The Example of Beirut Madinati: Change Is Possible

Beirut Municipality

For a country that has postponed elections three times in the past 12 years and that has been polarized between two political coalitions competing and eventually sharing power in almost every state institution, the month of May 2016 will be an exception in Lebanon’s modern political history: The Lebanese will vote for the first time since 2010, and this time – at least in Beirut – there is a third choice available. To put it in the campaign’s own words, Beirut Madinati is a volunteer-led campaign to elect a municipal council of qualified, politically unaffiliated individuals in the upcoming contest of May 2016, and, once in office, to support them in implementing a people-centered program that prioritizes livability in our storied city.

Beirut Madinati has a plan for the city, and it’s a detailed and realistic one [you can find an expanded version here] addressing 10 key points (more details on their website):

Today about 70% of trips in Beirut rely on the use of private cars. At peak hours, most of these cars move at the speed of a pedestrian walking at a normal pace. Only 3% of current trips are conducted by walking and/or biking. The rest relies on shared modes of transportation. Within 6 years only 45% of trips will be conducted by private cars, and at least 15% will be by walking or biking. The remaining 40% will be through shared transportation.
Today Beirut offers less than 1m2/person of green open space while the World Health Organization recommends at least 9 m2/person. Within 6 years we will increase that number to at least 5m2/capita.
Make housing more affordable for future homeowners and tenants.Today the average price of an apartment is more than $570,000, or 1270 times the minimum monthly wage. At this rate, more than half of the children in Beirut today will not be able to secure a home in the city.
Today Beirut produces 600 tons/day of solid waste. 90% of this waste is landfilled despite the fact that almost all of it recyclable. Within 6 years Beirut will recycle at least 40% of its solid waste, and implement management methods that are in compliance with best practices world wide.
Today the Beirut coastline is largely occupied by private complexes, restaurants, and other facilities that block access and view to the sea. Within 6 years we will establish an interlinked network of public gardens, open spaces, a publicly accessible waterfront and natural and architectural heritage.
Today Beirut has only three public libraries, built in partnership between the Municipality and an NGO, As-Sabeel. No new library has been built in the past 6 years. The city has no other public community centers. Within 6 years we will double the number of public libraries and enhance the larger infrastructure of social services.
Today unemployment stands at double its 2011 level, and one in four job seekers, half of whom are youth, cannot find a job. Many of the poverty pockets are located within Beirut and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Businesses have difficulties growing and surviving while many households suffer from the rising cost of living. Within 6 years the municipality will have installed local markets for small producers and buyers. It will contribute to an enabling environment for local entrepreneurship in sectors of relevance to the city’s economy and reduce entrepreneurs’ operational and infrastructural costs. The Municipality will attach a social clause to every public work contract that requires contractors to consider the social impacts of their implementation strategies.
Integrate principles of environmental sustainability and stewardship across all regulatory and operational interventions of the municipality, particularly in relation to the building development sector. Within 6 years we will renovate municipal buildings to become exemplars of green buildings, and establish incentives and clear design guidelines for new construction projects.
Today Beirut’s environment is a threat to everyday health because of poor air quality, poor levels of cleanliness, and the absence of monitoring of our air, water, and physical environment. Within 6 years we will have clean city streets and will remove the large open-air waste bins that sit in our streets. To monitor water quality and set up a plan with the Beirut Water Authority to alleviate the water problems and their symptoms. To implement a city-wide lighting plan that improves night safety.
Improve the organizational structure of the Municipality, train its staff, and address the main institutional challenges that have plagued the performance of councils for decades.

I might not be from the city, but I spend half my day there. Many – if not most – Lebanese either live or work in the city and its suburbs. It is Lebanon’s capital and the country’s biggest city, and yet when a Lebanese citizen visits it, Beirut humiliates him in every possible way there is. I only kept the today vs the Within 6 years parts of Beirut Madinati’s summarized program for a reason: The status-quo is no longer bearable. And no matter how much it’s difficult, the idea that change isn’t possible is an illusion the Lebanese political establishment created only to convince the people that the same politicians will always win the same seats (“شو الها معنى الانتخابات اذا رح يرجعو يجو هني ذاتن”) – the truth is that they won’t win unless you let them win with your vote. The city stinks nowadays – and I mean that in a very literal way. If that is not reason enough to even consider the election of independent candidates who actually know what they are doing and who are distancing themselves from the Lebanese game of sectarianism and petty politics, I don’t know what is.

“Beirut Madinati” means “Beirut, my city”. Beirut is indeed your city, and you should start by taking it back. A 21% voter turnout in 2010 means that there is a silent majority in the city that has lost hope in the system. This May, Beirut’s voters should turn the table upside down on the establishment. Beirut Madinati is offering everything the Lebanese authorities has failed at: A program. A realistic program. Solutions. Gender equality. Transparency. CommunicationA spirit of cooperation. Independent candidates. Independent candidates giving hope to the city.  Independent candidates whose presence in the municipality makes sense. The candidates are urban planners, artists, historians, architects, activists, singers, doctors, advocates for people with disability, citizens of Beirut. [You can check the full list of names here]

The Lebanese syndrome of protesting the authorities when the party you support is part of that authority must end. The biggest illusion in Lebanese politics is when citizens keep expecting change from the same individuals in power. There can be no progress without accountability, and election day is the day of reckoning. It’s not only about Beirut Madinati: It’s about sending a wider message: that you don’t approve of the parties in power. That the parties that cannot vote a budget in parliament cannot be held accountable with Lebanon’s biggest municipality  budget. That the parties that cannot agree on an president in parliament cannot be trusted with voting on crucial municipal decisions. That the parties that could not share a cabinet successfully cannot be allowed to share the country’s most prestigious municipal council. That the parties that have drowned the country in garbage and political maneuvers have to be stopped, everywhere possible, as soon as possible.

Lebanon’s municipal elections are (obviously) always too locally-oriented and – as if Lebanese politics isn’t already complicated – they actually even involve families competing over seats. The Beauty of Beirut is that the city is too big for all those things to really matter. True, they’ll always be there, but they’ll be there on a lesser scale: On the 8th of May, Beirut will not be choosing between family representatives, sectarian leaders, businessmen, and micro-Zaims. It will be choosing between its past and its future, between the status-quo and the light at the end of the tunnel, between the establishment and reform.

This May, raise your voice and vote in your village/city, no matter where you’re from. Spread Beirut Madinati’s ideas in all of Lebanon’s municipalities. They should be more contagious than our politicans’ sectarianism. We don’t always have an opportunity to vote in this country, so make it count.

In the name of the stinking status-quo and the benefit of the doubt, Moulahazat endorses Beirut Madinati. Spread the word. Progress is possible.