Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Do Beirut elections mark birth of new Arab citizens?

The results indicate how deeply entrenched are the old behaviours and loyalties.

By Rami Khouri


If change is ever to come to stagnant Arab political systems that have long lumbered beneath the control of sectarian and other entrenched forces, historians may look back on the Beirut municipal elections held Sunday as a turning point.
When the voting took place, one main question caught people's attention: Would the upstart Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City) list of candidates comprising young activists and professionals gain any meaningful support from voters, in the face of their challenge to the establishment-heavy "Beirutis" candidates of Sunnis, Shia and Christians led by Saad Hariri?
There was little doubt that the Hariri camp would win, which they did, given their overwhelming advantage in critical areas.
These included funds, control of national media outlets, the support of all the main sectarian groups in the country, and Lebanese voters' tradition of blindly supporting their sectarian leaders, rather than electing candidates who reflected their own policy concerns or wishes.

Challenging status-quo

The preliminary results indicate that the Hariri-linked "Beirutis" won just over half the votes cast, thus taking all 24 municipal council seats.
The unexpected shock was the strong support of voters for the Beirut Madinati list of 24 evenly divided Christian-Muslim and male-female candidates, including one with a physical disability.
They received around 42-43 percent of the vote, won one of the three electoral districts outright, and secured some 32,000 votes compared with the Beirutis' 47,000.
Another new list of progressive candidates, Citizens in a State, led by former minister Cherbel Nahas, also secured several thousand votes.
Though the Hariri-led candidates will run city hall for the coming six years, these election results are meaningful in Lebanon, and perhaps beyond it, because they reflect historic changes taking place in three linked arenas: Citizen-state ties; the conduct of electoral politics; and the mobilisation of social discontent and its channelling into organised political action for change.

The final result was delayed because more than 600 reported voting irregularities forced a recount of all ballot boxes at the central electoral headquarters in Beirut's seafront Biel district.
This was one of the important signs of challenge and change that resulted from the new tactics used by Beirut Madinati and others who challenged the status quo.
Hundreds of volunteers monitored all stages of the voting process and reported infractions, posting them on social media outlets in real time.

Dysfunctional state

The elections excited many Beirutis in part because all other forms of political action in the country seemed blocked: The presidency has been vacant for two years; the parliament has extended its own term and rarely meets; and the council of ministers meets irregularly and only deals with issues where a consensus is available, which means big sticker items get delayed.
The unexpectedly strong showing by the technocratic and social activist challengers is a powerful message that politics may be changing in ways that were never experienced in Arab countries before

The combination of deteriorating basic services - uncollected rubbish, worsening electricity cuts, increasingly saline water, brittle public transport - recently reached such a serious state that activists and young professionals decided to try a different approach to improving government performance than last summer's ultimately ineffective street demonstrations.
significant new element quickly visible in Beirut's election discussion was Beirut Madinati's 10-point policy programme that focused on practical family needs, such as transport, water, rubbish, natural heritage, housing, public and green spaces, community services, and other such daily life needs.
"We wanted to politicise the city council where things happen that directly impact on citizens' lives, because this could be a way to achieve the change in their daily life that they want," one young Beirut Madinati activist said in an interview during the voting Sunday.

A grassroots change?

The fact that the challengers secured more than 40 percent of the vote indicated to most analysts in Lebanon that a growing number of Lebanese were seeking ways to express their anger with the stagnant governing system, while improving living conditions for citizens.
This meant that many Sunni, Shia, Christian, Druze supporters were prepared at the municipal level to ignore their sectarian leaders and bring in new city managers who could get things done.

This continues an important new phenomenon that first reared its head during the rubbish protests last July and August, when irate individual citizens walking among piles of rubbish in every neighbourhood took to the street to vent their anger over how the national government mistreated them. The municipal vote seems to have extended this trend.
The fact that the establishment candidates retained control of the Beirut city council indicates how deeply entrenched are the old behaviours and loyalties.
The unexpectedly strong showing by the technocratic and social activist challengers is a powerful message that politics may be changing in ways that were never experienced in Arab countries before - community-based, issue-drive, citizen-focused demands delivered by gender-equitable slates of younger candidates.
This important breakthrough for a new kind of Arab political action - in the face of traditional hegemonies - now faces the harder test of building on the achievements and lessons of the past nine months of public political action.
This could see the birth of a new political party or the establishment of a shadow municipal council, and, for certain, stringent monitoring of the municipal council's performance by activists and citizens who have tasted success for the first time, hoping that victory and incumbency would follow in the years ahead.
Rami G Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, and an internationally syndicated columnist. 

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