We are all Beirut Madinati

We are all Beirut Madinati
Comment: The new movement may not have won elections in Lebanon, but may have offered us a glimpse of the future, writes Bassel F. Salloukh.
6 min read
11 May, 2016
Beirut Madinati's campaign exposed the contradictions of a sectarian system in deep crisis [Karim Sakr/Facebook]

Electoral defeats are always hard to swallow, but especially for those of us who were hoping, perhaps against hope, that any of Beirut Madinati's 24 candidates could manage to win a seat in last Sunday's Lebanese elections to the capital's municipal council.

But what's one battle defeat in a long war against the political economy and ideological hegemony of an entrenched sectarian system, one that penetrates deep into almost every nook and cranny of Lebanese life?

A nascent organisation mirroring other independent grassroots movements contesting the corruption of politics and capitalism's exclusionary and dehumanising power structures across the globe, Beirut Madinati exploded into the public scene and swiftly transformed what was supposed to be a sterile electoral contest into an existential threat to the country's sectarian political elite.

It spoke a modern language of accountability and transparency; of the need to care for urban space and the environment; citizens' rights to public parks, a decent transportation system, electricity, and waste management; the need to salvage the beauty of a Levantine city drowned in a sea of concrete towers and surrounded by streams of cars; and the will to restore a sense of public ownership and civic activism destroyed by complex sectarian clientelist networks and decades of vulgar postwar neoliberal policies.

Yet despite its failure to gain any seats on the municipal council, Beirut Madinati achieved a lot. Its high moral grounds and rational civil discourse forced its opponents not only to take the competition seriously, but to show some respect to the interests and intelligence of their own constituency.

It exposed the contradictions of a sectarian system in deep crisis, and the divisions between the leadership and the base in many sectarian parties. More concretely, it garnered some 41 percent of the popular vote in an election in which the supporters of "the Beirutis list" - a disparate posse of sectarian parties led by the Future Movement - deployed all kinds of fraudulent shenanigans.

This is a staggering percentage given that Beirut Madinati is composed of professionals and volunteers with little prior electoral experience; the organisation was formed only a couple of months ago, lacks the well-lubricated and experienced electoral machines possessed by sectarian parties, and suffers from perennial understaffing and underfunding.

Nor is it difficult to explain Beirut Madinati's electoral defeat: it operated against insurmountable institutional hurdles. The municipal election's institutional architecture was already stacked against it and other opposition groups.

Many Beirut Madinati supporters reside in the capital and pay municipal taxes - but are denied the right to vote

In Lebanon's aggressively clientelist and patriarchal sectarian system, many voters cast their votes not where they live and pay taxes, but rather in their ancestral villages, places from which their fathers hailed and which they visit during holidays or to bury their dead.

This worked against Beirut Madinati, as many of its supporters reside in the capital and pay municipal taxes - but are denied the right to vote in its municipal elections.

Perhaps Sunday's results will entice these supporters to relocate their personal status papers away from their ancestral villages to where they are actually domiciled.

Another institutional ruse that punished Beirut Madinati pertains to how votes are converted into seats in Lebanese elections, whether these are municipal or parliamentary: winners and losers are determined by a simple plurality of the votes cast, a universally biased electoral law that always favours established parties with sophisticated clientelist networks and organisational capabilities over nascent opposition groups.

It is an inefficient law, as it overrepresents the winners and leaves so many votes wasted. An alternative, proportional representation electoral law would have produced a very different and more representative municipal council.

Sunday's election is cause for renewed civil society pressure to revamp the country's electoral system, to end the discrimination against groups organising around counterfactual cross-sectarian classes, regional, gender, or environmental interests.

Some will invariably claim that Beirut Madinati played by the rules of the sectarian game; that it benefited electorally from the competition within the alliance of confessional, sectarian, and political enemies arrayed against it.

Others will blame it for failing to form an alliance with like-minded civic groups - namely Charbel Nahas' aptly labelled movement, Citizens In A State - and thus splitting the opposition vote. All this may be partially true, but cannot take away from the allure of this foundational moment.

there are always alternatives to the dominant mode of political mobilisation and identification in post-war Lebanon

For Beirut Madinati has done what other anti- and cross-sectarian groups have hitherto failed to do: it chose the right moment and battle, zeroed in on an achievable target, remained organically connected to the people it claimed to represent, couched its demands in a readily fathomable discourse void of sectarian chauvinism or ideological jargon, and demonstrated the benefits of an institutionalised organisational structure, no matter how embryonic that remains.

By bringing the battle to the sectarian elite's den, it showed that there are always alternatives to the dominant mode of political mobilisation and identification in post-war Lebanon.

Its leaders and activists put in practice Antonio Gramsci's favourite quote, which he attributed to Romain Rolland: "Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will." They departed from the pessimism that comes from recognising the overwhelming capabilities of the sectarian system to its active contestation in an effort to demystify its ideological hegemony - and consequently opened up possibilities for a new kind of politics in Lebanon.

But now that the fog of Beirut's municipal elections has cleared, the hard work of building on what has been achieved begins. Despite the fear that gripped the sectarian establishment at the election's eleventh hour, the complex ensemble of institutional, clientelist, and discursive practices undergirding the sectarian system remains resilient.

Beirut Madinati uncovered fissures in this ensemble in one locale, however: anchoring electoral prospects to a discourse that demonises the sectarian "other" when your constituency lacks basic services no longer resonates with all Beiruti voters.

Nor can they any longer be taken for granted. A new kind of interactive politics, and a discourse dealing with everyday local problems appeals to voters tired of false promises and prophets.

The challenge ahead is to keep the momentum going and to build new alliances of resistance outside Beirut and across the country's urban-rural divide.

Perhaps the enduring lesson from Sunday's election is that there is a broad anti- and cross-sectarian audience waiting to be organised in Lebanon by new movements practicing a new kind of inclusive politics.

Comparative experiences in Spain, Italy, Greece, and slowly but fearlessly in Iraq, tell us that patient but creative grassroots organisation, that old tactic of political activity, is inescapable for any measure of social and political change.

Beirut Madinati has showed us one way of organising and contesting the sectarian system. Other parts of the country may come up with their own versions. But for now we are all Beirut Madinati, whether we vote in Beirut or not.

Dr Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.