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New App Skewers Lebanese Politicians' Responses To Bombings

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LEBANON CAR BOMBING
A Lebanese army soldier stands guard at the site of a deadly car bomb that exploded Saturday evening near a gas station, in the predominately Shiite town of Hermel, about 10 miles from the Syrian border in northeast Lebanon, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BEIRUT -- After a string of bombings in the first weeks of the new year raised fears here about the encroaching Syrian civil war, blogger Myra El Mir posted a message online denouncing politicians for their responses to the attacks.

"Our minister of interior, Marwan Charbel, actually said/tweeted that the issue of suicide bombers can not be solved by regular security plans. instead, he prefers awareness campaigns," she wrote, before giving a caustic suggestion: "don't drink and bomb?"

Tired of Lebanese politicians' seemingly out-of-touch statements, El Mir and Sandra Hassan, Lebanese-born graduate students studying in Paris, want to give civilians a way to express their frustrations. The pair developed an app for Android devices, scheduled for release on Monday night, that will let people mock politicians by creating their own statements after attacks occur.

While El Mir and Hassan aim to solicit ideas from users to add to the app, named "Istankar" after the Arabic word for "condemnation," they've already found fertile ground in the real words of politicians. "Most of the statements we came up with are actually almost copy-pasted from what they said," El Mir said during a Skype interview.

The app is meant as an outlet for satire, but Hassan said it also has a more serious goal. "One is to highlight the absurdity of it, two is to express that this is not okay," she said. "We have started to accept the fact that our politicians can't do anything, and that's the problem. We shouldn't accept that, we shouldn't give them excuses," El Mir added.

Hassan has already had success on the Lebanese app market with the release last month of an app called "I Am Alive." The app, which Hassan said has been installed by 4,000 people so far, prepares a reassuring message for people to tweet out to friends and family in the event of a bombing or other attack.

So far this year, five bombings have targeted neighborhoods in Beirut and the town of Hermel in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley. The attacks are widely seen as part of the struggle between Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite party that supports the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Sunni groups hoping to raise the cost of Hezbollah's involvement in the war.

"I Am Alive" was intended as a tongue-in-cheek play on frantic post-bombing check-ins, but Hassan said "it's taken on a life of its own." Users have asked her to update the app so they can post messages to Facebook as well. The Observatoire International des Crises, a French NGO focused on conflict resolution, also contacted Hassan to see if she could develop the app to help with emergency response, she said.

Many of the "I Am Alive" users are eagerly awaiting the release of "Istankar," according to the feedback Hassan has received personally and on the Google Play store.

"Do the 'istinkar' app for real," wrote Google user Hadi Dayekh in a review for the "I Am Alive" app. "It might be a great lesson for Lebanese politicians!"

Hassan and El Mir laughed when asked if they expect the new app to have a serious impact, but they intend to keep up the pressure on politicians regardless of whether or not it succeeds. They also have plans to create another app that will calculate the amount of money given to retired cabinet members, who Hassan said still receive salaries for life even after they leave government. According to the Beirut-based research firm Information International, members of parliament who leave after only one term are entitled to 55 percent of what sitting members earn, with even better rates if they serve longer.

"Maybe if people actually use it and make of fun of [politicians]," El Mir said, "they'll start to feel accountable in what they have to say and what they have to do."



This article has been updated with additional information on parliament members' salaries.

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