In a quiet corner of Beirut on a spring Saturday afternoon, away from the city throng, a burly soft-spoken Yassin Fawaz, who is known across Lebanon simply as “King”, a man whom many believe is the nation’s richest sits at a table in a hotel café as a car passes by.
“King!” yells the passenger. Fawaz gives a friendly wave.
Minutes later, around a dozen young men wearing shorts and T-shirts jog past the hotel and spot Fawaz.
“Welcome, King!” they call out.
“Hi guys,” Fawaz replies in English. “Where are you from?”
“We’re State Security,” one of the men says, referring to one of Lebanon’s security organs. An officer sheepishly asks if it would be okay for “King” to pose for a photo with his men.
Lebanon heads to the polls in six weeks amid a debilitating financial and economic crisis that the World Bank says is one of the worst in the past century and a half. And Fawaz has to be the most unusual of the 1,001 candidates running for the 128-seat parliament.
With the Lebanese lira having lost 90 percent of its value since 2019, plunging some 80 percent of the population below the poverty line, the elections theoretically should provide an opportunity for angry and frustrated Lebanese to punish the current crop of politicians who are largely responsible for the country’s plight and elect new faces to parliament. And there were hopes that the opposition mass protest movement that emerged in October 2019 could unite and run as a serious competitor to the established political parties and their leaders. But the protest movement, known as the “thawra” or “revolution”, has largely unraveled, splintering into dozens of competing groups and, therefore, diluting the impact it might have had at the polls.
However, amid the general public apathy toward the elections, Fawaz is a candidate who is rapidly gaining attention. Fawaz, in short, is an anomaly in Lebanese politics. The 34-year-old is the son of a Lebanese Shia father and a Christian African American mother, which makes him the first black parliamentary candidate in the Middle East, let alone Lebanon, a country that recently ranked third in a 2022 survey on most racist countries in the world. He was born and raised in the US and is the chief executive officer of the Raddington Group, a Washington-based strategic advisory firm that provides consultative and intelligence services to heads of state, royals and billionaires. His extensive network of contacts and connections spanning the globe earned him the nickname “King Rolodex”. And this is where the second Yassin Fawaz comes in. He is also a massive social media phenomenon operating under the King Rolodex moniker. He boasts 1.3 million followers on Instagram and an audience of a half a million on his Tik Tok account. He drives his Lamborghini and Bentley cars around Beirut’s streets in the company of models, handing out $100 bills to Syrian refugee children and financially supporting impoverished Lebanese families. He is instantly recognizable and often mobbed by his army of supporters wherever he goes.
“I was so shocked when people were saying ‘Allah and king’, ‘Allah and king’ and following his car,” says Sarah Loinaz, Spain’s Miss Universe, who visited Lebanon this year as a guest of Fawaz.
His garish social media presence and filmed exploits posted on Instagram and Tik Tok appear completely at odds with his high-flying besuited corporate image. A family friend and political operative who has known Fawaz for 10 years described him as a “paradox” that Lebanese politicians could not understand.
“Success for me is defined as being able to juggle two disparate personalities at the same time, King Rolodex and Yassin Fawaz,” Fawaz says. “Having King Rolodex as an alter ego at times really makes me feel as if I am the real-life Batman and Bruce Wayne.”
Now, however, he is hoping that his popularity in Lebanon will be translated into votes on May 15. But why would someone like Fawaz want to engage in the often sordid and sometimes dangerous world of Lebanese politics?
“People by nature, especially in this country, don’t welcome anything different,” he says. “They are afraid of change. I’m a candidate for change. I think everyone should have the ability to live as they want, not how society dictates, whether gay, straight, black or white. Other countries have modern thriving societies, but Lebanon is still stuck in the past.”
It would be easy to dismiss Fawaz’ electoral aspiration as a joke or a stunt to further his public profile. And the established political elite in Lebanon appears uncertain what to make of him. Some regard him as an oddity that can be safely ignored. Others have hoped that some of Fawaz popularity may rub off on them. One Lebanese politician asked Fawaz if he would accompany him to his constituency for his electoral campaign tour. Fawaz declined the request.
In a conversation with the publisher of one of Lebanon’s leading newspapers, Fawaz was asked whether he was representing any foreign agenda because the size of the audience he had amassed appeared to be greater than the efforts of one person alone. But Fawaz insists that he is representing only himself, and that his prominence is due solely to the deft exploitation of social media.
A Lebanese news platform on Instagram, Political Pen, ran a nationwide poll with eight multi-sectarian public figures in which Fawaz received more votes than all the other seven combined.
“We see this as a worrying and clear signal that the candidates who are meant to represent the embodiment of change, are not appealing to average Lebanese citizens and youth,” Political Pen commented.
In the May 15 election, Fawaz will be running against candidates from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. Often described as the “Shia duo”, Hezbollah and Amal have dominated the Shia political scene for decades in a sometimes tense alliance that leaves little space for third parties. Although other sectarian groups now include some independent figures, Hezbollah and Amal maintain a rigid monopoly over the Shia community. However, Fawaz’s popularity among Shias threatens to breach that wall. Traditional loyalty to political parties, blamed by many for causing the current crisis, falls well behind the current daily priority of most Lebanese of providing for their families amid soaring prices of goods and shortages of key commodities such as gasoline and medicines. Public resentment toward established parties could work to Fawaz’s advantage at the polls.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati has insisted that the elections will take place on schedule, describing speculation that they could be postponed as “mere blabber”. But there is a palpable nervousness among some political parties that fear embarrassing results at the polls. Hezbollah and Amal could absorb the loss of a Shia parliamentary seat if Fawaz was to benefit from the combination of his “street” popularity and anger at the traditional parties to win the Shia seat in the Beirut Two electoral district. But it would send an unwelcome signal to the Shia duo that their grip on the community is not as strong as it was.
Fawaz is acutely aware of the potential unease he might be causing, illustrated by the muscle-bound bodyguards he has employed to accompany him. But he says his intention is not to deliberately challenge and antagonize Hezbollah and Amal.
“I don’t see myself competing with the other politicians,” Fawaz says. “I just want to serve the people. If people are happy with what the political class gives them, then they can keep voting for them.”
If Fawaz wins on May 15, it will certainly add a dash of glamor and liveliness to the usually staid atmosphere of the Lebanese parliament.
- Nicholas Blanford
Nicholas Blanford has been writing on Lebanon and other areas of the Middle East since 2002. He has covered Lebanon's complex and turbulent politics, including the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, and the uprising in Syria. He has also reported for the Monitor from Iraq, Syria, Qatar, and Kuwait. Nick has lived in Beirut since 1994. He is married with two children. He is author of Killing Mr Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and its Impact on the Middle East (IB Tauris, 2006) and Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah's Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel (Random House, 2011).