A lot has been said and written about Beirut Madinati, and this is likely to continue for the months and years to come. The thoughts below are however primarily intended for the many volunteers and activists who joined the campaign at various stages, and who contributed to its success.
Let me say first that I am proud and deeply honored to have had the opportunity to coordinate the Beirut Madinati municipal elections campaign. What started as a simple idea snowballed into the first credible grassroots electoral movement that the country has seen in decades. This was only made possible thanks to the selfless devoted efforts of hundreds of individuals, who believe in working for the common good and stand against the deterioration of our country and its public institutions. Women and men from all walks of life, from Beirut and beyond, spent countless hours away from their loved ones campaigning on the streets, fundraising, calling voters, writing documents, entering data, organizing meetings, counting ballots, and the list goes on. You are all the true heroes of Beirut Madinati. I salute you.
I would like to detail briefly what I believe were the major achievements of Beirut Madinati ever since it was founded last September. This is an incomplete list, yet it portrays major wins which go beyond good electoral results.
1. We forced the government to proceed with municipal elections, and contributed to restoring (what is left of) our tiny democracy: Many of you recall that the ruling class wanted to find excuses to postpone municipal elections, like they did before with the parliamentary ones. This had serious implications on our ability to get funding and in reaching out to our skeptical audience. But we pressed on despite this shaky (premeditated) environment, and we were the first electoral campaign to be announced in the capital and in the country. Our preemptive actions thereafter cornered the government, which had no choice but to proceed given the momentum we helped create.
And this momentum got picked up beyond Beirut, where similar grassroots municipal campaigns emerged in several villages and cities across the country (sometimes using the same name and logo!). Yes, all of you Beirut Madinati supporters and volunteers helped restore one of our basic human rights in this country: Democratic representation and our right to elect our representatives, starting from the local level (despite the well-known issues surrounding the electoral law, like the mismatch with the place of residence).
2. We built an exemplary electoral campaign, showing the tremendous value of collective efforts: All campaign members brought their experience and know-how from previous initiatives, creating a fantastic melting pot of skills and assets. Best practices were devised and implemented as we proceeded: transparency, collective decision-making, professionalism and respect for diversity, grassroots democracy, and most of all the passion to create and be part of change. Beirut Madinati showed that activism in our tiny country is still alive and well, and that normal citizens are always ready to take the fight to any front to defend their rights for a better and more dignified life.
3. We restored content and value to the political discourse in the country: With Beirut Madinati people were discussing concrete reforms, actual electoral programs and platforms, and meeting candidates who were running “for” an actual initiative rather than just “against” someone else. With Beirut Madinati elections became centered on people’s everyday problems, rather than a sectarian discourse fueling divisions and hatred. We forced the opponents (mainly the ruling class’ list) to actually conceive an electoral program (actually they copied ours), to organize grassroots meeting in neighborhoods and listen to people’s concerns (they never did), and to have transparent communication platforms (they copied our website, but they never published their campaign financial reports, we did).
4. We fought an electoral battle against all parties of the ruling class. We stood strong, and lost by a tiny margin: What started as a simple municipal electoral battle in Beirut turned into a massive one against all of Lebanon’s ruling political parties. The ruling cartel formed a list which united old so-called “enemies” in one camp, and all political parties active in Beirut worked for it. The minister of Interior overseeing elections also publicly endorsed the head of their list, so basically we were also up against the state apparatus. Funding in the millions of dollars poured in the “ruling class’s” list favor, greasing the wheels of their “electoral machine”. They employed all sorts of tactics against us: negative online rumors (that as a secular group we were running to “close mosques”!); personal attacks against some of our candidates; discourse to fuel sectarian tensions (like we were a “threat to the Sunni leadership”, or our list would “destroy sectarian balance in the capital”); physical threats in some neighborhoods; undermining our electoral representatives’ pool through financial offers and personal threats, etc…Yet, with our tiny crowd-funded budget, our “electoral machine” built in less than 3 months, and our mainly volunteer-based campaign staffing, we were able to get 40% of the votes alone in front of all the ruling political parties. There was only a 7000-votes difference between our list and theirs. For the record, in the last municipal elections in 2010, there was a 50,000 votes difference between the winners and the losers!
To be continued…