Letter from Beirut

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Unprecedented electoral success for a new left alliance in the Lebanese capital has shaken up politics

The elections in May for control over Beirut proved to be a major breakthrough for the popular discontent that has been simmering in Lebanon since the advent of the Arab Spring.

Local elections are traditionally dominated by sectarian parties that reflect the religious makeup of the capital’s many neighbourhoods.

Laws dictate that inhabitants who moved to the capital over the past 40 years can only register to vote in their home villages. As such the electoral base does not reflect the city’s population today.

This has made it almost impossible to win meaningful electoral change. This year proved to be different.

The shift began with small protests in the summer of 2015 over uncollected rubbish that was piling up in the capital’s streets. The “You Stink” campaign, along with the left wing “The People Demand”, an alliance of students and the revolutionary left, galvanised popular anger at the rubbish crisis into a challenge to the sectarian regime.

The political stink caused by the waste crisis became a lightning rod for social and economic grievances that have been building for many years.

The 2015 protests grew into a direct challenge to the government, itself paralysed by splits. Out of the protests an alliance called Beirut Madinati (Beirut is my city) formed an electoral front it hoped would give some expression to the growing mood of anger among ordinary Beirutis.

Headed by academics, artists, architects and rights activists, the platform included the head of the Beirut fishermen’s cooperative and Farah Kobeissi, a leading member of the Socialist Forum, a revolutionary socialist organisation, and one of the leaders of the street movement.

Expectations of change for the campaign remained modest, as the electoral laws make it near impossible to break the monopoly of the ruling sectarian parties. The municipality is controlled by March 14, an alliance of pro-Western sectarian parties headed by Saad Hariri, whose family own real estate downtown.

The downtown area, also known as Solidaire, was rebuilt following the end of the civil war in 1990. Once the heart of a throbbing city with its popular markets, it has been designated as a playground for the rich where only foreign visitors and wealthy locals are welcome.

Today it is ringed by security checkpoints to keep out those it considers as undesirable — lower class Lebanese, Syrian refugees and Palestinians.

This zone became the focus of much of the anger directed at Lebanon’s ruling class.

In 2011 huge marches demanding the end of the sectarian regime swept the country. These protests were most popular in areas that had been under the grip of sectarian militias and their political henchmen since the outbreak of the long civil war in 1975.

Following the 2015 movement there was a chance for this anger to find a political expression.

As part of its campaign Beirut Madinati issued a ten-point plan which included the creation of green spaces in a city ravaged by uncontrolled construction projects; affordable housing and integrated public transport; some provisions to deal with unemployment and social justice; plans to build libraries; and new markets for small producers displaced by gentrification.

The electoral alliance also pledged to safeguard the city’s rich heritage, which is under constant threat by uncontrolled building, as well as blocking the privatisation of its beaches and coastline, including the iconic Pigeon Rock and the city’s only remaining public beach.

The reforms proposed by Beirut Madinati were modest. But by standing it directly challenged the March 14 alliance that dominates Beirut.

The unprecedented results took everyone by surprise. The alliance won over 40 percent of the vote, with candidates averaging 30,000 votes each.

Significantly this multi-sect platform won in Christian-majority east Beirut, once a fortress of right wing sectarian Christian parties. It also won significant votes in the Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods, dominated by Hariri’s alliance.

Following the success of Beirut Madinati similar alliances have sprung up across the country to contest local elections.

Significantly, the elections proved that the tireless work of activists, especially among the small groups of revolutionaries, is beginning to pay off. The Socialist Forum is now becoming a major attraction for people seeking deeper and more fundamental change.