From the Streets to the Polls: When Lebanese Activists Leave Their “Comfort Zone”

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 09:30
Oral Presentation
Alexandra KASSIR, EHESS, France
This study examines a turning point in the wave of anti-sectarian mobilizations in post-war Lebanon; a predominantly youth-led grassroots movement defying the deeply-rooted sectarian regime and aspiring towards building a more effective democracy. This paper analyses the activists’ first attempt to leave their “comfort zone” and venture in the realm of conventional politics. It focuses on the efforts of “Beirut Madinati” (arabic for Beirut is my city) to channel the energy and expertise of a vibrant civil society working in parallel to a dysfunctional system since the end of the civil war (1975-1990) and make its voice heard from within, by taking back the city council. Held on May 8 2016, municipal polls were the last remnants of a functioning democracy, the presidential and parliamentary elections having both been adjourned. Born from the ashes of the summer 2015 “you stink” widespread protests against a “rotten” system unable to resolve the garbage crisis, “Beirut Madinati” sought to make the voices silenced in streets, heard in the ballot boxes.

This paper sheds the light on the movement’s innovative way of blurring the lines between institutional and street politics. It reveals how the activists embarked on a different road while remaining faithful to their roots; how they engaged in electoral politics while maintaining their “alter-activism” culture. It discusses how the political victory of the movement lies far beyond the score itself; highlighting how it succeeded in disrupting the Lebanese electoral scene, challenging the old-ways and imposing a more democratic practice. Its citizen-centric and community-based approach, horizontal and leaderless structure opened spaces of dialogues and reconnected citizens with politics. Likewise its issue driven platform challenged the traditionally “personality-based” campaign, revamped electoral practices and asserted that electoral politics can no longer be reduced to sectarian loyalties.