Beirut, my city
On a September evening last year, 10 people made their way to an apartment in Beirut’s Hamra district. Intrigue, curiosity and a sense of excitement filled them. One by one, they were let in and, one by one, they took their seats around the dinner table. To a casual onlooker, it looked like an ordinary dinner party. But this dinner was far from ordinary. If what the guests had in mind worked, then Beirut would become a whole new city.
The hosts, husband and wife, looked at their guests pensively. These were some of the top planning minds in the city, strategic thinkers – the Beiruti ‘technocrats’.
‘It is time to take over our municipality,’ said Mona Fawaz, a university professor, finally. ‘It is time for you to implement your plans.’
All of the guests had at one point submitted to the Beirut municipality studies about how to improve the city. Others had argued doggedly with officials about ways of saving Beirut – in vain.
‘We all share the same frustrations, and protesting just isn’t enough any more,’ said Fawaz. ‘We have to take action. We have to take Beirut back.’
The past year saw protesters taking the country by storm when they took to the city’s streets objecting to the uncollected trash lining the sidewalks.
It has since become known as the You Stink campaign. Protesters included Beirutis from all walks of life – many of whom, like myself, could barely make their way home through the piles of garbage. Moreover, the protest brought to light some of the many scandals.
Most notably, a plan for developing the Dalieh, the city’s last natural coastline. The culprits were the usual players: politicians turned entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs turned developers, developers turned politicians.
Nothing new, really. But this time, a new class of Beirutis – many educated in the world’s most prestigious universities – had emerged. They figured out the game and were ready to take Beirut back.
And so it was that the dinner gathering turned into weekly meetings. Social media went abuzz. Hundreds joined up. Beirut Madinati (Beirut, My City) was born. ‘We will run,’ announced their Facebook page.
It was a movement unlike any Beirut had seen in years. No run-of-the-mill candidates here. No sectarianism, religion or tribal allegiances. The candidate list was made up of 24 independents and was equally split between men and women, and Muslims and Christians, from all walks of life: urban planners, lawyers, economists, professors, graphic designers, architects, doctors, artists and fishers. And even a popular actress.
Beirut Madinati’s programme included plans to improve public transport in the traffic-congested capital, introduce more green spaces, protect Beirut’s heritage, prioritize the health and safety of all residents, make housing affordable and implement a permanent waste-management solution. All desperately needed changes in the slowly deteriorating city. Every promise was accompanied by a well-researched study.
Their campaign went into full force and we all watched with bated breath. Will they win? Can they win? Will political, religious and tribal affiliations finally be over? Will this be a new era? The excitement was almost palpable.
And then it was elections day – 8 May.
We waited, on tenterhooks, for the result.
No. Close, so close, but it was a no. For the next few days, many of us greeted each other in a fog of gloom. Nothing will change. This was it. Our last chance for Beirut to become well again, gone.
That was until I ran into Mona. ‘But we won in many other ways,’ she said.
And then I understood. Beirut Madinati had won indeed. Would I even be talking about the loss of the coastline if it hadn’t been for them? Would Beirutis be scrutinizing their politicians for signs of corruption just a few months ago? Would they be talking about honest candidates and maybe, just maybe, beginning to sway away from sectarian and tribal affiliations?
Yes, Beirut Madinati had indeed won where it really matters. The elections were just the beginning. There is definitely a new feeling among the Lebanese – especially younger people. There remains a sense of hope and energy in their air. It is slowly dawning on the Lebanese that it is fine to let go of divisive affiliations and just let the ‘best person win’.
‘It’s not over,’ added Fawaz. ‘We will come back. This time even stronger and take back Beirut.’
I do believe they will.
Reem Haddad is a freelance journalist in Beirut.