This piece was published by Foreign Policy on 28 May, 2013
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.
Read the full piece here: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/05/28/political_idol_reality_television_middle_east