Thousands call for government to resign over failure to solve crisis triggered by closure of main landfill last summer.
Beirut – It’s dusk, and on the second floor of an old building in Beirut’s fashionable Badaro neighbourhood, people of all ages are crowding into small rooms and spilling on to the staircase as they strain to hear speeches about what’s wrong with Lebanon’s capital and, most importantly, how it can be fixed.
This is a weekly open house organised by Beirut Madinati – Beirut is my city- one of several new groups seeking to challenge Lebanon’s political establishment and affect change via an unlikely conduit: Municipal elections due to be held this month.
“We’ve had enough. We’ve all walked in the trash and have been stuck in traffic and suffered from pollution,” Zeead Yaghi, a 22-year-old volunteer coordinator with the group, told Al Jazeera as enthusiastic applause for a speaker echoed in the background.
“For the first time after what happened in August … there’s a space for people like us to actually be in a position to influence how we live our lives daily.”
This Sunday, voters in Beirut and Bekaa Valley governorates are set to go to the first of the four-phase municipality elections that occur every six years and are rolled out across the various parts of the country over a month.
This year, the election dates for the Beirut and Bekaa Valley govenorates are on May 8, Mount Lebanon governorates on May 15, south Lebanon’s on May 22 and north Lebanon’s on May 29.
Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of months of sporadic – but highly charged – anti-government protests and advocacy work sparked by a nationwide garbage crisis last summer, and with parliamentary elections – already twice postponed, Lebanese civil society is now setting its sights on May’s local polls.
, a democratic way to have a political revolution. We need this new blood coming in, we need change to enter the institutions.”]
“I’m tired of asking incompetent people, people who didn’t do anything for this country, to do something,” Rana el-Khoury, a creative director at an advertising agency in Beirut, told Al Jazeera.
“Elections are a democratic way to change [the country], a democratic way to have a political revolution. We need this new blood coming in, we need change to enter the institutions.”
Khoury is one of 24 independent candidates – an eclectic mix of university professors, technocrats and activists – standing in the capital’s municipal elections this Sunday as part of the Beirut Madinati campaign.
With a pragmatic 10-point agenda addressing the numerous problems facing Beirut, from public transport to waste management to affordable housing, and a savvy approach involving fundraisers in trendy bars, young volunteers flyering neighbourhoods and a huge social media presence, the group has quickly gained traction and fuelled intense debate.
“Elections [in Lebanon] are not used to this sort of activity,” explained Carmen Geha, the author of the book Civil Society and Political Reform in Lebanon and Libya and teacher of public administration at the American University of Beirut. “Normally campaigning starts a week before and it’s very personality-based, not policy-based.”
The result is a growing buzz around the polls. Municipal elections, usually a dull affair revolving around prominent village families and the usual mainstream families, require voters to return to their ancestral villages.
“I think the thrust of it is that this is a space for activism. Where else is there?” said Geha. “It’s good. More lists will increase turnout, which is usually quite low. It’s getting Lebanese enthusiastic about elections again.”
Although unable to draft legislation or enact big-scale reform, municipalities in Lebanon have become increasingly empowered over the past few years, according to Kanj Hamade, vice secretary general of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections.
Part of this is financial, he explained, due to the influx of money from international organisations to help municipalities cope with the Syrian refugee crisis, and part of it is political, thanks to calls for greater decentralisation following the rubbish crisis.
“They have enough power to be efficient and make a change,” Hamade told Al Jazeera. “The Beirut municipal council in particular can make real change, as they have a lot of money available to them.”
Although Hamade was sceptical of Beirut Madinati’s chances of beating Lebanon’s old guard to win any of the 24 council seats available in the capital, he predicted that smaller constituencies in rural areas would see more action.
“Young people and women have a great opportunity there,” he said. “In some places it’s not a big fight, but maybe the older guy realises he needs the younger, more active guy and includes him on his list. I believe this sort of change is going to happen in several places across the country.”
Nadine Moussa, leader of the secular Citizens Movement party, is hoping that one of those places will be the village of Mtein in Mount Lebanon’s forested Metn district, where she is supporting an independent female candidate – Chantal Bou Akl – run on a list with three other young newcomers against several established political families.
“They want to build their agenda and pledges according to people’s priorities and needs,” explained Moussa. “This is a totally fresh type of campaign, and it’s shaking up the mentality in the village over there. We are asking residents to choose an agenda rather than a person.”
Shifting mentalities is difficult. But with turnout at the last municipal election averaging just under 40 percent – in Beirut it was 21 percent – and the addition of a new generation of voters less connected to the old political establishment, most challengers are looking to the silent majority to carry them to victory.
“Each party has its own supporters. But in total, all of them get a small percentage of the Lebanese population’s votes,” explained journalist Amine Kammourieh, co-founder of another secular, pro-reform movement, Citizens Within a State, which is putting forward independent candidates across the country.
“There is another section that doesn’t vote, and no one represents them. We are trying to represent some of these people.”
On top of a wide range of civil society members, Citizens Within a State’s list of candidates also includes former ministers such as Charbel Nahas and Abdallah Farhat, setting it apart from similar movements.
“We don’t want to compete [with the politicians] necessarily, we want to balance the power and tell them that they are doing it wrong,” Kammourieh said at a cafe in Downtown near the office of his newspaper, An-Nahar.
“Even if we succeed [in being elected], we won’t be able to change much unless the politicians agree.”
Like many in Lebanon, Kammourieh is cynical about civil society’s ability to force a highly resilient political elite to change their ways without electing a whole new set of leaders, which he doesn’t see happening any time soon.
“I’m not optimistic about change occurring,” he said with a sad smile. “But I have to try. This is like shaking the stick, saying that we are here.”