Discuss as:

Resistance through reality TV? Young Palestinians battle to become 'President'

Ma'an Network

Sewar Salman, 21, is competing in the reality show "The President." The winners -- and three runners-up -- will be named unofficial youth envoys to three European countries and Russia.

Editor's note: This story includes a correction.

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The ballroom in the occupied West Bank’s only luxury hotel hummed with nervous activity, with shouts of “action,” “standby” and “quiet on the set” ringing through the room.

A forest of cameras trained on a string of sharply dressed young people vying for a panel of judges’ approval and for the public’s votes. 

But the competitors weren't trying to prove they were skilled singers and dancers. The earnest performers were hoping to win something much more serious – they were fighting to become "The President" as part of a reality TV show.

Of course the winner, to be chosen on June 25, won’t become a real head of state. But he or she -- plus three runners-up -- will be named unofficial youth envoys to three European countries and Russia. They will also get the opportunity to shadow a Palestinian Authority minister. 

Chosen from over 1,000 young hopefuls from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel, the contestants are put through their intellectual and rhetorical paces by a five-person panel of judges made up of the cream of Palestinian and Arab-Israeli society. 

Sewar Salman, who is one of 13 remaining contestants, shares her political ideas freely.

“If negotiations (with Israel) don’t work, as 'The President' it is my right to achieve a Palestinian state through resistance,” said the 21-year-old from Halhul, a town near the West Bank city of Hebron.

A Palestinian state isn’t the only thing on the communications student’s mind – she has some choice words for her elders as well. 

“We don’t need the old generation. We need (leaders) who understand what young people need,” said Salman. “We believe we are able to change society more than anyone else.” 

Young Palestinians like Salman could be forgiven for having lost faith in their political system. Youth unemployment remains stubbornly high and an independent state remains little more than a dream.

The show, run by non-governmental organization Search for Common Ground and Palestinian Ma’an Network, an independent non-profit media organization, was launched in March, and comes at a tricky time for Palestinian leaders.

On April 13, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad quit amid rumors of a power struggle at the top of the ruling Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, there have been reports that an agreement between rival factions, including relatively secular Fatah and the militant group Hamas that runs the Gaza Strip, have come to nothing. 

The director of the show, Adham Hosari, says the whole point is to involve young Palestinians in the political process.

“The young generation is marginalized politically, and they have the chance to choose a new president,” he said. 

Hosari said the show had achieved high ratings, although he and others at the network were unable to provide numbers.

“The final material prize is not important,” Hosari said. “We want the people to know about the problems the Palestinians are facing politically and socially.”

But while the show emphasizes youth and purports to call for the overhaul of the country’s establishment, the judges are themselves drawn from the upper echelons of the Palestinian establishment. They include legislator Hanan Ashrawi and parliamentarian Ahmad Tibi.

And in another nod to the Palestinian political class, the five-person committee gets 75 percent of the deciding votes, while the television audience only the remaining 25 percent. 

Nonetheless, the feeling in the ballroom in Ramallah is that the contestants battling each other are the future leaders of their people, and the current leadership would be wise to listen to what they have to say. 

Indeed, Salman says her life has been transformed by participating in the show, and cannot walk down the street in her traditionally conservative community without being recognized -- and encouraged. 

She recounted a recent conversation with an elderly bookseller: “'Please win, win for us, just be The President’, he told me.”

Related stories: