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'The President' Reality Show Catches On Among Palestinians

The new Palestinian "president" might be a woman — or a Christian.
Image: Waad Qannam and Maeme Adawe
Waad Qannam, left, and Maeme Adawe are finalists in The President.Khaldoon Eid / NBC News

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The new Palestinian "president" might be a woman — or a Christian.

The contenders' backgrounds might come as a surprise to some in the West, but their finalist status on a popular reality show suggests a population eager for change.

"The President" — a cross between "American Idol" and "The Apprentice" — has captivated the Palestinian viewing public, injecting vigor into a debate ground down by violence and political impasse.

Image: Waad Qannam and Maeme Adawe
Waad Qannam, left, and Maeme Adawe are finalists in The President.Khaldoon Eid / NBC News

Some 40 percent of Palestinian viewers have tuned in to watch and vote by phone since the show debuted with 1,200 competitors six months ago, according to its creators. The show's final will air Thursday in the West Bank, Gaza and throughout the Arab world on Ma'an satellite TV.

"I have watched all the episodes — it is very powerful," said Faraj Saed, a grocery store owner in Jerusalem. "Our life here is getting harder day by day but these young people have given me hope that one day we will have a leader that is able to solve our problems and who will achieve more political solutions."

Like politicians the world over, the show's three young finalists appear certain of their own inevitable charm.

“I behave now like a president,” said Waad Qannam with a smile. The 24-year-old is from Jerusalem and studying for a master's degree in international law.

“What makes me special from others might be the ability to persuade others,” he added.

Fadi Khier, a 30-year-old Christian from Bethlehem, appears equally convinced of his invincibility and casts a broad agenda: “As a new president I’m going to change many issues that our president [Mahmour Abbas] could not change — the economy, health, youth, education and also solving the conflict with Israel.”

Easy, right? Not really.

Image: Fadi Khier
Fadi Khier, 30, is one of three finalists in The President reality show.Khaldoon Eid / NBC News

While meeting dignitaries and kissing babies and getting intensive training in media affairs and politics, contestants have also been grappling with issues that have stymied world leaders pushing to craft an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

The Palestinian Authority, which nominally runs the Israeli-occupied West Bank, hasn’t held elections in over a decade. A wave of stabbing attacks by Arab youth has flummoxed officials struggling to cope with disappointment that the peace process aimed at establishing a Palestinian state has ground to a halt. Meanwhile, tightening work restrictions in Israel have worsened a languishing economy.

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Raed Othman, Ma'an agency's general manager, says he hopes finalists aren't just TV celebrities but change-makers.

"When we watch the program we will hear ideas ... from all the young Palestinians to solve all the political problems," he said. "Maybe none of the [Palestinian] leadership will think about these answers but this is what the street says."

While they come from varying backgrounds, the three finalists tend to reflect the same concerns.

“We are suffering from oppression within our daily lives — checkpoints, even our own homes are not safe,” said lone female finalist Ni’Meh Adawieh on why she is participating in the show.

The 22-year-old political scientist from Jerusalem has also highlighted Palestinian women’s roles in ensuring "right of return," or the right for Arabs driven from their communities in 1948 when the State of Israel was established to go back.

Women participated in the “revolution and resistance — they were throwing stones and cooking for the demonstrators because they had a major role in the resistance,” Adawe explained.

“Women are a big factor in society — why should it only be men?” she added. “If she is qualified, if she has a strong personality, why not?”