Ignited by political fires and years of instability, the vexed youth of Lebanon are fired up and taking the digital world head on.
The blogosphere is a haven for determined writers to discuss sociopolitical issues influenced by the harsh reality of their daily lives. And it allows them to avoid censorship and politically affiliated TV stations and websites that have perpetually stifled the country's information.
Lebanon has been cursed with political deadlock and social turmoil for decades. A constant war between political and religious parties taints the nation, creating a complex system that has a stranglehold on its citizens. Many Lebanese have grown restless to the routine, inspiring some to finally grab a laptop and start typing.
Elie Fares, a 26-year-old Lebanese medical student, and Danny Ganama, a 20-year-old Syrian studying at the Lebanese American University, represent the country’s impetus for change through their personal blogs. Like many others, these Beiruti inhabitants have been galvanized to the point of no return, bringing taboo conversation and debate about Lebanon and its future to the web.
“Whether it’s a mother on Facebook writing a status or a father on Twitter who doesn’t even know what retweets are, everyone now has the capacity to voice their opinions.”
Fares’ A Separate State of Mind has held a strong online presence since 2011, gaining international acclaim through his “From Beirut, This is Paris: In a World that Doesn’t Care About Arab Lives” article, a post criticizing the world’s lack of empathy toward the common attacks in his country. His blog has become focused on serious social issues in Lebanon that affect his day to day life as a citizen.
Ganama’s Stupid Toast takes a different approach. It features satirical news, discussing important topics through substantial social commentary that’s presented in a humorous way. Much like the Onion, Ganama tackles points of contention present within his community with a heavy dollop of sarcasm. One of his most famous posts, “‘Paris is Officially the Beirut of Europe,’ says the President of France,” makes fun of the apathy Lebanese have towards the deteriorating situation under their own roofs.
Both Fares and Ganama blogged about Lebanon’s May 2016 municipal elections, a colossal moment citizens had incessantly waited for since 2010. The elections served as a battlefield for Future Movement, or the Saad Hariri-backed Beirutis List (which has governed for years) and the grassroots, non-sectarian Beirut Madinati (Beirut, my city) movement, along with other groups to compete for power.
According to its website, the Beirut Madinati Municipal Party ran with the intention to “improve living conditions in Beirut.” Some of the party’s aims include improving transportation, increasing green spaces, providing more affordable housing, and strategizing an efficient waste management program.
Like most Lebanese youth, Fares and Ganama supported Beirut Madinati. Despite the party’s loss for the majority of votes, both find it a win for progressive voices and possible change in the country.
“These blogs now offer a second opinion and a fresh perspective, effectively providing unfiltered, more realistic information that resonates with the typical Lebanese person that wants to see what they’re thinking formulated by someone online,” Fares says. The increasing popularity of “blogs run for individuals, by individuals” phenomenon, as Ganama labels it, is credited to the lack of trust people have with authority and the thirst for information from citizens like themselves.
For the first time in years, the May elections provided a second option for voters, a foreign concept from the consistent reelection of the same politicians. The poll results highlighted the spark of a revolution, led by conversation and thought-provoking debate—a debate now influenced by Lebanon's rebel bloggers.
“It was one of the few times in history that a non-partisan movement had such a glorious showing in any election,” Fares says. “I knew that Beirut Madinati wasn’t going to win, but I knew it was a time to highlight the issues in Lebanon and highlight that it is now a time for change.” Ganama believes that these elections have made everyone think they are a “political analyst,” but he doesn't think that this is necessarily a bad thing.
“Whether it’s a mother on Facebook writing a status or a father on Twitter who doesn’t even know what retweets are, everyone now has the capacity to voice their opinions,” Ganama says. “Historically, people would inherit their friends' and family’s views because they weren’t exposed to anything else. This new exposure thanks to internet is tantamount in bringing change.”
“The laws regulating online media in the country haven’t been updated since the 1940s, when there wasn’t even online media.”
Though Lebanon’s internet structure remains callow and fallible, the slow development of social media has finally begun to help shape a give-and-take, symbiotic relationship between writers and readers. But even with the improvement, Fares still believes that the country’s strict regulations remain detrimental to bloggers and other online influencers in the region. On one occasion, Fares’ family was harassed and threatened after he published musings on the issue of drugs in a Lebanese region.
“The laws regulating online media in the country haven’t been updated since the 1940s, when there wasn’t even online media,” Fares says. “We don’t know what we can or cannot say online, we don’t know when something we say can be taken as slander. ... Our security apparatus is not very trustworthy. There’s not this element of protection for online freedom when it comes to freedom of speech.”
Despite the obstacles, Fares believes writers’ opinions are becoming more relevant and more influential in sparking change. “Beirut Madinati received 40 percent of the votes in the municipal elections, and this could not have been possible without us repeating the same things over and over on the internet—this system does not work, and we need to change things.”
“Nothing makes me happier than posts by 20-something-year-olds receiving more exposure than news articles by specific news companies,” Ganama says. “This could all create a paradigm shift in the way people think, and I hope this happens in the near future.”