or leftist-progressive opposition movements, emigrate, engage in violent or criminal activity, or shut down half their humanity and live life as unthinking robots rather than full human beings with minds, sentiments and a sense of dignity and rights. Beirut Madinati seems to have produced a new option that will be attractive to many people, in Lebanon and perhaps across parts of the Arab World.

Its performance to date only offers partial answers to the question of whether they will be able to channel popular anger into organized and effective political action. They were able to strategize, develop a plan to tap citizen anger and channel it through the municipal election to seek the political incumbency they need to bring about change, and organize their electoral engagement in a manner that secured them a respectable 40 percent of the vote, including being the top vote getters in some sub-districts. They also did this against enormous odds, as they faced the collective power, money, legacy, media control, and organizational capabilities of virtually all the major Lebanese political groups that banded together to maintain control of the municipal council that has performed in such a mediocre manner in recent years.

3) They appealed to voters on the basis of a ten-point plan that addressed issues that matter in the lives of Beirut residents, such as transport, public and green spaces, affordable housing, health and safety, environmental quality, waste management, and public services such as libraries. Such a policy-based, citizen-oriented political program that includes specific deliverables within a time frame (the city council’s six-year term) is rare in Arab political life, but it seems to appeal very strongly to many citizens. A political movement that goes beyond complaining of the ills that plague us, and instead uses non-violent, action-focused electoral mechanisms to bring about change in people’s lives, is a novelty in the modern Arab World.

Beirut Madinati have a big challenge ahead of them now, given their electoral performance that seems to validate the efficacy of their approach to turning around the political morbidity of the Arab political governance order. How they proceed to act now in the political sphere will be important to their ability to build on their initial success and continue to gather steam for future elections, whether municipal or parliamentary. They are a movement worth watching, because their message of individual citizens’ hope and hard work vs. collective despair and dependency seems to provide one possible answer to the big question that hundreds of millions of Arabs have been asking themselves for half a century at least: how did we allow ourselves to get into this disgraceful condition of dysfunctional governance and dilapidated public order, and how do we get out of here?

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global