Despite not knowing what she looked like, I spotted Nadine Moussa from the moment she walked into the Starbucks. Something about the way she carried herself.
I’d already bought a coffee so she matched it with one of her own and a Panini, kindly offering me a Panini, too. Lebanese hospitality.
Moussa is passionate and speaks the kind of punchy rhetoric that comes with almost three years of campaigning. She leans forward and touches my arm on occasion to add emphasis: “that is not democracy”, she exclaims, inviting me to laugh in agreement.
I do. I feel like an imposter waiting to be caught out. I am interviewing Lebanon´s first ever female presidential candidate.
Nadine Moussa ran as an independent in the inconclusive 2014 elections. Her political party, Citizen´s Movement not only hopes to offer an alternative to Lebanon’s two mighty coalitions, the March 8th and March 14th Alliances, but to reform the Lebanese electoral system altogether.
Civil society is hostage to the failing government. State-scheduled electricity black-outs rotate daily around the neighbourhoods of Beirut to save money, infrastructure remains largely substandard and overly reliant on foreign financial aid and currently mounds of trash are being swept off the streets of the capital and buried underground. I am reminded that it´s not all doom and gloom; perhaps in a few million years Beirut will have its very own oilfields.
But for now, the stalling State squeezes the young and educated Lebanese towards the departure lounges. Lebanon simply has too little to offer. This is unfortunate for Nadine Moussa; whose reformist campaign targets the very demographic to which these fleeing graduates belong.
The government seems to abide by the old adage out of sight out of mind, will the status quo trudge along just because the President is nowhere to be seen?
She explains that what they need to start political reform is a platform for the “silent, unaffiliated majority”. As with anywhere, the silent majority is hard to entice out of the shadows towards political activism. Many young people prefer visa applications to protesting. But Moussa reassures me that her voice of change is welcomed by the disgruntled young men and women on the street.
Lebanon’s partisan press, on the other hand, reserves little column space for dissenting voices. And Moussa herself risks being bound to the silent majority if she cannot carve out a space in the turgid and failing world of Lebanese media. Her campaign is thus far largely restricted to social media and interviews in several international publications. This makes the process of mobilising local supporters slower. The national press, according to Moussa, is well aware of this. As are foreign powers.
Many regional heavy-weights such as Iran and Saudi Arabia use Lebanon’s sectarian electoral system to hold ideological sway over the region. Airbrushed photographs of Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, punctuate the portraits of Hezbollah soldiers in North Beqaa. Drive forty-five minutes south and road signs don´t let you forget that the tarmac was laid thanks to the house of Saud. Where would you be without the Pan-Arab highway? Probably a military checkpoint on a road with another name. The Silk Road 2.0? Mullocracy Drive?
For those with their ears to the ground, this deepening sectarian monopoly is nothing less than alarming. As the confessional leaders bolster their feudal control over territories in the presidential vacuum, the crevasses in civil society may become wider. Christian, Shia and Sunni leaders preach the same message to different crowds: we must look out for our own interests. Moussa says that what is happening now is not dissimilar to what happened in Syria on the lead up to the Arab Spring. But where would different factions direct their anger in a country with no clear Head of State? At each other?
Civil unification is the key ingredient for reform. Many people’s political views stem from God. This is a question of education, of basic separation of Church and State. The confessional system doesn’t protect the rights of Lebanon’s diverse population; it merely picks at its war scabs.
Moussa is under no illusion that it will take time to achieve her political goals—two whole generations according to her, “but at least they’ll have something”, she jokes. She tells me that although her progress is hard to gauge in this political flat-line, the sparks she sees in the eyes of young women motivate her. It is at least, possible to change the stereotypical idea of femininity in a patriarchal society. “We offer a glimmer of hope in a long, dark tunnel”.
Nadine Moussa’s candidacy symbolises the struggle of the disheartened middle class. It symbolises the fight to put women on centre-stage. It symbolises the desire to put old politics and politicians to bed and for Lebanon to move confidently away from the civil war as one.