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Lebanese reality TV breaks into politics - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Al-Za'im presenter Dalia Ahmad appears in promotional advert for the Lebanese program. (AAA)

Al-Za’im presenter Dalia Ahmad appears in promotional advert for the Lebanese program. (AAA)

Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Maya Terro won the opportunity to run for a Beirut parliamentary seat on Tuesday after winning Lebanese reality television show Al-Za’im (The Leader). The program was launched on Lebanon’s Al-Jadeed television channel more than two months ago and enjoyed sweeping popularity across the country, with the show’s launch even being attended by President Michel Suleiman.

Terro won the competition after receiving 65% of the votes from both a panel of judges and a public phone-in, defeating rival Nicola Al-Harouni. Terro was presented with a medal during the show’s finale by former prime minister Najib Mikati; Harouni was presented with a commemorative shield by Al-Jadeed president Tahseen Khayat.

The finale’s greatest surprise was Al-Jadeed president Tahseen Khayat announcing that the voting would be largely inconsequential, as Al Za’im would finance the candidacies of both Terro and Harouni in a parliamentary constituency of their choice. In addition to this, both competitors will enjoy the title of “Al-Za’im.”

The finale, which also included performances from singer Carol Samah and the Chi NN comedy team, showcased footage of the contenders across the 8-week show run. The competition ended with a political debate between the two candidates hosted by Al-Za’im presenter Dalia Ahmad. During the debate, members of the panel of judges asked the competitors questions about typical political issues and problems facing the Lebanese people.

Al Za’im dealt with a number of political hot buttons, including issues such as corruption, workers’ rights and the controversial decision to privatize Lebanon’s beachfront.

Its tasks also included developing a campaign slogan. Terro chose the popular “Change, Change” as her electoral slogan, winning plaudits from the judges. She printed flyers displaying this slogan and distributed them around the campus of her alma mater, the American University of Beirut, and elsewhere.

Nicola Al-Hourani’s campaign slogan was “Balance and Equality to Build the Country and the Citizen.” She conducted her campaign in her home town of Ajaltoun.

Before announcing the results, the program broadcast a short film showing the contestants meeting with Lebanese president Michel Suleiman at the presidential palace. Following this, Prime Minister Mikati delivered a speech encouraging Lebanese youth to get involved in politics. He expressed his appreciation of the way that Al-Za’im candidates expressed themselves during the course of the show.

However, it should be noted that Lebanon’s new parliamentary election law has yet to be decided, and may be further postponed until consensus can be reached between all political parties.

The objective of the program was to provide an opportunity for Lebanese youth to get involved in the country’s often-restrictive political scene. It should allow Lebanese youth to compete for parliament based on their own views and opinions, away from the external influence or political affiliation that usually steer Lebanese politics.

However, the program has not been without its controversies, particularly revolving around the involvement of Lebanese model/singer Myriam Klink. The controversial star ultimately announced her withdrawal from the show one month ago in response to criticism from judges Raghida Dergham and Ibrahim Al-Amin.

The judging panel described Nicola Al-Harouni as being self-assured and charismatic, adding that she had demonstrated great progress across Al Za’im’s two-month run. They described winner Maya Terro as being the epitome of brave Lebanese women, adding that she had developed a successful electoral strategy focusing on secularism and the need for change.

Other Al-Za’im contestants announced that they would also be launching independent parliamentary candidacies, in news that will certainly ensure that Lebanon’s forthcoming parliamentary elections are worth watching.

Feedback on the program has been diverse. Most viewers supported the idea behind the show, namely getting Lebanon’s youths involved with politics, as well as diversifying the country’s political scene. On the other hand, some others viewed Al-Za’im as being nothing more than a publicity stunt.

Well-known Lebanese media figure Tony Azouri told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I watched the Al-Za’im program since it was first broadcast. I am a Lebanese living in London and it is important for me to feel involved in Lebanese politics, even from afar. Politics is the daily diet for the Lebanese of all ages. I think this program is unique…and this is beautiful because it opens the scene for ordinary people, like myself, to express themselves and participate and even reach parliament.”

“What is important is that those taking part in this program are youth and they have constructive ideas and they are not members of political families, as is usually the case in Lebanon,” he added.

Lebanese viewer Bassem A. was more critical, telling Asharq Al-Awsat: “I believe that there is a form of replicating foreign programs like Britain’s The Apprentice, albeit with the focus on politics.”

He acknowledged that the concept behind Al-Za’im was good, but stressed that it must move away from focusing on publicity and marketing.

“The only beautiful thing in the idea behind the program is that it opens the arena to ordinary people to take part, and perhaps reach parliament. The Lebanese, by their nature, like to talk about politics, and so the program appeals to a large segment of the Lebanese people,” he noted.

Lebanon’s Al Za’im has served as a template for other television programs in the Middle East. In Palestine, for example, Maan TV has launched a program entitled Al-Ra’is (The President).

Similar programs have previously appeared around the world as well. In France, Marc Olivier had a similar idea for a show, entitled Qui veut devenir président? (Who Wants to Become President?) but it met with critical failure, being taken off the air after a short time. In 2006, Canada launched a similar show called Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister, which was a critical success.

Today, Al-Jadeed is collaborating with an Egyptian television channel to transfer the show to Egypt, and the chaotic post-revolutionary scene may see the addition of reality television stars running for parliamentary seats.