This essay is part of a series that examines the genesis, evolution, mobilization tools and processes, impacts and limitations of informal civil society in political transitions, that is, loose groupings of like-minded individuals—those that are unofficial, unregistered, or unregulated—in the MENA and Southeast Asia. Read more ...
Beirut is a vibrant, complex, and contradictory city. Since the end of the civil war and despite the multiple struggles and errors in its “reconstruction,” Beirut somehow still worked. Increasingly, however, Beirut is not functioning. A decaying physical urban fabric is producing failures in the city’s infrastructure, affordable housing, security, mobility, and open spaces. The political system is not only unable to address this deteriorating urban landscape but is viewed by many in Beirut to be the root cause of this urban decline. In the summer of 2015, Beirut residents took to the street in a series of protests against a (ongoing) garbage crisis. The “You Stink” movement led the inhabitants of Beirut—no longer able to bear a political system that was literally and symbolically poisoning them—into the street. Failure was in the air.
By the beginning of 2016, the garbage crisis continued but an urban social movement to form a solution or to push the political elite to resolve it did not. Few expected the 2016 municipal elections in Lebanon to create any momentum that would reinvigorate civil society in order to attempt to overcome Beirut’s challenges. Traditionally, the municipal elections in post-war Lebanon are a stage-managed affair in which the electoral pie is split between a coalition of traditional Beiruti families and national parties along with a confessional parity between Christians and Muslims. But the rise of the municipal campaign Beirut Madinati (Beirut, My City) breathed much needed fresh air, and with it hope and enthusiasm, into a social structure that is stratified and filled with anxiety and fear.
The 2016 Municipal Elections
On the surface, for Lebanese residents hoping and striving for change, the 2016 Beirut municipal elections are a failure. Only 92,000 cast their vote out of a potential half a million registered voters. The Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) reported 647 electoral violations in Beirut and the Bekaa, a stark rise from the 2010 municipal elections. The Beiruti list (Byerte in Arabic), a coalition of the Lebanese political establishment, won all 24 municipal seats, with a total of 43,000 votes. The Beiruti list is the elected representative of Beirut, with an estimated population of between one and two million, on a mandate given by a tiny fraction of the population. Further, the Beiruti list won this mandate on a broadly negative and xenophobic campaign. Their principal slogan, for instance, “Keep Beirut For Its People,” was a clear deployment of “dog-whistle” politics. The Beiruti list’s victory, however, was a hollow one.
Despite the ostensibly disappointing municipal results, hope and enthusiasm returned for those pushing for change, as news media broadcast the details of the Beirut municipal results. Not only did the Beiruti list win their mandate with only 43,000 votes, but they only just defeated Beirut Madinati (BM). BM won 35 percent of the vote and lost out to the Beiruti list by only 11,000 votes. BM was able to launch one of the most significant attempts to take power away from the political elite in Lebanon on a non-sectarian platform. Further, BM was able to do this despite the fact it formed less than a year before the municipal elections were held. BM generated national excitement and international headlines through its losing municipal election campaign. As the novelist Elias Khoury wrote, Beirut Madinati’s defeat had the “flavour of victory.”
It is important to note some of the numerous obstacles that faced BM. As a new group, they did not have an existing network of volunteers or candidates, nor did they have any substantive data on their electorate. The written and unwritten restrictions on sectarian and geographical registration for both candidates and voters also posed numerous obstacles for the group in terms of their ability to put forward nominees given where their potential voters were located. A further impediment was that BM only had enough volunteers to act as representatives (mandubeen) at a few voting stations to ensure an accurate and fair vote compared to the estimated 3,000 representatives deployed by the Beiruti list. BM faced physical obstacles as well, such as being prevented from campaigning and even entering certain districts of Beirut, such as Mazraa. Competing political parties prevented BM from entering certain areas of Beirut, such as Mazraa, as competing parties literally deemed these neighbourhoods to be their territory. Indeed, the ability of BM to capture 37 percent of the votes in Beirut’s third district, which included predominately Sunni and working class neighbourhoods like Mazraa, took even BM members by surprise.
The Meaning Of Beirut Madinati: A Flexible Urban Movement?
Beirut Madinati is a coalition of loosely like-minded people whose outrage at the ruling elite bound them together. But BM’s significance does not lie in its ability to align people against a corrupt and cynical elite. In my conversations with several of its members, supporters, and candidates it is clear that the protests in August 2015 around the garbage crisis were pivotal for BM’s formation. Several core architects of BM, notably academics from the American University of Beirut (AUB), looked on in despair as the You Stink Movement splintered and eventually collapsed as a political force against the elite. You Stink buckled when it attempted to formulate what it stood for after successfully mobilizing people on the basis of what it stood against.
As a municipal campaign, BM is a distinct from the kind of urban-based protest movements that constituted the first phases of the Arab uprisings and spread globally to include such groups as Occupy Wall Street and the Indignadas. Equally, BM is also different from the far-left political parties that have arisen in Europe, such as Podemos and Syriza. Specifically, I consider BM to be embryonic of a flexible social movement that has the four defining features detailed below.
BM set out and centered its campaign on a carefully crafted and cautious ten-point program on which it sought to be elected. The program includes broad issues such as social and economic development but mostly concentrates on specific urban issues, including mobility, housing, waste management, green space and building, large infrastructure, and urban safety. BM published a municipal program that details each of the ten points and includes for each point the objective, overarching strategy, and immediate, medium, and long term measures. It is important to emphasize that while hopeful, this was not a utopian program. The plan is clearly cognizant of the weak powers that the municipality holds in the Lebanese political architecture and sets objectives that reflect this. This was not a movement or a program that made every possible demand, critique, and proposal it could think of. This program was critical for several reasons, but principally because it focused its candidates and supporters on what BM is and what it intends and is capable of doing. It also assured potential voters that BM was ready and able to run the municipality.
A campaign of hope, not outrage.
BM understood that the outrage at the state of the city and the ruling elite already existed in the streets of Beirut and that its role was to transform this outrage into hope and action. BM was purposefully a positive campaign and strenuously avoided—in its attempt to mount a credible campaign against the political elite—any type of confrontational or negative language. The ten-point program was critical in setting BM's tone that was professional, and maybe even corporate, and decidedly not a protest-based campaign. BM is, for better or worse, not a call to “remove the regime” or prosecute individuals for corruption. BM’s ten-point program, for instance, does not target any specific political party or urban development in Beirut. Instead, the program focuses on an objective, such as housing, and outlines the meaning this has for the city and what acts BM will undertake to improve the current situation. BM constructed a message of hope that had a practical foundation.
BM from its outset was very specific regarding what it wanted, but critically important, it was flexible and opportunistic enough in how it could achieve it. BM set out early on an internal governance structure that helped resolve conflicts through a division of labour as well as the establishment of a participatory mechanism of decision-making. Further, BM is different from the rise of leftist political parties, such as Podemos and Syriza, not only because it is a municipal campaign rather than a fully-fledged political party, but also due to its arm-length leftist credentials. Despite BM’s clear resonance with Marxist figures such as Henri Lefebvre and his call for a “right to the city” and his focus on everyday life, the group’s politics are not Marxist or even necessarily leftist. Indeed, their political position was opportunistically flexible and ambiguous. The flexibility of BM was reflected in its list that placed real estate developers and engineers from multinational corporations alongside academics, activists, and artists. BM means many different things to its various supporters and members, but importantly, these multiple perspectives converge on an improved future for Beirut.
An urban campaign.
The city is constitutive of social movements, and Beirut's urban spaces were critical to the BM campaign. As Beirut witnessed during the protests during the trash crisis, the scale and density of the city enable rapid mobilization. The scale and density of the city was critical for BM to be able to launch a campaign with less than a year’s preparation. Beirut, and in particular the crises associated with waste disposal, traffic, and electrical cuts, offered very clear illustrations of what the everyday consequences of the current political elites’ style of governance. For the protest movements, the multiple crises occurring within the city served as a means to mobilize people. But for BM, Beirut’s urban crises enabled them to clearly frame an alternative future and how they will seek to achieve it. BM’s concentration on making Beirut “a livable city” enabled them to achieve the flexibility of their movement and attract a wider range of perspectives than would a narrow focus on corruption or the targeting of specific political figures or even urban political projects.
Beirut Madinati was a programmatic and flexible campaign concentrated on creating a hopeful urban future. For scholars studying social movements in transitional settings, BM offers a new kind of network through which political and social mobilization has been achieved (with relative success). BM is a rich case study for academics interested in the development of new tools of participation and activism for social mobilization in transitional contexts.
But now that BM has lost the municipal elections, what tangible social change can it attempt to produce? This is the question that those within BM are struggling to answer. As we saw with the garbage crises and the many other global urban protest movements, mobilizations that begin in cities often fragment and/or fail to shift scale to become broader social movements. BM is a new kind of urban-based attempt to produce political change in Lebanon, but it is unclear if it can transform into a broader social movement or transform into a new social form to continue efforts to engender political change. Although BM has the momentum, it must now find its direction. The question many are asking is, where to now, Beirut Madinati?
 Doctors reported that there has been a “huge outbreak” in persistent infections in the respiratory system and in the gastrointestinal tract. “Health fears as Lebanon rubbish crisis deepens,” Associated Press, March 4, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/04/health-fears-lebanon-rubb….
 Johnny Kairouz, “Beirut Madinati”: The institutional rise of Lebanese civil society,” Annahar, May 5, 2016, accessed September 12, 2016, http://en.annahar.com/article/372357-beirut-madinati-the-institutional-….
 The current electoral system in operation means the vast majority of Lebanese citizens can only vote (and stand for election) in their hometown of origin and not in the municipality they may be currently living in. The many Lebanese that live abroad are unable to vote.
 “10 Major municipal election violations as documented by activsts in Beirut, East Lebanon”, May 9, 2016, https://newsroomnomad.com/10-major-municipal-election-violations-as-documented-by-activists-in-beirut-east-lebanon/.
 The Beiruti list was a coalition of all the major Lebanese parties (14 in total) with the exception of Hezbollah.
 “Dog-whistle” politics has mainly been used in the context of the Britain and the United States and is defined as a coded racial appeal that carefully manipulates hostility toward non-whites. Here I argue that the slogan by the Beiruti list “Keep Beirut For Its People” was a coded appeal that creates hostility to ‘outsiders’ and specifically Syrian refugees.
 Sami Attallah, “Despite its Loss at the Polls Beirut Madinati Provides Hope for Change,” May, 2016, The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
 The American University of Beirut (AUB) is a thread that ties many of BM’s architects, members and candidates together. The ten-point program has the fingerprints of the strong professional and academic underpinning that the municipal campaign possessed.
 This position was not without controversy among those opposing the political elite in Lebanon. Specifically, the prominent leftist Charbel Nahas, who headed the other anti-establishment list running in the Municipal elections, Citizens in a State, repeatedly derided BM for their lack of opposition to such developments as Solidère.
 Attallah, “Despite its Loss at the Polls Beirut Madinati Provides Hope for Change.”
 As Kobaissy, one of the BM candidates, told the Socialist Worker, BM was not a socialist program, “The program was about everyday life problems facing people and how to make the city more inclusive. It wasn’t a socialist program; it was more of a liberal program with a social aspect to it.” See the full interview here: “The You Stink challenge in Lebanon,” June 20, 2016, accessed September 12, 2016, https://socialistworker.org/2016/06/20/the-you-stink-challenge-in-leban….