x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 September 2017

Michael Karam: Let’s hope Beirut’s new political movement can deliver what it promises

Why Beirut Madinati is set to be the Donald Trump and Leicester City of Lebanon.

It’s been a funny old month. Donald Trump has come from nowhere to become the Republican party’s nominee for the US presidential elections; Leicester City, the football club that last year narrowly avoided relegation from the English Premier league, was crowned its champion, and by the time you read this, Beirut Madinati – Beirut, my city – a list of 28 civil society activists will have been blooded in Sunday’s Beirut municipal elections.

Beirut Madinati’s participation in such a hotly contested election is no coincidence. It is nearly a year since the Lebanese capital experienced an eight-month rubbish crisis that momentarily made global headlines but which also exposed the incompetence and corruption within a political class that has lost sight of its obligation to provide basic services.

Beirut Madinati was born out of this shamefully inept reaction to an emergency with health, economic and environmental consequences.

Not since the 2005 assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri and the so-called Cedar Revolution has a group of Lebanese risen up against the established order. However, the Cedar Revolution proved to be a false dawn.

It may have forced the withdrawal of the Syrian military and intelligence agencies, but the established political groupings at its fore eventually reverted to type and those of us from ranks of the non-aligned Lebanese eventually learnt that change would only be effected by those not weaned on sectarianism.

Property developer Mark Geara is one of the 28 names on the Beirut Madinati list. In 2005, Mr Geara and I marched through central Beirut demanding justice for Mr Hariri and the 21 souls who perished with him.

He is a decent man who, like the rest of us, has had his fill with the rotten institutions that run Beirut.

Unlike the rest of us, or at least unlike me, he was prepared to go toe-to-toe with some of the most cut-throat and ruthless political groupings in the country, who will use every trick in the book and brazenly flout the law to protect their lucrative control over the capital.

Mr Geara claims that what makes Beirut Madinati different is that it actually has a plan – something of a novel idea for a country where the electorate eschews “issue politics” and votes along long-established religious and partisan lines. Beirut Madinati, whose campaign has been financed by public donations and through crowdfunding rather than by political money, has done something radical and – wait for it – presented a manifesto as well as set new standards in transparency by releasing a reasonably detailed breakdown of its spending, which probably didn’t stretch to the long-honoured tradition of plastering the streets of Beirut with illegal campaign posters and paying hundreds of menacing, flag waving youths to drive their mopeds across town.

Instead, Mr Geara and his colleagues have pledged to develop services like public transport and create private-sector jobs by establishing start-up hubs, especially in the IT and tech sectors.

They want to reinvigorate former commercial areas that have fallen into decline and develop a focused strategy for tourism in the city. Beirut Madinati also wants to work with what it calls neighbourhood committees to better understand their economic and social needs.

Crucially, it pledges to work with the banks to facilitate housing loans to give residents a chance to afford a home in a city that has priced them out of the residential market.

“In short,” Mr Geara said, “We believe our programme can generate [economic] growth and contribute to a better Beirut for all its citizens.”

Promising something and delivering are two different things and there are those who have accused the Beirut Madinati candidates of political naïveté in what is essentially a political street fight between long-established groupings that make the Corleone’s look like the Von Trapps.

So let’s hope that Madinati Beirut, so full of our best and brightest, is the dawn of something infectious and good. If it does fail to make an impact and another crisis hits, the people of Beirut have only themselves to blame.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton