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Michael Young

April 14, 2016

City of thorns

Outsiders may lose in Beirut, and that’s a shame

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Beirut-My City members (from left to right)  Jean Kassir, May Daouk, Jad Chaaban, Mona Fawaz and Nayla Geagea speak at a press conference. (Beirut Madinati Facebook)

Disgust with the entrenched political class could have practical repercussions on the electoral scene—at least that is what outsiders challenging the status quo in Beirut hope.

 

With municipal elections a month away, two independent groups are preparing to field lists of candidates for Beirut’s municipal council. One is Beirut-My City, a group of civil society activists and academics; the second is Citizens Within a State, which will contest elections in several areas. Its most prominent member is Charbel Nahas, formerly a labor minister and a prominent participant in anti-government protests last year.

 

Such groups feel that now is the right time to contest elections, so deep is public displeasure with the political class and its corrupt ways. With news virtually every day of a new scandal, they may have a point, even if the odds are against them.

 

Beirut’s current municipal council has mismanaged administration of the city. The council has facilitated frenzied construction (and destruction) so that the capital has become a monument to concrete and ugliness. Its archaic infrastructure is in urgent need of renewal; its waterfront is disgracefully over-built, so that there is now effectively a wall between the city and the sea in many places. But above all Beirut remains a deeply unfriendly city to its inhabitants, devoid of parks, greenery and open spaces allowing them and their children to breathe.

 

As Mona Harb and Mona Fawaz, two professors in urban studies at the American University of Beirut involved in the Beirut-My City campaign, argued last year, a main problem is that there is no interaction between the municipal council and citizens. “During his tenure, [Beirut mayor Bilal] Hamad has had more opportunity than any other mayor to work with civil groups and use their knowhow, but also their political bargaining power, to improve the livability of our city … However, the mayor has done little to marshal this for the benefit of Beirut’s inhabitants,” they wrote. 

 

For now the likelihood that an outside list can win in Beirut is negligible. The Future Movement’s assistant secretary general, Saleh Farroukh, has already confirmed that the alliance with the Amal Movement and the Progressive Socialist Party would continue, meaning the outsiders will face large voting blocs.

 

On top of this, there appears to be a desire of the major political actors to sponsor a consensus list. Practically, that may mean that the mainly Muslim political parties will name 12 of the 24 candidates to the municipal council, and leave the Christians to name the other 12 candidates. While municipal councils are not based on sectarian representation, the political groups have tried to respect a 50-50 division of seats to preserve sectarian concord. This makes an outside challenge even more difficult.   

 

Harb and Fawaz pointed to another problem in Beirut, namely the subordinate position the mayor plays to that of the mohafez, or governor, of the Beirut governorate. In other words even if outsiders were to take over the municipality, their ability to implement change could be relatively limited. That is why the authors appealed to the mayor to exploit the fact that he was an elected official to enhance his margin of maneuver.

 

They were right, but the Syrian refugee problem and the demonstrations last summer over the trash crisis reinforced a belief that solutions to many national problems also have to be structural, requiring devolving power to the municipal level.

 

The refugee crisis is a case in point. With the central government having failed to provide much guidance to municipalities for how to address this massive problem, local authorities have had to improvise. But as Sami Atallah, executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, has written, they have very few means to succeed.

 

“Municipalities’ ability to handle the refugee crisis is largely constrained by two factors: Weak administrative bodies that are unable to provide adequate services, as well as low municipal revenues. These two constraints feed into each other, with weak administrations constraining local revenue collection and poor financial resources hindering the establishment of sound administrative bodies,” Atallah pointed out.

 

The management of the refugee crisis, or rather non-management, is a good illustration of the types of obstacles in place to hinder the work of local authorities—at the heart of which lies narrow administrative prerogatives and no money.

 

Beirut may be an exception given its large revenue base, but the administrative problem remains: the mohafez, an appointee of the central government, can hinder the work of the elected municipal council. This represents an absurdity, even if nothing in Hamad’s behavior suggests that, left to his own devices, he would have made Beirut a more agreeable place in which to live.

 

Municipal reform is an absolute necessity in Lebanon, particularly when the deadlock in the central government has become gangrenous. While it may be easy to dismiss the outsiders in terms of voting numbers, Beirut-My City has valuable ideas that would certainly make the capital a far better place, on the condition that they be permitted to carry out their program. That those probably thinking most about the welfare of the city and its inhabitants should today be the electoral underdogs is a sad commentary on the future of our capital.

 

 

Michael Young is a writer and editor in Beirut. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

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