A Beirut polling station on Sunday, May 8. Photo: Hassan Ammar/Associated Press
[Published in The New York Times.]
BEIRUT, Lebanon — A group of Lebanese professors, architects and filmmakers have fashioned an unlikely alternative to the bickering feudal political bosses who for decades have kept their country mired in stalemate. Their bid for power seemed quixotic at first.
But it touched a nerve in Beirut’s municipal elections this week, gaining unexpected traction with voters and fueling the upstarts’ conviction that it is possible to buck the Arab world’s trend toward authoritarianism.
“You can’t just demonstrate and get tear-gassed,” said Jad Chaaban, an economics professor at the American University of Beirut who helped hatch the technocratic political movement, called Beirut, My City. “We need people like us in power.”
The party’s members took on Lebanon’s political bosses in an election with high symbolic value but with little actual power at stake. The city government has a modest budget and limited influence over planning in the city, the country’s capital, but most authority rests with the national government, still securely under the control of the feudal establishment.
Beirut residents voted on Sunday, but officials did not release results until Tuesday. Beirut, My City won about 40 percent of the vote, just a few points behind the establishment slate. Because there is no proportional representation, the winner takes all 24 seats on the council.
Beirut, My City successfully framed its shoestring campaign as part of a broader struggle to rid Lebanon of its corrupt leaders and show the Arab world how to change an established order without toppling into violence and chaos.
Lebanon’s warlords ended a 15-year civil war in 1990 with a sectarian power-sharing agreement. Any faction can veto government decisions, and no single group can dominate the state.
Despite their differences, groups as diverse as the Shiite group Hezbollah, the Sunni Future Movement and Christian warlords once allied with Israel support a system that allows them to divide the spoils of patronage without any oversight. Gerrymandering and rigid election laws make it almost impossible for independent political parties to challenge the sectarian factions at the national level. But municipal elections are, at least in theory, supposed to be nonsectarian, giving an opening to Beirut, My City.
Establishment leaders followed an old formula to fend off the challenge, contending that without them and their power-sharing deals, everything could fall apart, plunging Lebanon back into civil war.
This year’s municipal campaign starkly challenged that orthodoxy. Beirut, My City published a detailed platform focused on quality-of-life issues like traffic, garbage pickup and access to parks. The group refused help from any veteran politicians, and ran a slate of candidates evenly divided between men and women, Muslims and Christians.
Saad Hariri, a former prime minister and a dominant Sunni politician, led an establishment campaign that warned ominously that unknown forces wanted to “harm Beirut and break the parity” among the city’s sects. In a sign that the dominant leaders took the threat seriously, traditional rivals set aside their differences to run in a coalition against the upstarts called the Beirutis.
Many Lebanese, even those angry about endemic corruption, fear that change could be destabilizing, and feel compelled to vote for their sect’s traditional leaders.
“We don’t trust anyone, but we’ll vote for Hariri in order to show that we exist,” said Ahmed Shara’i, a store owner in the Sunni stronghold of Tarik Jadida, who said he moonlighted as a local militia chief.
His poor and marginalized neighborhood has suffered decades of institutional neglect, Mr. Shara’i said. “With the leaders we know, we’re still losing,” he said. “Imagine how much more we lose if they’re gone.”
His rationale neatly summed up how a system survives even though few profess to like it.
Since 2011, Lebanon has emerged relatively unscathed from the types of crises that have led to war or dictatorship in nearby countries. The country’s bosses managed to keep their followers quiet during a series of bombings and assassinations, sectarian clashes and the arrival of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in a country with a population of about four million.
But it is also clear that Lebanon’s recipe is not working. The country has been without a president for two years, and Parliament has unconstitutionally extended its term; the local elections this year are the only polls of any sort since 2010.
Public anger reached a boiling point last summer, when the government failed to renew the nation’s waste collection contract amid allegations that Mr. Hariri was benefiting from a secret deal.
As the garbage piled up, a movement called “You Stink” organized the biggest protests in Lebanon in a decade. Technocrats including Mr. Chaaban, the economics professor, grew frustrated when their detailed proposals to address the garbage crisis were ignored, and decided to go one step further and form a political party.
Nine months later, rotting piles of uncollected waste spew clouds of gas that smells like vomit over the city’s fanciest neighborhoods, while the politicians responsible for the debacle remain in office. But supporters of Beirut, My City believe they have begun something new and lasting.
“They’re afraid of us!” Elie Haddad, an engineer who helped the campaign, said with a laugh. Outside a polling place in West Beirut, he and other volunteers in white T-shirts distributed lists of the candidates for Beirut, My City. They were outnumbered almost 10 to 1 by volunteers for the well-funded Beirutis coalition, in red shirts and baseball caps, who displayed noticeably less zeal.
“There’s no such thing as a volunteer — we’re all paid to be here,” said one of them, Abdelrahman Harb, 34, who was sitting in the shade of a rubber tree with his wife and some friends rather than canvassing voters for the establishment list.
“They can pay for us, but they can’t make us vote for them,” Mr. Harb said, slyly pulling a copy of the Beirut, My City list from his pocket. “We’re ready for a change.”
The civil campaign’s goals are notably modest, and are very much a product of Lebanon’s unusual political environment. The establishment that has run Beirut for the last 10 years faces newly energized scrutiny. “We’ve opened a Pandora’s box,” said Ibrahim Mneimneh, an engineer and the head candidate for Beirut, My City. “We gave people a space to talk. People want to give a slap in the face to their sectarian leaders without taking a huge risk for the country.”
The campaign featured a rarely seen shift from protest to hardball politics. The new party fleshed out detailed policies, and then tried, albeit it with limited success, to build an electoral machine that reached the street and neighborhood level.
Candidates directly attacked corrupt deals, many linked to Mr. Hariri, that have in recent years cut off public access to waterfront land and degraded the quality of water, power and other services in the capital. The civil campaign held forums in Beirut’s few public spaces to call attention to their neglect and to a lack of green space.
Parliamentary elections are expected within the next year, and many supporters of Beirut, My City want to expand the party nationwide.
“They are well organized, and they have content,” said Ziad Baroud, an influential critic of government policy who served as Lebanon’s interior minister from 2008 to 2011. The group delivered a clear message to the establishment, he said: “You failed; you didn’t do much. We have policies, we have a program.”
“They are into politics,” he said of Beirut, My City. “That’s why they made it.”