The municipal system has been a key pillar of debates on administrative decentralization, economic development and political participation in Lebanon. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, activists sought to stop the demolition of the 1924 Barakat Building on the basis that it was a heritage site. In response to public pressure, the Municipality of Beirut expropriated the building in 2013, and has since overseen a contentious process of transforming the space into a memory museum. International donors have increasingly directed aid flows for Syrian refugees in Lebanon through municipalities instead of the central government. Concomitantly, many of these municipalities have imposed curfews and other systematic violations of the civil and human rights of Syrian refugees residing or working within their boundaries. During the 2015 garbage crisis, protesters demanded that waste management revert back to municipalities in Beirut and Mount Lebanon rather than the central government’s Council for Development Reconstruction (CDR). At the same time, several municipalities colluded with the government to create makeshift dumpsites that threatened environmental and health risks. Across such examples, municipalities serve as a crucial site of political praxis in Lebanon.

Yet in the lead-up to the 2016 municipal elections, political elites differed on whether or not to hold elections—depending on how they evaluated their potential for success. Activists—weary of the formal political process that has yielded little or no meaningful change—debated the merits of participating in the elections. Municipalities in Lebanon have long been sites for the construction of political power and economic privilege. They also have served as sites for containing popular discontent at key historical moments. The 2016 elections nevertheless featured a sense of hope for many. The potential for change politicized new constituencies and mobilized new alliances across the country. Shut out of national institutions such as Parliament and suffocated by the jockeying of those in power, many in Lebanon turned to the smallest denominator of representation and administration—the municipality. Status quo forces largely succeeded in maintaining their monopoly over all levels of state institutions. But the texture of municipal politics reflects Lebanon’s shifting constellations of power. Such politics also echo the historical legacies of institution building in Lebanon and the place of municipalities within that history.

The Municipal System

In administrative terms, Lebanon is comprised of governorates (muhafazat), which in turn are divided into districts (qada’), each of which contains any number of municipalities (baladiyyat). Municipal governance is thus the third (local) level of public administration in the country. [1] Lebanon’s eight governorates are Beirut, ‘Akkar, Baalbak-Hermel, Bekaa, Mount Lebanon, Nabatiyya, North Lebanon and South Lebanon. There are 26 districts in total, containing a total of 1,030 municipalities, unevenly spread across the country.

The 1977 Law of Municipalities and its amendments govern the current system. [2] Each municipality has jurisdiction over all matters of public interest and work in its boundaries. This includes setting and balancing the budget, collecting fees and taxes, managing properties, and establishing or maintaining a range of public utilities and infrastructure such as health, sanitation, water, lighting, local transportation, streets and gardens. However, many of these functions are subject to various degrees of supervision by the district commissioner (qa’im maqam), governor (muhafiz) or minister of interior (wazir al-dakhiliyya). Furthermore, a lack of adequate administrative and fiscal capacity characterizes many municipalities. Such dynamics are a function of the laws governing public employment, municipal taxes and fees, and the transfer of municipal funds from the central government. [3]

Each municipality has a council that serves as the decision-making body. Municipal councils range in size from nine to 21 members, determined by set proportions to each municipality’s registered population. The smallest councils preside over municipalities of 2,000 people or fewer. The largest councils represent municipalities of 24,000 people or more. Beirut and Tripoli are exceptions, with 24 council members each. In all cases, members elect the council’s executive, who holds the title of president. The vacancy of 50 percent or more of the council’s seats automatically results in the dissolution of the municipal council and the scheduling of new elections.

Voters elect municipal councils for a six-year term in a bloc-vote list (as opposed to a proportional-vote) system. Each municipality is a single unified voting district. In contrast to the parliament, there are no sectarian quotas. Each voter casts a single list with up to as many names as available spots. Candidates who win the highest number of votes are elected. This system encourages cross-sectarian electoral alliances since candidates require the support of constituencies greater than their own to be elected. The system also allows voters to cast ballots from different lists and party affiliations if they so choose. However, the system enables a winner-take-all outcome. One electoral list can monopolize the council if its candidates receive the most votes. A popular list, party or candidate can win significant votes but still not make the council. The voting age in Lebanon is 21, despite a failed 2008 attempt to make it 18.

Another aspect of the election system merits consideration. Individuals are restricted to both vote and run in the districts of their official town of origin. In Lebanon, one’s official town of origin is traced through the father for men and unmarried women. For married women, the government maintains her official town of origin as that of the father (if the husband is non-Lebanese) or transfers it to that of her husband (if Lebanese). These gendered administrative-geographic designations of Lebanese families (nufus) were first established by Lebanon’s only official census, which was conducted in 1932. Thus, while a large proportion of Lebanon’s population currently resides in Beirut, only a small percentage of them are registered to vote and run for elected office there. This system of population and voter registration is a direct outcome of the French colonial and early post-independence policies. Top-down attempts to manage sectarian-based parliamentary elections have further consolidated this colonial legacy—as it effectively makes permanent (and thus known) the sectarian composition of voting districts. In principle, it is possible to change one’s place of registration. In practice, it is extremely difficult for most people to do so because of bureaucratic obstacles and political corruption.

Historical Legacies and Precedents

Lebanon’s municipal system, like that of the institutions of governance in many parts of the Levant, has its origins in the dramatic transformations of the late Ottoman period (1831-1918). The imperial palace and local elites collaborated, however unevenly, in the introduction of municipal governance and representative politics in Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia and parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The 1864 Ottoman Provincial Law and the 1877 Ottoman Municipal Law anchored this system. It was an important element of Istanbul’s broader efforts to reorganize provincial administration in an effort to centralize and expand the power of the state. [4] These municipalities served as vehicles of electoral competition, urban development and social transformation in cities and towns like Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon and Dayr al-Qamar. By World War I, a number of municipalities operated across the territories that would form the future Lebanese state. During the war, the Municipality of Beirut played an active and central role in managing food supply in the context of the famine that plagued much of the region. [5]

The municipal system was crucial to colonial and post-colonial state-building projects in Lebanon. At the end of World War I, Britain and France dismantled the Ottoman Empire and established the post-Ottoman successor states of Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. French colonial rule in Lebanon was the context for the reorganization and institutionalization of the municipal system in Lebanon. The 1922 Law of Municipalities inaugurated this latest phase in municipal politics. Differences between the Ottoman and Lebanese systems of municipal governance were minor. They pivoted around issues of national authorities’ degree of centralization as well as various functional procedures. [6]

During the colonial (1920-1943) and early post-independence (1943-1975) periods, the municipal system offered one institutional means for mobilizing both financial resources and local constituencies in the service of executive political maneuvering. Both reforms to the municipal system and the holding of municipal elections were therefore episodic. Between the state’s establishment in 1920 and the outbreak of civil war in 1975, the government held only three municipal elections (in 1934, 1952 and 1963). It extended the mandate of elected councils, appointed persons to replace deceased ones or—in some instances—dissolved the council altogether. Political-institutional interests drove municipal reforms. In most cases, executive decrees established new laws, amendments and supplements. The executive branch attempted to shield the broader system from parliamentary debate, oversight or imposition. It did so by decreeing changes rather than subjecting them to the legislative process.

The municipal system and its reorganization offered one avenue for the shaping of new political relations and economic privileges. It helped reorganize constellations of power at several historical junctures. In the 1930s, the French colonial authorities in Lebanon faced Depression-era economic dislocation and escalating opposition to their military and political presence. After suspending the constitution in 1932, the French authorities restored it in 1934 and initiated the first round of municipal elections since the state’s establishment. In the 1950s, Camille Chamoun sought to consolidate his presidential regime in the wake of a popular uprising that forced the resignation of his predecessor, Bishara al-Khuri. Once in power, Chamoun quickly jettisoned the populist and leftist forces that facilitated his rise. Faced with a depleted social base and a parliamentary majority that remained steadfast Khuri supporters, Chamoun turned to reforming the municipal system, including removing sectarian quotas. He held the first round of post-independence municipal elections in 1952, indeed the first since 1934. In 1958, Fu’ad Shihab was elected president in the wake of a three-month armed rebellion and subsequent US military intervention. Throughout the 1960s, Shihab sought to bolster his regime and advance an unprecedented expansion and centralization of state bureaucracy. Both political adversaries and entrenched institutional interests within the bureaucracy opposed his statist agenda. Shihab also turned to municipal elections in 1963 to consolidate his power.

Municipal residents were not passive in this process. In some instances, they utilized elections to further their own interests vis-à-vis both the central government and various political elites. In other cases, like the nationalization of the Beirut Water Company in 1950, they championed the jurisdiction of a municipality over that of the central government in hopes of checking cabinet ministers’ rent-seeking logic of policymaking. Between 1920 and 1975, the government frequently took the lead in creating new municipalities. Yet residents of specific areas also mobilized to either create a municipality where none had existed or to separate from an existing municipality. Examples of the latter are the 1952 breakaway of Burj Hammoud residents from the Jdaydeh Municipality and the 1956 creation of the Ghbayri Municipality over what was previously a part of the Shiyyah Municipality. Throughout this history, local residents turned to the institution of the municipality to negotiate their place in the broader political economy of power in Lebanon. The combined effect of these dynamics was the “municipalization of Lebanon.” [7] In 1932, there were 120 municipalities. By 1958, that number had jumped to 400. The most dramatic growth took place in the 1960s. The 1963 Law of Municipalities facilitated the establishment of municipalities, leading to the creation of the majority of those currently in existence. There is a direct correlation between changes to the municipal system—through laws, elections and municipal boundary making—and the implementation of broader programs to reorganize intra-institutional and government-citizen relations. While reforms and elections were episodic in the early independence period, they were central to reconfiguring power relations.

The 1975-1990 civil war interrupted but did not erase municipal politics as a site of executive power maneuvering. The government passed the 1977 Law of Municipalities, which is the legal edifice of the current system. The closing months of that year represented a particular juncture in which political elites, local laypersons and foreign observers incorrectly (though understandably) predicted the war’s end. [8] It is thus noteworthy that municipal reform and elections were one of the major items on the agenda of state elites in the aftermath of the “two-year war.” Yet it would not be until after the civil war ended in 1990, and in a very different context, that the reforming of the municipal elections and holding of elections would once again serve as a focus of elite and popular mobilizations.

The political settlement that ended the 15-year civil war featured constitutional and institutional reforms that reflected the political equilibrium between the major militias who survived the war. [9] The cabinet—officially called the Council of Ministers—now exercised many of the political powers previously vested in the office of the president. Parliament and its speaker had upgraded powers as well, while the president continued to wield power. The new political system established what many called “troika politics,” a dynamic that featured near identical political powers among the “three presidents”: the president of the republic (the president), the president of the council of ministers (the prime minister) and the president of Parliament (the speaker of Parliament). This “power sharing” resulted in the chronic incapacity for effective government decision-making. Such paralysis was coterminous with the institutionalized presence and political interference of the Syrian military.

In this context, the troika politics incentivized parties to turn to municipal politics to bolster their position. In 1996-1997, Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri sought to expand his political capacities by turning to municipal politics. He called for reforming the municipal system and holding elections. President Ilyas Hirawi joined this call. Hirawi believed that “local democracy” would strengthen his position with the Maronite constituency. But Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri opposed this proposal, fearing that local elections would allow Hizballah, his Amal Movement’s main rival in certain Beirut suburbs and southern Lebanon, to make inroads in state administration. It was a national grassroots mobilization known as the “rally for the municipal elections” that broke the gridlock. In 1998, the campaign forced a realignment of forces and achieved the holding of the first municipal elections since 1963. Municipal elections have been held every six years since (2004, 2010 and 2016). Throughout each of these instances, municipal politics reflected Lebanon’s shifting constellations of power.

The 2016 Municipal Elections

The May 2016 elections took place in four rounds. Polls opened for 12 hours each Sunday in specified governorates: Beirut, Bekaa and Baalbak-Hermel on May 8, Mount Lebanon on May 15, South Lebanon and Nabatiyya on May 22, and North Lebanon and ‘Akkar on May 29. The national turnout rate was estimated at 48.54 percent, continuing the trend of overall decreasing voter turnout since the 1998 municipal elections. 24,939 candidates competed for 12,139 municipal council seats. Of these hopefuls, 6.9 percent were women, as were 5.6 percent of the winners. Yet national statistics tell only part of the story. [10]

Whether or not these municipal elections would take place was itself in question. Parliament had twice (in 2013 and 2014) extended its six-year mandate. Those same legislators were unable to reach a simple majority agreement on a new president for over two years (May 2014-October 2016). These dynamics reflect the deadlock between the two major political coalitions in Lebanon, known as March 14 and March 8. Since their 2005 founding in the wake of Hariri’s assassination and the Syrian military withdrawal, both alliances have subsumed parties and politicians. Between 2005 and 2015, their interaction was increasingly a zero-sum game. Yet, as Sami Atallah pointed out, municipal elections were the lowest price these elites agreed to pay to maintain the shards of political legitimacy they had left. [11] Not holding elections would have been too costly given the parliament’s dubious mandate, the presidential void and the 2015 garbage crisis. That said, the 2016 municipal elections were not business as usual. As has historically been the case, such elections reflected and helped produce the constellations of power that undergird the contemporary political economy of Lebanon.

At the most basic level, the municipal elections highlighted the unity of political elites in the face of challenges to the status quo. In 2010, the March 14 and March 8 rivals competed against one another in the majority of municipal elections. In 2016, leading members of the March 14 and March 8 coalitions joined forces to overcome challenges from aspiring political elites and popular forces external to the country’s established network of political elites. Whether this trend was a function of structural crisis in Lebanese politics, political learning on the part of previously excluded groups or a combination thereof continues to be debated in the Lebanese press. To maintain their dominance of municipalities, political elites pooled resources and formed joint lists. The contours and effectiveness of such alliances were contingent on the very local (municipal) contexts in which they materialized. These practices reveal once again the imperative of exclusion that characterizes political elite practice. The stakes of the elections were clear: maintaining the monopoly over local representative institutions, even if it meant carrying over the policymaking gridlock witnessed at the national level.

Nowhere was this elite cohesion more visible than in Beirut, where the competition between La’ihat al-Biyarta (The Beirutis’ List) and La’ihat Bayrut Madinati (Beirut Is My City List) featured prominently on the streets of the city and social media accounts of citizens of all sympathies. The Beirutis’ List was an alliance between a cross-section of Lebanon’s major political parties: the Amal Movement (headed by Nabih Berri), the Future Movement (headed by Saad al-Hariri), the Free Patriotic Movement (headed by Michel Aoun), the Lebanese Forces (headed by Samir Geagea), the Phalanges Party (headed by Sami Gemayel) and the Progressive Socialist Party (headed by Walid Jumblatt). [12] Their challengers, Beirut Is My City, defined themselves as a technocratic, politically unaffiliated coalition, and represented an array of middle-class and popular interests. The list included an assortment of architects, engineers, businesspersons and artists. Hope and expectations for change in the Lebanese status quo peaked in the weeks prior to the elections. The Beirut Is My City campaign mobilized a range of activists, politicized new constituencies, and thus united a disparate coalition of volunteers and voters. For some, it was the hope of delivering a political blow to status quo forces that inspired them to show their support. For others, it was an experiment of bringing into the formal political process the energies and aspirations that had motivated grassroots episodes like those of the 2015 protests. [13]

The status quo list ultimately swept the Beirut elections. Due to the bloc-vote system, Beirut Is My City failed to secure a single seat on the municipal council, despite garnering nearly 32 percent of the total votes cast. A number of factors caused this mixed outcome. Support for status quo forces is declining. At the same time, independents are exploring new forms of political organizing. The elections also revealed tensions within specific political parties. In the Free Patriotic Movement, disgruntled members broke ranks to advocate for Beirut Is My City. More a protest than anything else, those members were eventually disciplined or expelled from the party.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, featured a similar dynamic of elite cohesion, though with different results. There, Hariri’s Future Movement allied with local business moguls and Hariri rivals—Najib Miqati, Faysal Karama and Muhammad al-Safadi—in the For Tripoli List (La’ihat li-Tarablus). They nevertheless lost more than 18 of 24 municipal seats to the Tripoli’s Choice List (La’ihat Khiyar Tarablus). This loss signaled a collapse of the city’s existing political hierarchy. [14] Ashraf Riffi, former minister of justice and past head of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF), headed the challengers’ list and served as its driving force. Despite his position, Riffi represented outsider politics in these elections. The long held understanding of Hariri and Miqati as twin anchors of the national and local Sunni political establishment cemented Riffi’s outsider status. The victory of Tripoli’s Choice depended on voter sentiment. Riffi drew on popular criticisms of the security and economic conditions of the city, which features chronic unemployment and underdevelopment as well as episodic bombings and other violence. [15] Most notably, Riffi’s list represented a broader coalition than just a typical assortment of leading families as it also drew from the popular neighborhood of Bab al-Tibbaneh. Riffi and his allies had neither the institutional nor financial capacities to confront the Hariri-Miqati alliance. After the elections, some local analysts claimed that the loss was the final nail in the coffin of the Hariri political project—which the late prime minister had established as the leading Sunni, and cross-sectarian, political umbrella. The loss also indicates Miqati’s weakening legitimacy and capacity since he led, bankrolled and appointed the largest share of the list’s candidates. This explains the stakes of Hariri’s current stint as prime minister, which backers hope will represent his political comeback.

Similar electoral competitions pitting pro- and anti-status quo groups characterized a number of other municipal elections. In Zgharta, the independent Development List (La’ihat al-Inma’) challenged the Together for Zgharta and Ihdin List (La’ihat Ma‘an li-Zgharta wa-Ihdin). The Frangiehs and Mu‘awwads, long-time notable local families, organized the latter list. The independent list failed to win a single one of the 21 seats, yet it garnered approximately 25 percent of the votes cast. If not for the bloc-vote system, that accomplishment would have been enough to establish a meaningful presence within the new council. Furthermore, its supporters showed significantly more discipline: A much larger percentage of those of who voted for the independent list than supporters of the Together List voted in accordance with their respective lists. For example, the head of the Together List came in fourteenth despite the entire list winning, indicating that supporters rejected the leadership structure of the list.

In several Christian-majority municipalities, the elite cohesion manifested in joint lists between the two leading Christian political parties: the Lebanese Forces (of March 14) and the Free Patriotic Movement (of March 8). This alliance was not simply a manifestation of the national trend. It represented a historic, if temporary, reconciliation that ruptured more than 25 years of bitter and at times deadly political rivalry between the respective leaders, Geagea and Aoun. The two announced their rapprochement in January 2016, in the midst of political jockeying over the Lebanese presidency. The municipal elections provided an important testing ground for this alliance. In Bsharri and Zgharta, independents organized an anti-status quo list. The LF-FPM alliance coalesced with local notable families to prevent their challengers from succeeding in these two localities. In most other areas, where no independents competed, the division between the LF-FPM alliance and notable families formed the axis of electoral competition and in fact a primary motive for the alliance. While they scored important victories, the alliance lost to local families in al-Qubayyat and Tannurin—highlighting the limitations of this strategy in general and the deteriorating relationship between the Lebanese Forces and Christian independents allied with the March 14 coalition in particular.

Even municipalities that March 8 allies Hizballah and the Amal Movement have historically dominated featured important shifts. In some areas, anti-status quo lists, forged from alliances between communists and independents or other smaller leftist groups, made important electoral gains. They increased their share of municipal council seats from two to six in Srifa, zero to three in Kufr Nu‘man and zero to four in Ansariyya. These results revealed that support for Hizballah, and to a lesser degree the Amal Movement, in the “Shi‘i milieu” is neither self-evident nor inevitable. Both parties coordinated their responses to such losses. They maneuvered to dissolve those councils whose election results were out of step with their preferences. In Haruf, for example, the entry of three independents onto the council upset the 8-to-7 division the parties had agreed to. Eight winners from the joint list subsequently resigned, dissolving the 15-member council and forcing new elections. As one Amal representative put it: “Representation will be corrected and the Haruf experience will not be repeated. Rather, we have agreed to correct the representation in all other municipalities.” [16]

Politics, Regimes and Institutions

The 2016 municipal elections highlight a number of important lessons. Support for status quo forces in Lebanon is eroding. On the one hand, this diminishing support is directly related to their decreasing fiscal capacity to mobilize their traditional constituencies. On the other hand, it reflects resentment of either the general state of affairs in Lebanon or the specific policies and alliances of individual parties. In both instances, fewer voters turned out for the status quo forces than previously. They voted for others or simply declined to show up. Such dynamics might help explain the Kata’ib Party’s recent rhetorical turn to populism. Excluded from the LF-FPM rapprochement, and seeking to capitalize on the anti-status quo sentiment expressed in the municipal elections, the party has taken a very public stance against the 2017 increase in various taxes and fees. But without an effective political alternative, the weakening of status quo forces means little more than a potential reshuffling of the hierarchies between existing political elites.

Independents and their allies are experimenting with different forms of political mobilization. Both the street protests of 2015 and the electoral campaigns of 2016 highlight this fact. Despite its structural limitations, the municipal system provides different possibilities for electoral competition than parliamentary elections. Smaller voting districts, the absence of sectarian quotas, and different functions and jurisdictions allow for a framing and mobilization not possible at the parliamentary level. The diversity of contexts across different municipalities also opens up the possibility of competition between groups that are otherwise allied at the national level.

Yet independents face a numbers of obstacles traversing these possibilities. On the one hand, pressure needs to be generated to push through much-needed reforms: replacing the bloc-vote system with one of proportional representation; establishing a meaningful women’s quota; lowering the voting age to 18; and directly electing the mayor. Such reforms, to say nothing of overhauling the voter registration system, would positively affect both voter turnout and election results in favor of independents. On the other hand, those within the independent milieu need to better bridge personal and tactical differences. The 2016 elections featured a number of very public divisions. Some of this is due to political learning by what were effectively electoral novices. But it was also a function of long-standing infighting within independent and leftist circles.

Perhaps most important, independents are taking note of how organizational capacities and mobilization strategies differ between the terrain of street protests and electoral competition. Rather than viewing them as identical or fixating on one form of political engagement over the other, both must be tactically deployed in their respective contexts. Activists continued to discuss many of the lessons they learned during the 2015 protest movement. Similarly, groups such as Beirut Is My City held a series of meetings since the elections to reflect on strengths and weaknesses, as well as how they should conduct themselves during the post-election period. Divisions over these issues have put strain on the group. Some insiders and outsiders alike question whether it will ever be the dynamic coalition it was in 2016.

The organizational requirements for competing in municipal elections are tremendous, even without taking into consideration campaign violations and ballot box manipulation by incumbents. In Beirut, for example, there were over 800 polling stations located in some 70 schools. Each candidate or list was legally entitled to a set number of official representatives at each polling station to monitor voting during the day and ballot counting that night (or however long it took). This number does not include those persons who would be needed to canvass, distribute voting lists, liaise with government authorities and disseminate public statements. That kind of election machine requires many volunteers, a sophisticated level of coordination and an adequate information management system. This is to say nothing of the financial resources required given that many of the status quo lists paid these representatives and volunteers for their time (including meals).

Mobilizational dilemmas also exist. Primary among these concerns is the construction of the electoral list and the alliances that it reflects. No matter how attentive an electoral platform is to the public at large, election campaigns take lots of legwork. In the case of the Tripoli’s Choice List, Riffi was able to draw on the local networks of the Bab al-Tibbaneh popular neighborhood by incorporating some of its leaders. This element was apparently lacking in the case of Beirut Is My City. Therein, the electoral list did not appear to represent an alliance between the campaign and any (independent) local leader. This might have been a strategic choice on the part of Beirut Is My City to not create such alliances. Alternatively, it could represent an impasse in negotiations over the number of seats on the list a local leader would have been able to appoint. This contrast between Tripoli’s Choice and Beirut Is My City can also be read at a different level: Whereas the former succeeded in effectively capturing the anti-status quo sentiment in Tripoli, the latter failed to do so in Beirut. A similar opportunity was lost when Beirut Is My City failed to back any of the candidates in the elections for mukhtar, since many of these candidates can bring entire neighborhoods to the polls. While understandable in the immediate context of a first election campaign, working out a way to broker such alliances is essential for any group of independents competing in an election. These alliances are also critical to developing meaningful relationships outside of the independent’s immediate social networks.

The 2016 municipal elections reflected and shaped the shifting landscape of interests in Lebanon. While the overall outcome largely maintained the monopoly of status quo forces on state institutions, the elections also helped create networks and repertoires that independent activists, intellectuals and laypersons can draw upon in their continued struggle to shape public policies and institutional arrangements in more representative and equitable ways. Some activists continue to decry participation in elections on the basis that it legitimates a corrupt and sectarian political system. Many others seem to be developing an analytic and strategic insight that differentiates between the regime of forces in power and the bureaucracy of state institutions they depend on for that power. In all cases, there is little doubt that in the aftermath of the 2016 municipal elections, the municipality as an institution has become a more significant site of popular struggle—whether through electoral competition, public claim making or informal lobbying.

Author’s Note: I am grateful to Rosie Bsheer, Tania El Khoury, Khalid Saghieh, Hesham Sallam and Sherene Seikaly for feedback on an earlier draft of this article.


[1] A fourth level of administration could be identified as that of the mukhtar system, a network of neighborhood-level government officials charged with officially registering births, deaths, marriages, and certain commercial and other transactions. Neighborhood residents directly elect mukhtars for a six-year term, yet such officials do not make policy. There were over 2,800 mukhtar seats up for election in 2016.
[2] For the original law, see Marsum Ishtira‘i Raqam 188: Qanun al-Baladiyyat issued on June 30, 1977. The government amended the law several times in the post-war period, most notably through Qanun Raqam 665: Ta‘dilat ‘Ala Ba‘d al-Nusus fi Qanun Intikhab A‘da’ Majlis al-Nuwwab wa-Qanun al-Baladiyyat wa-Qanun al-Mukhtarin issued on December 29, 1997.
[3] See Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, About Administrative Decentralization in Lebanon (Beirut, 2015).
[4] For a detailed account of this context and its manifestations in the case of Beirut, see Jens Hanssen, Fin de Siecle Beirut: The Making of an Ottoman Provincial Capital (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[5] For an account of the Municipality of Beirut’s role in wartime famine relief, see Melanie Schulze Tanielian, “Feeding the City: The Beirut Municipality and the Politics of Food During World War I,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 46 (2014).
[6] For one of the rare discussions of continuities and breaks between Ottoman and French colonial municipal systems in the territories that constituted the Lebanese states, see Walter H. Ritsher, Municipal Government in the Lebanon (Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1932).
[7] While Agnes Favier coined the term, I am grateful to Mona Harb for alerting me to it and for sharing much of her own research on municipalities in Lebanon. The numerical growth (including the 1950s examples) indicated in this article is drawn from her “Much Ado About Nothing? Municipalities in 1950s Lebanon,” paper presented at the inaugural meeting of the working group on “State Building, Economic Development and Social Mobilization in Lebanon, 1943-1958,” Beirut, June 27-28, 2015.
[8] See, for example, Samir Makdisi, “An Appraisal of Lebanon’s Postwar Economic Development and a Look to the Future,” Middle East Journal31/3 (Summer 1977).
[9] For a detailed account of the post-war political settlement and how it framed state building and economic development in Lebanon between 1990 and 2005, see Reinoud Leenders, Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State Building in Postwar Lebanon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).
[10] For official statistics concerning the 2016 municipal elections in Lebanon, see the website of the Republic of Lebanon’s Ministry of Interior and Municipalities.
[11] Sami Atallah, “Lebanon Needs More than Municipal Elections to Effect Change,” Center for Lebanese Policy Studies (April 2016).
[12] It is worth noting that this list was understood as a Hariri list, given that Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the electorate of the Municipality of Beirut. In this sense, there was a second logic undergirding the alliance in Beirut: ensuring representation of Christian political forces in an election that is void of sectarian quotas.
[13] For an account of the context for and dynamics of the 2015 protest movement in Lebanon, see Ziad Abu-Rish, “Garbage Politics,” Middle East Report 277 (Winter 2015).
[14] In contrast to the Beirut elections, neither list included representation of non-Sunni Muslim political forces, which ironically was a function of the intensity of intra-Sunni rivalry that characterized Tripoli.
[15] Many of Tripoli’s Sunni-majority voters viewed the Hariri alliance with Miqati and Karama as crossing a red line. The latter two are March 8-affiliated allies of Arab Democratic Party (ADP), whose primary constituency is the city’s ‘Alawi residents in general and those of the Jabal Muhsin neighborhood in particular. The ADP is a Syrian regime-allied political party formed in the midst of the Lebanese civil war. It regularly battled Tripoli-based groups hostile to Syrian intervention and presence in Lebanon. Its leader, Ra’fat ‘Id, is accused of having orchestrated the 2013 Tripoli mosque bombings on behalf of the Syrian regime. Residents of the Sunni-majority Bab al-Tibbaneh and ‘Alawi-majority Jabal Muhsin have a long history armed clashes dating back to the civil war, but also annually since 2008.
[16] Quoted in Subhi Amhaz, “Hizballah-Amal: Hal al-baladiyyat al-ghayr tawafuqiyya wa-tard al-mustaqillin,” al-Mudun, July 27, 2016.

How to cite this article:

Ziad Abu-Rish "Municipal Politics in Lebanon," Middle East Report 280 (Fall 2016).

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