Interview with Beirut Madinati candidate, Rana Khoury

Could this be a turning point in Beirut history? Are we, in fact, ready for clean streets, sidewalks and those peculiar green structures called parks?

Read and learn all there is to know about the electoral campaign taking Beirut by storm. The Beirut Madinati campaign is a group of citizens who think they can do better… and assert, and we quote, “it’s really not that difficult to fix the roads in Beirut”. Well, blimey, are you as intrigued as we are? Does this mean we don’t need Iran and Saudi Arabia to hug it out before we can fix a broken traffic light?? *

*You might want to make a cup of tea as you read on; can you really understand the nuances of a political revolution in a tweet? Didn’t think so.

Haya Hamade (HH): It’s a pleasure to meet you, Rana. We’ve been hearing a lot about the Beirut Madinati campaign in recent news. Can you tell me more about your specific role in the campaign?

Rana Khoury (RK): I am part of the founding members of Beirut Madinati and will be running as a candidate on its electoral list. I am also a creative director in an advertising company and a board member of the Samir Kassir Foundation.

HH: Your campaign has become increasingly visible to the public in the past few weeks, how did it all start?

RK: It all started back in August-September 2015; we were a small group of individuals who got together and decided it was no longer possible for us, as citizens, to wait for the current ruling parties to provide us even with our most basic rights. They had clearly demonstrated they were incapable or unwilling to do it.

So we thought, why not run for office? That way, we bypass the stagnant system all together and we replace it with functional moving parts. You know, we have a rich and active civil society who has tried, time and time again, through private initiatives to provide public services but they have all fallen short, one way or the other. I think the Eureka moment came when we collectively realized we needed to rewire the circuit all together. To affect real change, we needed to stop working in parallel to a dysfunctional system and integrate technical competence and intellectual know-how to policymaking and executional capacity instead.

HH: Is that when you decided to run for the Beirut Municipal elections?

RK: Yes. The Beirut Municipal elections were seen as the most viable opportunity for us to achieve our goals, as they are the only remaining democratic elections slated to happen in Lebanon for the foreseeable future.

Municipalities represent the most local form of government we have in Lebanon; and by that I mean, the one closest to the people. Not only that, Lebanese municipalities, and Beirut in particular, have a lot of power to affect real change in citizens’ daily lives. The Beirut municipality alone could improve the lives of close to 2 million people, if it were effective.

HH: You are running as independents. Independents have run for office in the past and failed. Have you considered the factors that may have contributed to their failures and do you have mechanisms in place to prevent your campaign from succumbing to the same pitfalls?

RK: We consider that all those individuals who ran for elections in the past have paved the way for today. We view them as one of the building blocks of our campaign, rather than cautionary tales. That said, Beirut Madinati is different; it has been built on a lot of firsts: we are a big list of candidates, we have specific set goals, we have an issue-driven agenda and we have a major historical lead point to our advantage: daily life in Beirut has never sunk so low. Ever. For a country that’s been through decades of war, that’s saying a lot.

HH: Do you believe the Lebanese people are ready for this kind of change? Do you think we have reached a point where voters are finally looking to hold their government accountable? To cast issue-driven votes rather than votes driven by financial, ethnic or religious incentives?

RK: Absolutely. When we first started, that was the question we needed answered. We needed to test if the land was “fertile” for a new independent movement, if our people were “ripe” for such a drastic change.

And we are. No question about it. It’s already happening! Just look at how much interest Beirut Madinati has generated so far. We‘ve grown to over 1000 volunteers in the span of a few months; there’s been a lot of interest from the media, donors, and supporters from all walks of life.

Just yesterday, in Ashrafieh 2020, the turnout was outstanding; people were coming up to the Beirut Madinati stand and openly discussing their disappointments with their municipality and their expectations for a new and improved institution.

I feel as though everyone’s mask has finally fallen. It’s no longer the absurd debates of foreign powers having a hand in cutting our electricity or slowing down our Internet. People are finally ready to take a chance on independent candidates who run for the sole purpose of serving their constituencies. It just goes to show: we’re ready. It’s time. Bringing back the municipality is bringing back politics to the citizen.

With Beirut Madinati, we are trying to redefine politics within a citizen’s rights framework. A ruling party should have a direct connection with its citizens. If it doesn’t, it will quickly become obsolete.

HH: It seems you have gone to considerable lengths to establish that connection (with the people) you speak of. Your grassroots approach is a new one in Lebanon…

RK: (Smiles in acquiescence). It is, though it shouldn’t be. We wanted to be truly representative of voters. Our approach is fundamentally citizen-centric and based on extensive research and collaborative work.

HH: How did you go about determining the citizen’s needs, and by extension your electoral program?

RK: We engaged with the citizens of Beirut at every level. We established networks with professionals, community leaders, non-profit organizations, students and others to better understand the political “ground” before we announced our nomination. It was very important to us to show that we are a people’s movement, coming from the people and working for the people.

HH: Shouldn’t a people’s movement be representative of the people, as you said? Forgive me for being blunt, but you seem to be a group of privileged professionals who do not represent most of Beirut’s population, one whose voice is in desperate need to be heard?

RK: The reason for why we are a good representation is threefold. First, sure, when we started, we were a group of friends and acquaintances who, by definition, belonged to the same “circle” if you will; but we’ve grown a lot since then. The individuals who appeared most on the media may be on the more “privileged” side in terms of education and socioeconomic status (they were first the experts who wrote the program) but the Beirut Madinati group as a whole is an extremely diverse bunch that includes individuals from all walks of life. This diversity will also be reflected in our candidates, which is ultimately, what matter most. Wait and you’ll see (Smile).

Second, our electoral agenda has been based on scientific evidence and expert input. The data we used has included research conducted across all socioeconomic levels of the Beirut population.

Last but not least, you don’t have to be a woman to fight for women’s rights or a Palestinian to fight for Palestinian rights. The thing about daily life in Beirut is that we all live it. We all smell the garbage. We are all stuck in traffic. Some of us may be more privileged than others but the Beirut Madinati platform is truly the great equalizer. It’s addressing what we all have in common, not what makes us different.

HH: It sounds like you were deliberate about inclusion while planning your campaign.

RK: Absolutely. To us, that is the least we can do. That’s how you find better solutions; you can’t possibly see all the angles from one perspective. I think this will become clear when you see the list that will be announced in a few days; you will see that our candidates come from all Beiruti social backgrounds and education levels.

I am currently working with people I had never met before and within frameworks I wasn’t familiar with. During my college years, I was more of an activist than an academic. It’s an incredibly enriching experience to be thrust out of your comfort zone, one that you learn from immensely and one that, I believe, is the true engine of change.

HH: Did you encounter resistance or at the very least indifference among would-be voters? In 2010, only 20% of registered voters showed up.

There are certainly mitigating circumstances for the apathy and lassitude plaguing the Lebanese when it comes to political life.

RK: It is true that the Lebanese citizen has had his/her fair share of disappointments with his/her government. That is one of the main challenges we expect to face on election day: will demoralized or cynical voters who have lost hope or gotten complacent be motivated and convinced enough to show up at the voting stations on May 8th? I don’t know, but what I do know is that the sheer excitement Beirut Madinati has been met with is very encouraging.

HH: How many Beirut Madinati candidates will be running? Can you share their names with us?

RK: We are planning to announce the candidates’ names in a few days. There will be 18- 24 names on the list, including myself (Rana Khoury), May Daouk, Ibrahim Mneimneh and Tarek Ammar. There’s a lot of pressure on us to reveal all the names but we don’t want to jump the gun with making them public too soon.

HH: I will consider the ones you gave me a strategic teaser then…

RK: (Smile) you could say that. Timing is everything in electoral campaigns. First, we were waiting for the minister to officially announce nominations, which he did a few days ago. Second, we worked tirelessly to select a candidate “dream team”, one that would best represent the city of Beirut. You can imagine there was a lot to consider: from age to gender to neighborhoods etc.… There were extensive deliberations before we decided on the final list of names…it’s a rigorous process.

HH: Speaking of rigorous processes, what can you tell us about the specifics of the election process itself? How informed are the Beirutis about their municipality and its election procedures?

RK: I’m glad you’re mentioning this because this was yet another challenge. Other than campaigning for our electoral agenda, we have had to also remind the citizens of Beirut about the role of their municipality, its significance, its powers and its jurisdiction: the way it works basically! People have become utterly out-of-touch with their municipality, which is a shame.

Today, the municipality of Beirut legally has tremendous decision-making power. All decisions made by the municipality are legally binding, which means they cannot be blocked or reversed unless there is a major concern by the governor of the city (the governor is appointed by the government). The municipality council is made up of 24 volunteer members (for 6 years) and the President of the Council and his/her deputy (vice-president). Beirutis vote directly for council members (by majoritarian system) and the latter, in turn, vote for the President and vice-President positions.

HH: We’ve heard you say time and time again how powerful the municipality institution is in Lebanon but how much autonomy does it truly have? What are its limitations and what do you foresee will be your main operational challenges if you win?

RK: The problem is that municipality work has been paralyzed by ineffective use of resources and convoluted bureaucratic processes, both of which have been additionally strained by opposing political allegiances of council members. The endless rivalry of political parties at the national level has unfortunately been reflected within the Beirut municipality. That is the reason why I think you cannot call it independent or autonomous, as it currently stands.

However, if you take the municipality as a stand-alone institution, you begin to understand how incredibly powerful it is. Just look at the municipality of Jbeil for example: It works! That’s because the scope of their jurisdiction is quite large; much of the public sector and services fall under it, be it public education and healthcare, waste management, urban planning and much, much, more.

Of course, there are limitations, mainly in Beirut where the power is shared with the governor; we’re not saying we are going to change everything in a flash. There are issues that require collaboration with other national institutions to be sure…

HH: Have you kept those communication channels open for these situations? You cannot operate in a vacuum after all; what will you do when your success - and that of the Beirut municipality, by extension- partially depends on working effectively with other local and potentially national institutions?

RK: So far, we are focused on Beirut. We are trying to be a positive campaign, and asking voters to vote FOR something not AGAINST something. In that spirit, we are trying to keep positive relations with all stakeholders: if they ask for a meeting, we go. If they want to talk, we talk; but it bears repeating: we are NOT affiliated with any particular political party. Rather than focusing on alliances and affiliations, we want to focus on the actual work on the ground.

So no, you’re right, we cannot operate in a vacuum but we can still do so much, within our limitations and being fully aware of them. It’s not an all-or-none phenomenon. It won’t be hard to make a change when you start from zero. Then step-by-step, with more support from citizens, we will do more and more and we will get more traction.

HH: During last municipal elections in 2010, representatives from all political parties ran on the same platform under a coexistence banner with no agenda and they “won”. Who do you expect will be your main opponents this year?

RK: It’s very important to mention that a few “independents” ran against the main coalition list that year and they got a good number of votes. I believe this year will follow the same model as last election and I think we will be the main opposition to the current parties’ coalition list. So far, we are the only candidates with a campaign and an actual platform. There may be others who will try to “ride the wave” but I believe Beirut Madinati will be the main opposition.

HH: Women have less than 4% of municipal seats across Lebanon and only 3 seats in the municipality of Beirut. Are you working towards bridging the gender inequality gap? How so?

RK: Women represent at least 50% of our candidates. Our volunteer base probably has more women than men. Our modus operandi speaks for itself. Many of us are women’s rights advocates; we believe women should participate in political life more actively. Gender equality has always been one of our strategic priorities but it has also happened quite organically as well, as Lebanese women have a lot of energy and a distinct voice.

HH: Similarly, how do you plan on narrowing the gap between rich and poor?

RK: In broad terms, there are so many ways to achieve social justice. Examples from the Beirut Madinati platform that I can give you include providing common public spaces, improving public transportation and improving public education, to name but a few.

HH: Whom do you consider you are accountable to at the moment? And how will you ensure continued accountability once/if you are in office?

RK: We are accountable to our volunteers, our donors, our supporters and all those who have committed to vote for us. We are essentially accountable to all the people we serve.

If we win, we will continue on the same path. We are dedicated to transparency and to open communication with the public. There will be mechanisms in place to ensure that complaints and suggestions are heard. Ultimately, the best way to hold us accountable for our promises is to vote for us again -or not to- six years from now.

HH: Your campaign has been covered by many media outlets to-date. How do you view the role of the media in your campaign? Do you think they’ve accurately and impartially covered you? If not why not?

RK: I think media coverage has been fair so far but it hasn’t been sufficient. When a lone electoral campaign runs against a deep-seated establishment that usually runs on nepotism, it’s a big deal; or it should be. The media should, in my opinion, be more proactive about covering the Beirut Madinati campaign; they should see the value of reporting on such an electoral battle, especially in a context like ours.

HH: Why do you think they have dragged their feet, so far?

RK: Let’s just say some news outlets are being extremely supportive and others will follow soon (smile)…when they realize we should all support a campaign that aims to make Beirut more “livable”.

HH: Mainstream media’s traditional role as a watchdog for democratic elections has been nothing short of reshaped since the introduction of social media. Your campaign relies heavily on this “new” player. From your experience thus far, can social media be a tool to build a democracy or is it merely an engine of aimless disruption?

RK: I think the importance of social media, in such settings, is its wide reach. With these tools, you can reach a huge number of voters in a very short period of time. That’s very helpful when you are unable to reach every single voter physically.

What’s even more important is that it’s a two-way street: people can trash you or praise you in a second. It serves the same role as mainstream media in that it acts, as you mentioned, as a watchdog that holds us candidates accountable for what we do and say but it does so in real time. I truly believe everyone is on social media nowadays…

HH: Maybe not everyone…

RK: Well, let me explain what I mean. I think if even one member of a household is on social media, then you can consider all other members are too. It’s almost as if you need no more than a few sentinel Facebook or Twitter accounts, before the information starts to spread even among those who aren’t subscribed to the new technology. Our grandmothers will surely have heard of our breakfast at Al Soussi yesterday, if their grandsons have a Facebook account. You see what I mean?

This is especially important for us because it gets the new generation involved: youth (first-time voters) are a big active bulk of our society; they are a promising group and they still have hope. That’s why we have an App and that’s why we work with them in universities. Our youth is our engine.

HH: You have demonstrated you have the brains for the elections but do you have the teeth for it? Are you confident you will be able to take on a system that is not above corruption, bribery and violence?

RK: We are aware that we don’t live in a rosy world. However, when assessing the feasibility of our campaign, we realized that we were never going to be truly ready to fight a system so deeply-rooted in corruption and injustice. On some level, it had to be a leap of faith. Don’t get me wrong: it is a heavily well-researched and undeniably strategic leap of faith, but a leap of faith, nonetheless. Our independence and our decision to stay transparent till the end are, I believe, our most powerful weapons.

We don’t want to be paranoid about everything that could go wrong; we are simply choosing to fight differently.

HH: Speaking of paranoia, you’ll have to forgive this question but we’ve all become a bit paranoid after years of being deceived, cheated and lied to. We ‘ve seen many political candidates use municipality elections as a pretext or a stepping stone towards larger ambitions. Do you have such ambitions at Beirut Madinati?

RK: For now, we are running for and focusing on the municipality of Beirut. That said, if our campaign inspires some of us or other independent movements to run for office at the national level, then why not?

HH: Perhaps if you win, you might “infect” other municipalities across Lebanon. A little competition to catalyze nationwide change and optimize performance of satellites areas?

RK: Exactly, how great would that be!

HH: You have gotten many people excited. What happens if you lose? Do you have a plan in place to ensure your efforts are sustained over the long run? Or will you simply throw in the towel and go back to your previous lives?

RK: I don’t think any of us can simply pack up and walk away at this point. Most of us were activists before Beirut Madinati. As individuals, we’re not going to stop if we don’t win these elections.

Even within the structure of Beirut Madinati, I can see us still having an impactful role, especially if we win a good number of votes: as a lobby group, for example.

Our program is at the service of anyone willing to use it. If it’s not us running the municipality, then we’re happy to share, communicate, assist or pressure those who are –if need be- to implement positive changes in the city. We have raised a significant social capital thus far and we would continue to build capacity until we meet in 2022.

HH: I had understood that Beirut Madinati was to be dismantled after May 8th.

RK: Not necessarily, it will dismantle as an electoral campaign but might remain as a pressure group. Our work continues.

HH: We’ve tackled your brain and your balls so far. Let’s tackle your heart and soul, next.

RK: You won’t find a dark spot (Smile).

HH: (Smile) There’s been a lot of concern regarding the financing of elections globally. “Big money” spent on electoral campaigns come with strings attached. Just ask Hillary Clinton. How does Beirut Madinati manage its financing? Is there a ceiling to donations to avoid the pitfalls of conflict of interest?

RK: We have thought about this extensively. All of our donations come strictly from individuals; we do not accept donations from any other entity. Furthermore, there is a ceiling of 10% of our budget. In other words, we do not accept any sum exceeding 10% of our budget from any one source, precisely for the reason you mentioned: we don’t want anyone to have power over us nor the ability to sway our agenda one way or the other.

HH: How are you doing so far?

RK: Most of our finances were in kind: individuals offering their services or equipment to us, at no cost. We also raised money, it’s not a lot but it’s enough to sustain us until Election Day. Election day is a slightly different story.

HH: Why is that? What happens on Election Day?

RK: Well, Election Day alone will cost us between 150 000$ and 200 000$. The government had decided there would be over 800 voting stations in Beirut. This means a lot of mouths to feed and transport. The logistics will be costly.

HH: Do you think this may be an attempt at sabotage?

RK: Let’s choose to believe this was done for logistical purposes and leave it at that.

HH: Hey, if Bernie Sanders can do it, so can you…

RK: (Laugh) Exactly. It’s been funny actually: this money going in the “wrong direction”. When we hear rumors of money in Lebanese elections, it’s generally the other way around.

HH: (Laugh) You have to admit crowd funding for elections is somewhat of a revolutionary idea for Lebanon. Yet, you’re averse to the term revolution, why is that?

RK: The way I think about it is this: at the level of these elections, I wouldn’t call what we’re doing revolutionary. I mean, having an issue-based electoral platform is a duty! But when I think of what Beirut Madinati could be paving the way for, when I think of the big picture and how this could be a stepping stone towards changing a political establishment at the national level, I would easily call it a political revolution.

Essentially, if you’re showing that young independent people can participate in political life, then you’re planting a seed for a much bigger change. Then and only then, can you slowly start to shift the discourse from nepotism, corruption and bigotry to democratic elections, independent candidates and issue-driven agendas. No need to make a lot of noise; actions speak loud enough; they’re just easier on the ears (Smile).

HH: But like any seed, it needs time to grow…

RK: It does and we’re ok with that. That’s why we have already won on an important level, no matter the outcome of the election.

HH: Hearing you say that, I have to ask: is Beirut Madinati a clever stunt? Are you running to send a message (namely that it can be done and that the process is equally important as the outcome) or are you in it to win it?

RK: We’re in it to win those seats; that’s why we’re fighting everyday. That’s why we’re not sleeping, not eating and disrupting our work schedules. That said, “winning” also means starting the conversation on issue-driven platforms and independents running for office and we have already successfully done that. You see, any way you look at it, we are winners.

HH: We are less than a month away from Election Day; how are you monitoring your progress at this point? Can you give us a sneak peak on your situation?

RK: I think we will win. People are ready for change, they don’t want to be mistreated anymore and I think we will get enough votes because of it.

HH: How can we, as citizens, capitalize on this momentum you have created to build further building blocks towards good governance?

RK: Run for office. Enter politics. Don’t live in a parallel world because you have lost hope.

Each one of us has the right to good governance. The state should not be some alien entity that is out of touch with its people. Its very purpose for existing is to serve its people and improve their lives. We need to step-in and take back what is rightfully ours. Whatever the platform, whether it is municipalities, unions or the parliament, citizens need to participate actively in political life. They need to do it.

HH: Would young, new parties stand a chance against the current regime?

RK: Well, let me give you this example. In 2010, there was one list in Beirut, with no big opposition to speak of. Today, only 6 years later, there will be at least one – if not more- list in the competing camp. That’s progress. Obviously, there are no guarantees these parties will win, but what’s certain, is the dire outcome if they don’t even try.

HH: We may be fighting on different platforms but we have the same agenda as yours and the same biases as yours at SoBeirut. We are in love with this city and want more than anything see it live up to its full potential. So tell me, on a lighter note, what are some of Beirut Madinati’s favorite hangouts in Beirut and beyond?

RK: I personally love the sea: I have a very strong connection to the ocean. I love the Cornish and Ramlet el Bayda. It makes me very sad that it’s not a more dynamic meeting spot for all.

I also like Horsh Beirut; I wish it could be open all the time: it’s such a journey outside the city while still being here.

I used to love Masrah Beirut in Ain el Mreisseh; It’s unfortunate that it closed: It had historical meaning. It was one of the first theaters to re-open after the war and was a vibrant gathering place for the country’s intellectuals. I remember I saw Jawad el Asadi’s play, and Marcel Khalife play there.

I’m also partial to Jbeil, it’s where part of my family is from, but then again who isn’t’?

HH: Rana, I have to thank you for your time; it’s been quite a journey! Any last question you would like to answer that I didn’t ask?

RK: Yes, what happens if we win? (Smile). I think it would be the first real success story of a completely politically independent movement in Lebanon and it means there is no turning back; we have to move forward from now on.

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