BEIRUT: When pop confection Myriam Klink is advocating for civil marriage while Grand Mufti Mohammad Rashid Qabbani calls it a “germ,” it promises to be an interesting election year in Lebanon. Klink is just one of a slew of celebrities who have either announced their candidacies or hinted as much in the media recently.
“The politicians have failed,” Klink said, explaining why so many performers have decided to enter the political fray this year. “Everyone is fed up and artists, they feel, and they already have the media’s attention.”
Klink’s rationale was echoed, nearly word for word, by multiple personalities who spoke to The Daily Star. While prolonged exposure to fame can alter one’s relationship to the outside world, Lebanese celebrities’ complaints sound a lot like those of their fans.
“At one point I wanted to close Nathalie’s Agency and move it abroad because I had a lot more opportunities outside,” said the model and entrepreneur Nathalie Fadlallah, who is perhaps best remembered for bringing the Playboy bunnies to Lebanon and staging a fashion show in 2010 that shut down the Naccache bridge for several hours.
Tony Hadchiti, better known by his stage name Zein al-Omar, was coy about his candidacy, but made no secret of his disenchantment with the status quo.
“We live in a country that needs change,” the singer said. “I sing for the young people, I’m the voice of the young people, and every citizen has the right to put forward something new.”
Recording artist Tony Kiwan said he would only run under a “democratic” electoral law, but was skeptical about the chances of such legislation passing.
“Unfortunately, we are a long way from democracy,” he said.
Other names that have been circulating as possible candidates include presenter George Kardahi, singer Carol Sakr, actress Carmen Lebbos, and singer Fadel Shaker.
This star lineup coincides with mounting frustration with the stalemate over a new electoral law. Much of the debate has centered on the so-called Orthodox proposal, in which electoral districts would be erased in favor of a single, national electoral playing field, but voters would only elect representatives from their own sect.
Civil society activists have long pushed for a single electoral district with proportional representation, a formula that some say would challenge the hegemony of the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, as well as the traditional regional powerbrokers. But requiring citizens to vote along purely sectarian lines (as opposed to carving out electoral districts to have more or less the same effect) is seen as a step backward for those hoping to move away from a sectarian political system.
For years, Lebanon was the main source of entertainment, both political and popular, for the Arab world. Its singers dominated the music channels while its proxy wars topped the news. Since the Arab uprisings have overtaken Lebanon in the media and exposed the depth of its sectarian roots, more Lebanese are finding themselves disappointed with the two broad camps of March 8 and March 14 and the political system at large.
The public reaction to the recent rash of celebrity candidates has been understandably cynical.
But even if star candidates are more interested in publicity than policy, they are pandering to an increasingly disillusioned public.
In 2005, Omar serenaded Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun upon his return from exile at a public rally. Today, he says, “Everyone in power is a liar.”
Klink, for her part, burst onto the scene last year in a cloud of controversy when she appeared on MTV to perform her song “Antar” in which she sings about touching her “cat.”
Despite her carefully cultivated bombshell image, Klink told The Daily Star she was absolutely serious about running, and discussed a number of her positions: She is strongly in favor of amending the nationality law to allow women to pass their citizenship to their children, if not their husbands. She also supports civil marriage as an option, temporary camps for Syrian refugees, and eventually doing away with sectarian quotas in government.
Regarding Hezbollah’s weapons, she said the issue should be approached “psychologically.”
“You have to understand why they have all these weapons; It’s because they are living in a really bad situation and because we are not united as a country,” she said.
“It’s their right, for now, to have these weapons, but you cannot fight all the other Lebanese. You have to understand the psychology of the people and I understand the other side as well,” she added.
Fadlallah declined to comment on Hezbollah’s arms and equivocated on the subject of civil marriage, but she spoke forcefully about the need to address poverty, women’s rights and prison reform.
One of her top priorities, she said, was amending the nationality law to grant women full citizenship rights.
She went on to criticize the media for its sexist coverage of her campaign, such as using old fashion shoot pictures to accompany articles about her candidacy.
“I am proud of being a model, I’m proud of being a socialite, and I’m proud of what I’ve done in my life,” she said.
“All the rumors and the people who spread them, I’ve put that behind me ... and this is why I have this courage,” she continued, referring to the persistent unsavory rumors that have dogged her modeling agency.
“Just because I dress sexily doesn’t mean that my mind is determined by what I am wearing,” she said.
According to Alawiya Sobh, the novelist and founding editor of Snob al-Hasnaa magazine, the marriage between entertainment and politics is perfectly natural.
“Art can be a business, as can politics,” she said. “The situation in Lebanon is affecting everyone ... the society as a whole is politicized.”
Very few people expect any of the celebrity candidates to win. Fadlallah herself said she was more concerned with bringing attention to the issues she cared about. But whether celebrities are expressing their personal convictions or merely catering to what they think fans want, patience with the political elite is clearly wearing thin.
“[Running for office] is a way of registering a position,” Kiwan said. “Like casting a blank ballot.”