BEIRUT: Al-Jadeed’s new political reality show, Al-Zaim, which pits contestants against each other for a chance to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections, made its highly anticipated debut last week as a surreal circus of pop culture and politics.
Assi al-Hellani sang rousing nationalist anthems as fatigue-clad dancers spun and shimmied under the appreciative gaze of President Michel Sleiman. Al-Akhbar Editor-in-Chief Ibrahim al-Amine was joined on the judges’ panel by Al-Hayat New York bureau chief Raghida Dergham, AlJadeed’s chief news editor, Mariam al-Bassam, and former Interior Minister Ziad Baroud. Before the end of the first episode, Amine, who is known for his closeness to Hezbollah, had challenged Myriam Klink, the artist responsible for the songs ‘Antar’ and ‘Klink Revolution,’ to write a ballad that speaks to the suffering of the Lebanese people. Klink gamely accepted.
Over the next two months, candidate contestants will face a series of politically themed challenges, and the winner, as “democratically” elected by viewers, will have their political campaign funded by the channel “according to the laws in effect, as they say” host Dahlia Ahmed explained.
Lebanon’s factions have yet to agree on a new electoral law, which could include changes to media oversight and regulation in addition to redistricting.
This potent mix of politics and entertainment has scored high ratings, according to producers, who say they want to give a voice to marginalized, independent voices.
In the premier episode, contestants were asked to make a one minute speech outlining their priorities. Most skewed liberal and secular, demanding a greater separation of religion and politics, recognition of civil and women’s rights, better job prospects to stop the flight of fresh graduates, and an end to political dynasties.
But audiences were divided, with many accusing the show of exploiting the public’s frustrations and making light of the country’s gravely flawed political system.
“The concept is bad, the production is bad, the execution is bad – they’ve taken the idea of alternative politics and turned it into a profit-driven competition,” said Khodor Salameh, a writer and activist who turned down an offer to compete on the show.
“Even the name [is bad]; the Zaim is the opposite of democracy,” the writer added.
Zaim translates literally as leader, but in the Lebanese context is commonly understood as a local political boss with strong tribal connotations.
Salameh was not alone in his skepticism. Many commentators have taken issue with the name of the show, not to mention its ostensibly noble premise – to give a political platform to average citizens – which some feel is undermined the presence of Klink.
Karma Khayyat, the deputy head of news and political programs for AlJadeed, defended Klink and the rest of the participants, countering that critics had jumped to conclusions without giving the show a chance.
“In terms of the qualities of the contestants, do you see better qualities in the Parliament?” she said, adding that unlike the government, the show included equal numbers of men and women.
“We’re getting normal people and helping them to bring out the best they have inside,” she said.
In addition to the challenges, which are unveiled during the prime-time specials each Tuesday, contestants participate in history and civics workshops throughout the week and issue statements on current events in daily half-hour episodes.
The goal, said Mazen Laham, who created the show along with Khayyat, is to educate the public while still managing to maintain a lighthearted tone. Of some 800 potential candidates, he said, 15 were chosen on the basis of personality, demographic diversity, and political independence.
“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,” Laham told The Daily Star.
Laham is uniquely qualified to direct the show’s hybrid format, having produced several Lebanese political talk shows and local versions of Top Chef and American Gladiators. Laham said the show was breaking barriers, not just politically, but creatively as well.
“We used to buy the format and adapt it to the Arab region, but this show is the first of its kind ... in the world, not just the Arab region,” Laham said.
Despite the current stalemate over a new electoral law and the possible postponement of elections, Laham said the show was moving ahead at full speed. The winner must be announced at least one month before the elections, which are scheduled to take place in June, in order for the channel’s sponsorship to be considered legal under the current media law.
Like Khayyat, Laham thinks the show has been misunderstood. He spoke excitedly of future challenges, revealing to The Daily Star that Tuesday’s episode will dare contestants to pick any municipality in Lebanon, “see if this municipality is doing the work correctly” and achieve one objective that serves the local constituency. Officials of affected municipalities will not be warned, and their reaction to a team of zealous reformers with a camera crew in tow will likely make for good television.
Laham also believes it will make for better politics, brushing aside doubts raised by the show’s detractors.
“It’s a small thing, but if the Lebanese people and leaders and politicians can do what the contestants are doing, that would be great,” Laham said.
“That’s why I’m working like hell on this show, because it’s the first one I work on in my life that has a message, which I believe in,” he concluded. “With this show, there is something additional that ... I really need change. Young people need a change.”
Al-Zaim airs on Tuesdays at 8:40 p.m. and daily briefs run from Thursday to Sunday at 8:30 p.m.