Beirut. Few cities have had such a chequered history. For a long time, the capital of Lebanon was synonymous with conflict: a bloody civil war that ended in 1991, leaving scars that are still visible today. And more recently, the city once again found itself under fire during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006.
Today’s Beirut, though, is very different. The city has undergone major reconstruction and has returned to prominence as a beacon for tourists and commerce alike. However, it has not proved immune to its share of modern-day challenges, the most conspicuous of which in recent years has been the refuse crisis that has plagued its streets in recent years.
With policymakers seemingly unable to organise an efficient waste collection and refuse system, anger among ordinary Beirutis reached a crescendo and led to the formation of Beirut Madinati. It is a people-powered, cross-sectarian movement which aims to give voice to those who feel that the ruling political class has failed to deliver a well-functioning government.
That it tapped into a rich seam of frustration was evident in its inaugural election result: it only emerged just prior to the 2016 municipal elections, but ended up winning 40 percent of the vote – an astounding result given that it was only operational a few months beforehand.
It’s good to talk
Gilbert Doumit, one of its architects and active members, explains that a key part of Beirut Madinati’s appeal lies in its inclusivity. “It started with a group of experts, academics and activists who had long been active in seeking to transform the city and the country,” he explains.
“We thought the municipal elections would be one milestone towards making the country a better place, so we started organising an election machine, one that is evidence-based, people-centred and capable of implementation. We are a local movement, organised in a very democratic and participatory way, with aspirations to influence the national political agenda.”
He goes on to say that a key priority has been to stay in touch with the viewpoints and perspectives of the people. “Citizens were so frustrated that they were crying out for an alternative, but they wanted to see serious solutions for these problems. Our programme succeeded in being people-centred and inclusive of everyone in the city – we made sure not to exclude any sector of society in this process,” observes Doumit.
“And remember that we are citizens ourselves. We are also diverse, from all different backgrounds, sects, social classes, age and gender. In addition to using traditional and social media, we also have live, in-person communication. We organise meetings in neighbourhoods to talk about the programme and hear what citizens have to say, so it really is a citizen-driven movement.”
Eyes on the next election
The long-term focus for Beirut Madinati is the next round of elections, where they are hoping to draw on their experiences from their previous electoral joust and perform even better as a result. Doumit is confident about what lies ahead. “We can be better organised to absorb even more volunteers, activists and supporters,” he says. “And we can start fundraising earlier and make more use of social media.”
But in the meantime, they are seeking to hold the current municipal leadership to account and stay in close touch with the needs and perspectives of ordinary Beirut residents. “We have created a shadow municipality which is tasked with monitoring the performance of the actual municipality, as well as coming up with new solutions,” he says. “We are also creating citizen neighbourhood committees throughout the city, in order to increase citizen engagement, and we are discussing how we might engage in the next national parliamentary elections.”
Such an approach blends aspiration for better times ahead with the practicality of clear, well thought through policy proposals – which he says is in the DNA of the organisation. “If there is one thing Beirut Madinati has done, it is that it has created hope – but this is based on serious, evidence-based solutions,” he concludes.
“It has also created a model for many movements that will come in the future. If we keep up the same momentum at the local level, there is a huge opportunity for even more influence and leverage within the local government and eventually at a national level.”
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