BEIRUT — When reality shows such as Arab Idol and Star Academy first hit the Middle East, an influential Saudi sheikh denounced them as "weapons of mass destruction that kill values and virtue." It wasn't just the shows' less-than-conservative social mores, the short skirts, or the racy lyrics -- the specter of democracy in their voting processes made authoritarian rulers nervous. Yet as political change sweeps the region, a new subset of the genre is being born: political reality TV.
The two places where the format is being pioneered -- Lebanon and Palestine -- are particularly in need of a political spark. Lebanon's elections, scheduled for June, are likely to be postponed due to wrangling over an electoral law and the ongoing war in neighboring Syria. Palestinians, meanwhile, haven't had presidential elections since 2005, due to the conflict between Hamas and Fatah. But now broadcasters are offering wannabe politicians a viable path to a political career -- on air, at least.
The Lebanese show is called Al-Zaim ("The Leader") -- a word synonymous with tribal and political chieftains whose legitimacy stems from patronage networks rather than merit. The program's goal was to undermine these omnipresent figures by empowering the audience to choose a leader free from gerrymandered districts and religious affiliation. Local broadcaster al-Jadeed TV promised to fund the winner's political campaign as an independent candidate in the upcoming elections.
Over the course of 10 weeks, contestants had to fulfill several challenges, ranging from scrutinizing the effectiveness of municipalities and working with officials to implement a project to organizing demonstrations to negotiating a settlement between two clashing factions. There was no lack of drama -- at one point, contestants were chased by men with knives as they tried to bring together supporters of Lebanon's rival political groupings. Another episode saw contestants face off against angry armed gunmen in the streets of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
"The main target was getting the contestants to go through challenges that many politicians never go through," explains Mazen Laham, the show's producer. Contestants received feedback from judges drawn from the worlds of business, politics, and media. But it was the Lebanese viewing public who then decided who should stay and who should go. The final five weeks of the show, once the pool of contestants had been whittled down, saw the challengers develop into full-fledged independent candidates, complete with electoral platforms that addressed Lebanon's most pressing issues.
The finale of Al-Zaim opened with dancers wearing Guy Fawkes masks -- adopted by young revolutionaries across the world. They are symbolic for what the show tried to achieve, says producer Laham. "It's all about revolution and for young people to be part of the parliament."
There's good reason a youth movement would gain traction among the Lebanese public. The average age of Lebanon's main political leaders hovers around 70, while the average age of the Lebanese population is 30. Even the young faces are representatives of old political dynasties: Nadim Gemayel, the second youngest deputy in Parliament at 31, is the son of former Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel and the grandson of Pierre Gemayel, who founded one of the country's most prominent Christian parties. The first paragraph of his biography proudly trumpets his family's credentials rather than his own accomplishments.