The city of Beirut is not going to win any awards for public space anytime soon. A densely populated metropolis dominated by vehicles and exhaust, it boasts only a smattering of euphemistically designated parks and gardens.
The William Hawi garden in the Geitawi neighborhood, for instance, is not much bigger than the fountain it contains. Also, it’s named after a right-wing Christian militia leader from the Lebanese civil war, marking it as more of a sectarian space than a public one.
Horsh Beirut, a pine forest amid Beirut’s concrete jungle, is closed to the public — although Europeans and other trusted foreigners are allowed in, as are Lebanese with the proper political or social connections. According to the self-colonizing logic underpinning the park rules, local hordes would sully the place and create unsustainable maintenance costs.
Meanwhile, not even the streets of the capital are consistently open to the public. Out for a walk the other day, I was stopped by police from accessing a city road that had apparently been appropriated as the personal fief of National Assembly Speaker Nabih Berri, one of the permanent fixtures of Lebanese politics.
One of the best illustrations of the hijacking of public space is the downtown area, also known as the Beirut Central District (BCD) or simply Solidere, the name of the private development company that was tasked with rebuilding it after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990. The new downtown was erected atop the so-called Green Line, which used to separate primarily Christian East Beirut from Muslim West Beirut — “a strip of wild vegetation that pushed through pavement and physically divided the city,” in the words of National Geographic.
You won’t see much vegetation nowadays, but there is plenty of green on display in the form of armed soldiers, who, along with their gray-clad police counterparts, are in charge of blocking any number of downtown thoroughfares to vehicular or pedestrian traffic in accordance with the perceived security situation. Whenever the National Assembly deigns to meet, the area is essentially under lockdown.
Navigating the BCD can thus be a source of amusement or annoyance, depending on your feelings about razor wire. In my experience, traversing the city center on foot usually involves circumventing various camouflaged contingents and concrete barricades, leaping across a ditch to get around another barricade and then leaping back.
In short, you would be forgiven for thinking you’re still in a war zone.
The master plan
Solidere was founded by Lebanon’s second postwar prime minister, the late billionaire Rafik Hariri, who returned to the country in 1992 after amassing a fortune in the construction business in Saudi Arabia.
As Lebanese journalist Habib Battah details in an Al Jazeera Magazine essay, “Erasing memory in downtown Beirut,” Hariri established his firm as the lead developer in national reconstruction — the kind of cozy corruption Americans associate with the name Halliburton. In early 2014, Battah noted that Solidere was Lebanon’s largest company by far, writing, “According to its website, the firm’s current real estate and financial assets are close to $10 billion, which is nearly one-quarter of the country’s entire GDP.”
There are about eight illegal resorts per mile of Lebanon’s 135-mile coastline. That’s a lot of construction for a country that claims to have no room for Syrian refugees.
Technically, Beirut’s rebuilt downtown — still incomplete — was supposed to serve as a postwar forum for public reconciliation. Solidere’s master plan, which covers two development phases from 1994 to 2030, promises a “vibrant, 24-hour active downtown” that would help “reconnect the city,” including through “landscaped public space” and other “outdoor escapes [that] forge … a special relationship with the growing community of residents, workers and visitors.”
Despite this professed humanism, the BCD is nothing more than a militarized playground for domestic and international elites, characterized by astronomical rents, multimillion-dollar apartments, high-end shops and fancy eateries. It’s an aseptic bubble meant to shield rich folks and their investments from the chaos outside.
One of the “public” spaces supervised by Solidere is Zaitunay Bay, a seaside promenade that opened in December 2011. The New York Times reported on its debut with a breathless puff piece headlined “Resurgent Beirut offers haven amid turmoil of Arab Spring.”
The article begins by reviewing the amenities of Zaitunay Bay — yachts, gleaming white tablecloths at upscale restaurants, wine bottles “sweat[ing] in silver coolers” and boardwalk where “women with Louis Vuitton handbags are forever extracting their spike heels from the cracks” between its planks.
But it’s unclear how the general public is supposed to enter such a space. Though the promenade is theoretically open to everyone, most Lebanese — not to mention other members of the population such as Palestinians and Syrians — lack the financial wherewithal to be getting their expensive heels stuck on a luxury boardwalk.
While the Times brings up the fact that Zaitunay Bay sits on the Green Line that previously divided East and West Beirut, it fails to note the obvious: that the city center is now a new dividing line, separating haves and have-nots.
Before the unrest in neighboring Syria, Gulf tourists were regular visitors to the BCD and other elite Lebanese locales. Now they have stopped going. Combined with tightened security measures and failing businesses, the decline in tourism means that the downtown sometimes looks a bit as it did during Lebanon's civil war: a no man’s land. So much for the “vibrant” promises of the master plan.
In the grand scheme of things, however, these temporary setbacks matter little. The landscape has been irreversibly converted into a monument to obscene wealth and private profit, all in the name of the public good.
The problem is bigger than Solidere: Across the city and country, public space has been usurped by private interests, often illegally. In a recent Guardian article, Battah calculates that there are about eight illegal resorts per mile of Lebanon’s 135-mile coastline, many of them owned by senior politicians. That’s a lot of construction for a country that claims to have no room for Syrian refugees.
The ultimate effect of the forcible enclosure of public space is to make public cohesiveness impossible, preventing challenges to the current regime of domination. While sectarian leaders may be the bitterest of rivals on the political level, they find common cause in preserving the system of privilege.
Lebanon is prime real estate for elites looking to enrich themselves at the public’s expense. And as long as the profits are flowing, public solidarity will be thwarted by elite solidarity — or, we might say, Solidere-ity.