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Even if independent candidates don’t win big on election day, they are already having an impact on Lebanese political culture. They have introduced new styles of campaigning that come as a sharp contrast to how politics is commonly practiced in Lebanon.

While establishment politicians deploy their usual tactics: blanketing the streets with their faces:

Photo: Ali Harb/ Middle East Eye 

Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on canvases that say nothing and will be thrown in the garbage:

But also colonizing public spaces and causing traffic jams:

وصول الرئيس سعد الحريري الى قهوة دوغان – طريق الجديدة

Posted by Saad Hariri on Friday, May 4, 2018

 

Throwing lavish events for their supporters:

Posted by LF photos on Thursday, May 3, 2018

 

Giving out free flags and hats:

Posted by OTV on Saturday, April 28, 2018

 

Free food:

Balloons:

And even a Hezbollah orchestra, literally singing for your support:

Independents, meanwhile are taking the race to some unusual places. But places that are not unfamiliar to most Lebanese, who are not living in a party atmosphere.

The Madaniyya party, for example, held a press conference at a giant trash dump to call attention to the incumbent parties’ failure to deal with Lebanon’s waste crisis that is endangering public health.

Rather than adding more pollution to the mix, the Kollouna Watanti party created virtual posters on Facebook, photoshopping over the politicians faces with a deeper message: “When you see their advertisements, remember their accomplishments.”

فقط للتذكير أنّ اعلاناتهم ووعودهم الانتخابية التي تملأ طرقاتنا.. كان الاجدى ان تستخدم بتكاليفها الباهظة ليخبرونا عن انجازاتهم لا تكرار وعودهم التي لم تتحقق طوال تسعة سنوات..

Posted by ‎كلنا وطني‎ on Tuesday, May 1, 2018

 

Meanwhile the Kelna Beirut list decided to cover some of the faces with reflective sheets, bringing the campaign focus back to the voters and away from the leaders’ self promotion.

إنتو بيروت، كلنا بيروت

إنتو بيروت.#كلنا_بيروت

Posted by ‎Kelna Beirut – كلنا بيروت‎ on Tuesday, May 1, 2018

 

The Beirut list, LiBalladi, also introduced something that shouldn’t be new: debates between candidates

Curiously, establishment candidates cancelled their appearance at the last minute for unclear reasons.

Independents are also using their new platforms to raise important questions not often tackled by the media.

Here, candidate Ali Darwish unpacks the danger to Lebanon’s water resources that may result from the recent loans taken out by the Lebanese government as part of the “Cedre” package:

موقف علي درويش من مؤتمر سيدر للاستدانة!#كلنا_وطني

Posted by ‎Ali Darwish علي درويش‎ on Monday, April 30, 2018

 

Another party asks how well do you know your MPs? Do they ever come around when elections are over?

مين بتعرف من نواب بيروت الحاليين ؟#عصام_برغوت #بصوتك_يستمر_العطاء #لبنان_حرزان#تعليم #فرص_عمل #صحة #بيئة #انتخابات_٢٠١٨

Posted by ‎Issam Barghout – عصام برغوت‎ on Saturday, April 21, 2018

 

Finally, a LiBaladi commercial reminds voters that politicians have failed to address rampant pollution along the country’s beaches, the lack of safe public spaces for children to play and dangerous, overburdened roads with no public transportation:

شو عاملين ب6 أيار؟

Let's all get up and vote for hope on May 6!ما تطولوا النومة كتير، أجلوا مشوار البحر والجبل، وتعوا نصوت للتغيير ب6 أيار#شو_عاملين_ب6_أيار؟ #صوتي_لبلدي #كلنا_وطني

Posted by ‎LiBaladi – لبلدي‎ on Thursday, May 3, 2018

 

Now what is interesting is also how mainstream parties have reacted to independent campaigns. While some like Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea dismissed independents, others have somehow taken up some activist causes of recent years.

Here, Nicholas Sehnaoui, a former minister and senior leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, includes the Fouad Boutros Park in his list of projects, a plan proposed by heritage activists five years ago.

هيك بتصير بيروت الاولى!

هيك بتصير بيروت الاولى!تعرّفوا على برنامجي الانتخابي عبر: http://program.nicolas-sehnaoui.org

Posted by Nicolas Sehnaoui on Monday, April 23, 2018

 

Other candidates, such as Nadim Gemayel, have also begun speaking about the need for a right to the city, public spaces and sustainability, brought up extensively by new parties from previous elections such as Beirut Madinati.

Gemayel spoke recently to Facebook page El 3ama, which illustrates an important campaigning media change: politicians are now talking to alternative websites, when in the past, political communication strictly took place on party-run or affiliated channels. Interviews like this one let us see the candidates in a less controlled environment, catching them off guard at times and thus revealing more than they may have wanted to say:

Live NG El-3ama

Posted by Nadim Gemayel on Tuesday, April 10, 2018

 

Mainstream media outlets like LBC also seem keen on capturing a broader youth audience, with shows like Lawen Waslin, which is a bit like Carpool Karaoke with politicians. In this interview, former minister and political veteran Wiam Wahab takes activist positions on the destruction of Lebanon’s coast by private resorts. But then also in an awkward moment reveals that “women should not act like men.”

Major Lebanese TV channels are also reportedly charging guests up to $250,000 per appearance, keeping primetime a commodity mainly limited to the country’s business and political elites.

We saw a similar trend of activists differentiating themselves from mainstream political practices during Beirut’s municipal elections in 2016, where ruling party candidates also mimicked activist rhetorics. (You can read more about that in this previous post.)

Could this influence continue to strengthen in future elections?

During an episode of Al Jazeera’s The Stream, this week, I spoke with independent candidates and was struck by all the organizing work that has gone into their campaigns, with some creating nationwide alliances for the first time. Activist causes helped bring these individuals together to build wider networks and stronger platforms, competing in municipal elections, union elections and now parliamentary elections.

You can watch the full episode here:

Independent candidates are realizing that politics is a long term game, that takes years of organizing, alliance-building and election strategizing. But they are advancing quickly and their influence is already being felt. The mere fact that politics is taking place outside the established party system, that people now have alternative ways of expressing themselves and being heard is a feat on its own.

The number of candidates running this year (1,000) is an exponential increase on previous years, particularly when it comes to over 100 women candidates, including an unprecedented all-female election slate:

Posted by 10452 on Tuesday, March 20, 2018

 

Suddenly establishment parties are also featuring a number of women on their lists. Was this also a reaction to gender rights activism over recent years?

In their campaign posters, establishment parties project an air of confidence. This billboard simply says: “Beirut, don’t worry.”

But maybe Beirut should worry. The country is facing an environmental disaster, a public services disaster, a refugee crisis on a globally unprecedented scale, just to name a few.  Even if activists do not win, they are forming stronger coalitions of dissent to challenge those in power.

The political parties are still very entrenched and well resourced- after all, they have been building themselves up for decades. But their media and messaging is increasingly undermined and outdated. With so many new online media outlets, they can no longer monopolize public debates and hide uncomfortable issues from public view. With so many people interested in politics for the first time (partly due to the party’s failures) competition and oversight is growing and politicians cannot rely on old tactics as much as they once did.

In this changing political environment, it is the old guard that should be worried or at least less comfortable, and that could be a good thing for everyone.

If you still haven’t made up your mind, there are many resources out there such as Mist3ideen and Megaphone that have put together some extensive research on the candidates and the voting process.

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Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. I’m not a fan of quoting cliches, but in these Machiavellian times, few phrases seem to articulate the situation better. Take the case of the recent media campaign praising Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s recently resigned prime minister.

Now it’s very normal to see posters praising politicians hastily strung up on light posts across Beirut. As you would expect, these are usually produced by a PR company or low budget design shop associated with the politician in question and hung up haphazardly by his supporters, illegally, often under the cover of night.

But what if the group putting up the billboards is not loyal to the politician in question, but actually allied with his enemies?

I began to wonder about this when I saw a Facebook post revealing Hariri billboards in or around neighborhoods loyal to his rivals, Hezbollah and Amal.

Mar Elias, photo: Dina J. Salem

The next day on my way to work, I noticed more of the same posters with the same font and message “#We are with you” plastered across many parts of Beirut.

From downtown:

To the corniche:

Bliss street:

And Hamra:

On nearly every light post, as far as the eye could see:

Yet the last few locations are not known to be strongholds of Hariri, but of other parties such as Amal and the SSNP. This was made abundantly clear during the clashes of 2008, when militants from these parties took over the streets fairly easily and strung their flags across these locations.

In the decade since, SSNP flags have appeared regularly across Hamra street and the party’s annual march turned into a military-style parade a few weeks ago that saw hundreds of party faithful take over the entire of Hamra street:

SSNP march, Hamra street, Beirut, Sept. 2017
SSNP march, Hamra street, Beirut, Sept. 2017

I thought about all this when I looked up at one of the posters, which had been put up so shoddily, it appeared to give Hariri a grimacing look:

 

I asked some tough-looking middle aged men sitting in plastic chairs below the posters if they knew who had put them up. At first one of them, a burly man in his late 40s, answered by saying “the Lebanese people put these posters up” and “it’s natural for a people to support their prime minister.”  Sure, I replied,  there is public support and then there are printing companies that print hundreds of these and distribute them in trucks. He smiled and vaguely suggested it was “political parties… all the parties,” that worked together to install the posters in their respective neighborhoods.

But I pressed him further: “But only certain parties can do that in Hamra.” Finally he conceded. “Yes we are the ones who put those up. The Hezb, the Harake and the Oumi Souryi.” This is shorthand for Hezbollah, Amal and the SSNP.

That’s a pretty savvy, next-level media strategy isn’t it, I replied. “Well the Saudis are donkeys,” he said nonchalantly.

“And what about this one,” I continued, pointing to the grimacing Hariri. What happened there? The man motioned to one of his cohort sitting in a chair behind us. “That’s Ali’s fault, I told him to fix it, he didn’t know what he was doing.” Then Ali shrugged and shot back: “You didn’t give me enough wood to put it up properly.”

I left the bickering men and tried to corroborate the story elsewhere on the block. But most people said they had not seen who had put the posters up because they found them in the morning when they opened their shops. So apparently the operation had happened overnight. But another group of men admitted laughingly that it was indeed the “Hezb, Harake and Oumi.” And they thought it was pretty hilarious too.

If this is true, could the Saudis have ever imagined this outcome? Were they assuming that Hariri’s resignation would have been taken at face value and that his opponents would have simply said good riddance, creating greater division in the country? Could the Saudis have imagined that Hariri’s opponents would be demanding his return even more vociferously than his allies?

Of course this goes beyond billboards: the President of Lebanon and the leader of Hezbollah-traditional opponents of Hariri–have been demanding his return on a near daily basis.  Even the leader of the Catholic church in Lebanon, Cardinal Bechara Rai has demanded his return, making an unprecedented visit to the Wahhabist state.

This spawned some interesting memes. Here the two are speaking in code:

The highlighted letters in the Hariri caption say: “I’m being detained” to which Rai replies: “We all know.”

Perhaps the Saudis had imagined the Lebanese would react in a simplistic “sectarian fashion” where politicians or crown princes prioritize their own sect above all others. I wonder where they got that idea?

Suffice to say, Hariri’s opponents and even internet trolls have successfully thrown the ball back into Saudi Arabia’s court and the Saudi leadership probably didn’t see this coming. But since the Saudi royal court (or whatever is left of it) has effectively declared that Lebanon is at war with them, we can only hope the disintegration of their media strategy will give them pause before pursuing further actions on the ground.

Wouldn’t it be great if all wars were limited to creative media messaging, and the winner could be decided with likes and retweets instead of missiles and bullets?

Via: Abbas Hamideh

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Text above reads roughly: “What are you waiting for? 0 percent downpayment. Now you can be independent”

It’s hard to believe this is real, but a Lebanese real estate company “I Group” is actually marketing itself by using images of abused women and encouraging them to buy their luxury apartments to escape criminal spouses.

Their English Facebook ad is more explicit:

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 8.22.32 PM

Of course most new apartments in Beirut costs hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, so we are not sure how most single persons (or almost any human person) living in Lebanon can afford them.

Commentators were furious:

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To some pretty odd answers from the marketing team…

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Others pointed out that the apartment would take years to build and could hardly be considered a viable solution for immediate abuse:

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 8.55.20 PM

But the company Facebook team stubbornly held on:
Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 8.47.41 PM

 

Some resorted to sarcasm like one guy who asked in Arabic: “If I beat my wife but not on the face does she still qualify for the offer or should I beat her on the face? And what if she beats me, do I qualify for the offer or is it just for ladies?”

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 7.51.31 PM

Others just didn’t hold back:

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We’ve seen terrible and sexist real estate ads before, such as the use of scantily-clad models and dismembered bodies for retail companies.

One company “Trillium Development” famously put out an ad that read “A real man buys her a (multimillion) apartment” That ad got some bad press and is now hard to find. But the company still has a previous ad up on its Facebook page with a similar message:

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Source: Blog Baladi

Will this time be any different? Will I Group come to its senses?

Of course it is not just real estate. We need to have a serious discussion in Lebanon on the portrayal of women in billboards, which are ubiquitous across the country. In fact the representation of females by ad agencies and corporations is pretty dehumanizing overall in Lebanon and largely free from any critical thinking disucssions. I’ve pointed this out in the past, noting that this kind of imagery is not just disturbing to look at; it also has far reaching social and developmental effects.

***

Thanks to Helene for spotting this.

UPDATE: 10/12/2015

I Group has removed the photo but stopped short of an apology, claiming in a new post that readers misunderstood the campaign and that it had nothing to do with profitability. 

IMG_3111

There has been much fanfare about the removal of political signs and posters from Beirut, as part of a reported reconciliation deal between the parties/militias/old men that run this country. I have to admit, I was surprised to see the decades-old Amal mural painted over on Spears Street.

The Daily Star reported that Hezbollah had even removed posters of martyrs in Saida, though advertisements for the party’s museum remain up.

But what the Star didn’t report is that as posters came down for some groups, a massive billboard campaign went up commemorating the life of slain prime minister Rafik Hariri. The billboards promoted a political rally for his party that would be held on the day of his assassination last week.

The billboards are literally ubiquitous across the city. From downtown:

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To Hamra:

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The highways:

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The northern suburbs:

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Multiple images on the same panel:

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Even three billboards on one street:

IMG_3017

 

I wonder if this campaign was excluded from the reconciliation deal and why.

Look out for my column next month in Bold Magazine for more on Beirut’s history with political posters, how the latest crackdown compares to previous removal campaigns and what is often left out of the process.

 

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In Arabic “جو” (pronounced jao or jaaw) means atmosphere or mood. Somehow it doesn’t convey the same ‘mood’ in English.

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It’s easy to get the depressed with all the violence in the news these days and the knee-jerk jingoism to accompany it. But it’s nice to know love still finds a way in Beirut, somehow.

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The Lebanese police are celebrating their 153rd anniversary. At a commemoration event, the head of the force pledged officers would continue to serve all citizens and be ‘above’ sectarian and political divides.

But will they also be above the law? These banners thanking the police for their “service and sacrifice” were posted on the coastal highway, blocking major traffic signs. The banners are sponsored by local municipalities as indicated in small print below.

Yes being a police officer in Lebanon is not easy and many probably do work tirelessly, sweating profusely at intersections and enduring insults of thuggish citizens while trying to direct traffic. At the same time, there are also many accounts of torture and abuse. And many instances of flouting laws, such as blaring sirens for no reason but to get through traffic. The idea that municipalities can also flout the law to curry favor with the force (or other political parties) is a metaphor for the everyday lawlessness police so often either willingly tolerate or are too intimidated to crack down upon.

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Lebanese president Michel Sleiman left office today, but his presidency will linger a while longer in billboards erected across the highway.

The sign above literally reads: “You entered big and you leave big.”

Yet technically speaking Sleiman leaves office much like his predecessor did six years ago: with no successor and a presidential void.

So what is the “big” reference here and how will Sleiman be remembered? Will it be for his tweet calling for civil marriage or his criticism and very public disagreements with Lebanon’s most powerful force, Hezbollah? Or will it be his de-facto pardon of indie rock star who was arrested for mentioning his name in a song? Meanwhile other tweeps and journalists still face criminal charges for insulting him.

So what legacies do these billboards commemorate and who paid for them anyway?

No name is attached to the canvas, but interestingly the same stretch of highway near the Nahr El Mawt/City Mall area was also plastered in Sleiman praise when he came to office in 2008 and again during in 2013, a year before he left office. Could it be the same secret admirer?

Sleiman propaganda on the same pedestrian bridge in 2008. See previous post.

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    Both establishments pictured here in Hamra. Not sure if a “like” buys you a discount. 

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    For those interested, this is actually not a joke. He told me with a straight face that he’d given up on newspaper advertising. Male clients are also welcome, he added, promising me “a commission”. So please mention this blog if you call!