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When Revolution Reinvents Public Space in Beirut

In the fall of 2019, peaceful protesters in Lebanon were demanding an end to corruption and calling for a movement of national unity. A young urban planner gives her account of these events, and of the ways in which the inhabitants of Beirut are reclaiming public spaces.

In Lebanon, anger has been expressed loud and clear since October 17, 2019. Beyond the anecdotal side of a mobilization triggered by the imposition of a WhatsApp tax, as reported in the media, it is against an attack on the last square of individual freedom that everyone has begun to revolt. WhatsApp is, indeed, more than an instant messaging application. WhatsApp is a way to cope with the exorbitant cost of telecommunications (twice as high as in countries in the region and up to five times higher than in Egypt). In a country where the minimum wage is barely $500—when workers even have an employment contract—taxing WhatsApp at $6 per month is seen as a direct attack on purchasing power and the freedom to communicate. For WhatsApp is also a popular tool for a population whose families are spread all over Lebanon and the world, forced into exile by a social and political situation that offers neither work opportunities nor a future for its youth. For millions of people, in Lebanon or elsewhere, in countries where public spaces are confiscated, where social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are monitored, where individual liberties are reduced and flouted, it is also a digital space of expression without equivalent.

Controlled and privatized public spaces

For where can one find oneself outside social networks in a country where public space is so limited? Since the war years (1975–1990), public space has gradually shrunk. During the dark hours of the young Lebanese republic, public places, taken over by fighting, were synonymous with hostilities, dangers and therefore fears. In the early hours of the war, downtown Beirut was at the heart of the clashes before becoming a no man’s land crossed by the demarcation line, which separated the east and west of the Lebanese capital for 15 years. These fears of a hostile public space have not completely disappeared today.

Since then, no national policy has sought to re-establish the link between the population and its urban environment. On the contrary, today public space is almost exclusively limited to roads, when it is not monopolized by wild and illegal occupations and privatizations... The rare gathering spaces that exist in Beirut are either controlled (e.g. Horsh Beirut), or (semi-)privatized and politicized (e.g. downtown Beirut or the Zeitouna Bay marina). Horsh Beirut is the largest green space in the capital, composed of the last umbrella pines of the once immense forest planted by Emir Fakheredine to counter the advancing sands. Damaged during the war, it was redeveloped in 1995 by the City of Beirut with the support of a program launched by the Paris–Île-de-France region. However, until 2016, access was reserved for permit holders and foreigners only, without any valid argument to explain this discrimination. The reopening of the park under pressure from associations was but short-lived: the woods were closed again in 2017 following the development of a parasite.

Paradoxically, in downtown Beirut itself, public space is constrained. Following partial devastation caused by 15 years of war, the city center has witnessed a controversial reconstruction. A private company close to political circles, Solidere, was in charge of rebuilding downtown Beirut in the 1990s. While this choice made it possible to manage land whose ownership was shared among a multitude of rightsholders, it was experienced by these landowners, and by the population in general, as a pure and simple eviction. Within the context of the reconstruction program, the destruction of large parts of the urban fabric that had been spared by the war was also badly experienced. The new city wanted to break with the past, and turned towards large foreign companies, with the project’s lofty ambitions disproportionate to the needs of the Lebanese economy. The economic purpose of the project has transformed the face of the city center both architecturally and socially. Priority was given to the architectural memory of the French Mandate rather than that of the Ottoman period. Whereas before the conflict the city center allowed all layers of the population to come together (shops, leisure, transportation), the new center appears as a luxury enclave dedicated to the wealthy and rich foreign tourists. The reconstruction substituted "a well-to-do, even wealthy population, made up of the grande bourgeoisie and expatriate foreigners, in place of the much more complex social strata that the maintenance of a residual residential function in the city center had kept in place until the eve of the war [...]. In short, everything that made the old center a microcosm of the country, and even of the Arab Mediterranean. [1]"

The Beirut souks illustrate this new social selectivity. Whereas a variety of daily activities took place there before the war, today the Beirut Souk is a luxurious open-air shopping mall, with strict security in place at entry points. The "privatization" of the city center has deprived it of its former dynamism, all the more so since the regional economic and financial crises have not made it the commercial success that was hoped for. Zeitouna Bay is another example of the way in which public spaces have been compromised in Lebanon, particularly maritime property. The land on which this luxurious marina is built was leased by the state to a private company for LBP 2,500 (Lebanese pounds) per square meter (less than 0.2 US dollars per square foot). Today, the commercial units that accommodate restaurant chains of various standards (that have become gradually more downmarket in the face of economic difficulties) are sublet by this company for thousands of dollars. Access to the marina is guarded by the staff of private surveillance companies who remind people of the rules on multiple signs: animals, skateboards and roller skates, picnics, and hookahs are all prohibited. The marina is frequented only by the upper middle class and foreigners—far from the social melting pot that can be seen on the corniche just a few hundred yards away.

Zeitouna Bay is not the only example of the privatization of the Lebanese coast. The coast is affected from north to south, concrete, nibbled, privatized by seaside resorts which confiscate direct access for all to the sea. In Beirut, the recent construction of a hotel on the city’s only public beach (Ramlet al-Baida) mobilized the activists without preventing the realization of the project. The ledge is not spared. A few months ago, the authorities installed parking meters (quickly removed under pressure from the street). The so-called Waterfront district, which extends the city center with its high luxury buildings built on the spoils of war, is guarded night and day. Joggers and apprentice cyclists are content with the lanes that the cars of future residents have not yet invaded, failing to be able to walk along the promenade by the water ... So much so that Beirutis sometimes forget that they live in a coastal town.

Contestation in the heart of the city

Figure 1. Plan showing the occupation of downtown Beirut on October 27, 2019

© Antoine Atallah.

Figure 2

Protesters by Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, Martyrs’ Square (October 19, 2019).
© Ines Lakrouf.

Figure 3

Thousands of protesters on Martyrs’ Square during the first weekend of demonstrations (October 20, 2019).
© Yammine Yammine.

In the first days of the protests, demonstrations were concentrated in the center of the capital: in front of the Grand Serail on Riad Al Solh Square and Martyrs’ Square. Each of these places had a symbolic importance. Located on Serail hill, the Grand Serail is today the residence of the prime minister. The Council of Ministers sits there. [2]. Located below the Grand Serail, Riad Al Solh Square, which since 1957 has been named after the country’s first post-independence prime minister, has had many different lives. From a gathering place where military parades and cattle markets were held during the Ottoman Empire, it was later transformed into a plaza, squeezed between lanes of busy traffic following the modernization of the city. Since the end of the war, the square has decreased in size. As a small and poorly laid-out space, it is only occupied during demonstrations, as it is the closest gathering point to the Grand Serail.

Martyrs’ Square is the former central hub of the Lebanese capital, which is hard to imagine when you enter this empty expanse, disconnected from the rest of the city by wide, busy roads and surrounded by parking lots and buildings under construction. For pedestrians, the experience can be traumatic: the glaring lack of provision for these users leaves them vulnerable and at the mercy of motorists. This plaza—Sehet el Burj (Tower Square), as it is still called by many Lebanese—is a symbolic place in the country’s political and social history. The Russians deployed their cannons there during their occupation between 1773 and 1774 as part of their confrontation with the Ottoman Empire, hence the name "Place des Canons" that is sometimes still used. Later, in 1916, the Ottoman power repressed the Arab independentists there. In modern Beirut, cafés, cinemas and brothels developed around the square, with a garden in the center. It was also the starting point and terminus of the city’s tram network, which no longer exists today. On this square, only one building survived the war and reconstruction, fueling nostalgia for all Beirut residents, even those who did not know the pre-war city. In 2005, following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the prime minister at the time, Martyrs’ Square returned to its political vocation when crowds gathered there to send a political message to Syria, considered responsible for the politician’s death.

Reclaiming symbolic spaces

It is in these places that the mobilized population finds itself today. First of all, young people: the under-30s, hit by a high unemployment rate (22% for the under-24s [3]) are the main victims of the current economic crisis. There are also families with young children, or parents desperate to see their offspring fly to other skies to secure their future. Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, elegant women of Ashrafieh, [4] the joyful and turbulent teenagers of Tariq el-Jdidé [5], all of them have discovered since October 17 that they are not alone, that their compatriots are experiencing the same difficulties, albeit obviously to very different degrees, and that the Lebanese people exist, finally.

So here and there, the psychological barriers of fear of the "other" and the forbidden are broken down: together, people (re)discover the Grand Théâtre, the work of architect Youssef Aftimos, and the City Center cinema, nicknamed the Egg, designed by Lebanese architect Joseph Philippe Karam in the early 1960s. Abandoned since the war, its gutted carcass has since become a symbol of the city, and today of revolt. Much frequented before the war, these two cultural spaces suffered much degradation during the 15 years of conflict and have since been left in their dilapidated state, barricaded behind protective panels that prevent passers-by from approaching them. In 2015, during the "You Stink" movement, born out of the country’s waste management crisis, the Grand Théâtre had already been forced to open its doors to the public by demonstrators. Today, these two places have become symbols of the reappropriation of their heritage by the Lebanese; many people consider it confiscated by Solidere (access to the Grand Théâtre has however been banned again because of the risk of accidents and collapse). Since the beginning of the demonstrations, the Egg has been hosting screenings, debates and festive events spontaneously organized by the population and associations, and some people start dreaming of its permanent transformation into a cultural venue.

Figure 4

Protesters entering the Egg (October 18, 2019).
© Ines Lakrouf.

Figure 5

At the foot of the Grand Théâtre, protesters occupy the area and smoke hookah pipes (October 21, 2019).
© Yammine Yammine.

Together, people are occupying benches, steps, sidewalks, the courtyard of the Lazarieh building dating from the modern period, the memorial of Rafik Hariri, the Martyrs’ Square, the souks... The demonstrators are kept away from Nejme Square (Place de l’Étoile) where Parliament sits, the military blocking all access. Regardless, the Lebanese are together rediscovering this city center, taking it over, occupying it, some, perhaps, for the first time. Street sellers are wandering around: coffee, corn, sesame bread patties, fresh fruit juice... since when was it not possible to enjoy a coffee for LBP 250 (25 cents) in the city center? Alongside the tents that now house the stands of associations, at the heart of the vitality of civil society in recent years, even barbecue stands have been set up. That’s also what the right to the city means.

On October 29, the tenth day of the protests, a few hours after the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, violent protesters descended upon downtown Beirut and destroyed all the temporary installations that had been set up there. A minor reorganization of city-center spaces followed: more flexible infrastructure, better established spaces for debate, and all demonstration spaces circled by metal barriers (set up by the authorities).

Figure 6

The Rafik Hariri memorial protected by barriers and occupied by protesters (October 23, 2019).
© Ines Lakrouf.

Figure 7

Access to Nejme Square blocked by barriers guarded by the army (October 18, 2019).
© Yammine Yammine.

Figure 8

Associations’ tents following their destruction by violent protesters (October 29, 2019).
© Yammine Yammine.

Figure 9

Following the tents’ destruction, associations soon relocated to the Lazarieh parking lot (October 30, 2019).
© Ines Lakrouf.

Giving the highways back to pedestrians

In the northern suburbs which stretch along the coast and which offer the spectacle of continuous urban sprawl, uncontrolled and disconnected from the topographical realities (construction of apartment buildings right up to mountain ridges), it is on the highway bordering the sea that the demonstrators find themselves, paralyzing traffic to the chagrin of the authorities. Decentralizing the spontaneous movement of protests, the demonstrators thus amplify its impact and give it a unique national character. But beyond the reality of blocking the roads, the choice of these gathering places is not just strategic. Where are the alternative places where they could meet? There aren’t any. Here, the pedestrian is an endangered species and vehicles are king. Without a car, the population is effectively placed under house arrest because they are victims of the lack of alternatives in terms of reliable institutional public transport. “Squares” and “plazas” are in reality traffic roundabouts or intersections, and are thus public spaces in name only, and contribute little to urban life. The demonstrators therefore occupied the highways, as in Jal el Dib, north of Beirut, or in Zouq, in the suburbs of Jounieh. There’s lots of space, crowds can spread out freely, and on the opposite side of the road children can play and ride their bikes.

Figure 10

Jal el Dib freeway and bridge (in the northern suburbs of Beirut) taken over by protesters (October 23, 2019).
© Yammine Yammine.

Figure 11

Protesters recreate a lounge ambience on the Ring, the highway that circles the city center and links the east and the west of the city (October 29, 2019).
© Ines Lakrouf.

Protests against the state’s failures and in favor of democracy

After the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on October 29, the strategy of the protest (still totally horizontal and leaderless) changed. The blocking of roads has given way to the organization, throughout the country, of multiple daily sit-ins in front of many places symbolic of generalized corruption: Central Bank, courts of justice, headquarters of Electricity of Lebanon, TVA, the ministry of education, headquarters of Lebabon’s two telecommunications companies, and politicians’ residences. Not without clashes in the first days, the demonstrators also took over Zeitouna Bay and the beach of Ramlet al-Baida, where the hotel mentioned above was built. The choice of spaces for the current protest confirms the strong urban dysfunctions in Lebanon, one of the many areas of state failure in this country. Precious and essential for building relationships with others, with citizenship and with the common good, public spaces today reinvested or created from scratch have become the support for the demands of the demonstrators and the objects of the demands themselves. Let us hope that the claim of these spaces in the crisis accompanies the movement and that in the future they will be essential places for the exercise of democracy and the expression of individual and collective freedoms.

Figure 12

Demonstration in front of the headquarters of Électricité du Liban calling for the supply of electricity 24 hours a day (November 7, 2019).
© Yammine Yammine.

Figure 13

Demonstrators occupying private marina Zeitouna Bay to protest against the privatization of the coast (November 10, 2019).
© Yammine Yammine.

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To cite this article:

Ines Lakrouf & translated by Oliver Waine, “When Revolution Reinvents Public Space in Beirut”, Metropolitics, 18 September 2020. URL :

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