On 8 May elections for the Beirut Municipality took place in Lebanon. Dr Claire Launchbury, a specialist in French and cultural studies, whose research concentrates on Beirut, explains that while it might not seem a grand affair in terms of power stakes, it was an incredibly symbolic vote as there has been no democratic scrutiny in Lebanon since 2010.
Politically, the tiny country is in a state of paralysis. Inertia, corruption, sectarian vested interests and militias have made the political scene in Lebanon a particularly unpleasant one. It has been without an elected president since 25 May 2014 when, at the end of Michel Suleiman’s presidency, the incumbent parliament unilaterally renewed its term without any democratic consultation.
These May elections also mark the culmination of several other related issues. For a number of years, the Civil Centre for National Initiative, the Laïque Pride movement and others have been campaigning for recognition of civil status (including civil marriage), and the removal of the obligatory religious affiliation from the Lebanese official registry. Politico-religious power structures have had deep and traumatic consequences stretching back to the harrowing memory of the civil wars (1975-c.1990) – and beyond. At checkpoints militia would arrest, kidnap or assassinate someone on the basis of their religion and its associated sectarian partisanship, which until 2009 had to appear on national identity cards.
A youthful movement of artists, civil activists, academics, architects and NGO workers have thus been active in Beirut for several years. In many ways their activity, and especially, their cultural production, was something that ran counter to political discourses, particularly in work which has actively sought to keep the presence of the civil war and its memory alive. And yet, it wasn’t civil status rights which brought together the community across all sectarian factions, it was rubbish.
The landfill dump at Naahme, south of the capital, closed as it was full to capacity. In fact, it had been for several years and Sukleen, the private company contracted by the government to collect rubbish from Beirut and Mount Lebanon stopped doing so. Over a period of weeks, domestic rubbish piled up across the city, and being sprayed with pesticide powder in no way diminished the over-powering stench of rotting filth.
These scenes brought back memories of the rubbish dumps, portside and shoreside of the city as it was broken by the civil conflict. Rapidly, protests united around the slogan ‘You stink’ or ‘Vous puez’. In Arabic, ريحتكم طلعت has a more complicated meaning, and suggests that ‘your stench has shown itself’. The protests targeted politicians, some of whom it was believed had struck profitable financial deals with Sukleen while leaving the rubbish mounting on the streets.
For a country whose state seems so ineffective, the repression of protestors was rapid and violent. Walls were built in the downtown district of Solidere (itself the most contentious postwar redevelopment in Beirut) and protestors clashed with riot police and soldiers, who used tear gas to break up the crowds. As the rubbish-mountains grew, protestors began to fashion street names for the individual dumps adding a semantic quality to their presence in the city. Inevitably these were the name of politicians.
It is out of this situation that a collective of women and men drew up an alternative manifesto and stood for election. Their list, Beirut Madinati (Beirut is my city), is equally split between men and women, and Muslims and Christians. It includes artists, architects, engineers and NGO workers from across Lebanese society. Their programme, which aimed to attract voters frustrated by poor infrastructure and public services, was about anti-corruption, about taking the city back from the traditional sectarian leaderships or parties.
Promoting access to affordable housing, public green space, reducing car traffic and campaigning for recycling over landfill, Madinati activists visited areas of the city to canvas the population about what mattered most to them. As a three-month-old grassroots movement standing up to the political establishment (one that had incidentally united in coalition against them), they received a massively encouraging 40 per cent of the vote. This was in a context where invigilating counting and procedure is far from clean or secure, and which would have given them ten out of 24 members had the electoral system been proportional.
Despite losing the elections, the campaign will likely continue. Madinati’s secular and non-sectarian aligned politics is said to offer a break from the entrenched, quota system which has led to government paralysis and war.
Dr Claire Launchbury is a research fellow in French and city studies at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) and the Institute of Historical Research (Centre for Metropolitan History). She serves on the School Research Committee and on the French subject panel of the London Arts and Humanities Partnership. Her research concentrates on francophone cultures, expression and dissent in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Lebanon.