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Thinking Outside the Box: Political Reality TV in Lebanon and the West Bank

Posted on the 18 July 2013 by Center For International Private Enterprise @CIPEglobal


As changes continue to unfold in Egypt, young activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square are trying to translate street power into actual political capital. On July 4th, the Egyptian military met with the youth leaders of the Tamarod (Rebel) movement to lay out a political roadmap following President Morsi’s ouster. But for the youth to be politically engaged throughout this crucial period, they will need to find innovative ways to channel their passion into stable and effective participation in the normal political processes of democracy. On his brief visit to Washington, DC, an Egyptian youth activist coined the term “democratic entrepreneurship.” What he envisioned has already manifested itself in Lebanon and Palestine, where two democratic entrepreneurs came up with a brilliant idea: political reality TV shows.

Al-Za‘im (the Leader) in Lebanon and Al-Ra‘is (the President) in the West Bank are two pioneering TV programs that resemble a reality-singing competition, like American Idol, with a political twist. Whereas the participants on American Idol are aspiring singers, the contestants of Al-Za‘im and Al-Ra‘is are young aspiring politicians who must complete challenges that range from giving one-minute speeches to implementing projects at the municipal level. The judges are business celebrities, well-known journalists, and political leaders, who offer immediate feedback based on their professional experiences. At the end of the day, the audience has the power to decide who gets to move on to the next round.

This spring, the winners of Al-Za‘im and Al-Ra‘is were announced. Al-Za‘im’s democratically-elected Maya Terro, a 27-year-old unemployed recent graduate, will receive funding from the TV channel as she runs for a seat in Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary election. But the TV shows offered more than mere voting exercises for the viewing public. The producers of these pioneering shows saw an opportunity to turn a lucrative idea into entertaining lessons on democratic governance. As the producer of Al-Za‘im Mazen Laham noted, “People are used to politics – talk shows, people fighting – they’re bored of this. They’re not used to dealing with politics in an entertaining way.”

Beyond entertainment, political reality TV shows can strengthen democratic institutions. First, revealing the challenges over the span of a TV season forces viewers to think outside of the ballot box. Democracy is not a one-time, one-episode voting event. Rather, the length of the TV series is a metaphor for the time-consuming process of democracy. Elements of democracy include the protection of minority rights, the freedom of speech and association, and the promise of political and economic inclusion. More importantly, democracy requires patience, and sometimes political contestation is accompanied by a little bit of suspense. In the first season of Al-Za‘im, one episode concluded with the contestants facing a group of armed militia fighters. To find out if they survived that round (literally) the audience had to wait until the following week.

Second, Al-Za‘im and Al-Ra‘is provide innovative platforms for the politically-inspired youth to channel their energy toward effective means of self-expression. While public demonstrations have always been an important aspect of liberal democracies, extensive and ongoing political upheavals could threaten market stability and cripple the economy.

Third, Al-Za‘im and Al-Ra‘is attempt to demonstrate what accountable and transparent governance looks like by providing visibility to the democratic process. In political reality TV shows, the contestants’ conversations and actions are caught on tape and broadcast across the Arab world. At the risk of public humiliation, the contestants must be cautious, because people are watching their every move. Millions of viewers hold them accountable for what they say, what they promise, and what they do on TV. And even though it is idealistic to envision a government where officials’ every action is taped and aired on TV every day, these TV shows challenge governments in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories to be more transparent and less corrupt.

But most importantly, political reality TV shows help Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories identify the next generation of political leaders. Maya Terro, the winner of Al-Za‘im’s first season, garnered 65 percent of the votes based on her merits and not on her family connections. Her colloquial eloquence, brutal honesty, and extensive knowledge of hot-button issues in Lebanon drew millions of viewers in the region and around the world. Over the course of 8 weeks, the audience witnessed the growing maturity of Terro as she articulated her platform and consolidated her positions on various issues.

Shows like Al-Za‘im and Al-Ra‘is can be replicated across the region, especially in Egypt, but the viewing public must also bear in mind that they are virtual realities. It would be detrimental to the prospects of democracy if young viewers were took the shows as substitutes for actual political participation. Moreover, democratic governance should not be viewed as entertainment. To translate Al-Za‘im and Al-Ra‘is from reality TV into actual reality, young leaders must come up with other innovative ways to channel their political energy. It is time for Arab youth to think outside of the TV box.

Ricky Chen is a Program Assistant for the Middle East & North Africa at CIPE.

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