Since October 17, Lebanon has been witness to the largest popular movement in its history, a revolution seeking to bring down a corrupt political system that has brought the country nothing but stagnation and misery. But among the most interesting phenomena seen in recent weeks is the re-appropriation and spontaneous reconfiguration of public spaces: from Zaytounay Bay in Beirut to Sahet el-Nour in Tripoli, throughout the squares and roundabouts of Tyr, Nabatiye, Baalbeck and other towns and cities, the subversive occupation of public space, much of which had been privatized or gentrified, has become a highpoint of the protests.
In Beirut, for example, the manner in which the city center was re-appropriated speaks of exceptional collective intelligence. Martyrs' Square has become a place of large public festivals and musical gatherings, while Riad el-Solh Square and Emir Bashir Street have emerged as areas of protest and are where activist-led demands emerge. The car park at the Azariye Center now hosts tents pitched by various civil society groups that have transformed the place into an agora where a common political culture seems to be forming. Also, a veritable market now connects Martyrs’ square, Riad el-Solh and Azariye with food stalls and carts. This improvised souk literally feeds the revolution.
Other spaces are emerging as well. Camps have been set up where one can spend the night while the space around the Martyrs’ monument has been transformed into an open-air nightclub. The plaza at the Rafic Hariri Mausoleum attracts families, while the stairs of Al-Amine mosque have become a place to sit and observe the crowds. The "Egg", an iconic cinema from the wartime era, destined to be absorbed by a real estate development, has become a space for both partying and lively debate. The Grand Théâtre, which was slated to be redeveloped into a boutique hotel, has been rediscovered, and now sports a banner proclaiming it “public property". Along the south wall of the Al-Amine mosque, meanwhile, where the famous cafe "Ahwet ezeiz" was located before the war, tables, chairs, and shishas have been laid out. Perhaps all of this is proof of the permanence of cities, of their capacity to regenerate and to create spaces that make sense to people when they are able to make use of them.
« Al-Balad »
In sum, the protesters have spontaneously recreated an image of what Beirutis once affectionately called "Al-Balad" ("the country"), the space that once upon a time gathered in a hundred hectares all that Lebanon had to offer, in the years before 1975. The streets in question once housed myriad shops and old bazaars such as Souk Tawile, Souk el-Jamil, Souk Sursock, the Carpenter’s Souk, jewelers, fishmongers, and vegetable markets... in addition to a multitude of cinemas, hotels, cafes and restaurants; all this resulted in a neighborhood that was also a place of leisure where everyone could live out their preferred forms of escape. From here a bus station attracted buses and taxis flocked from all over Lebanon and the neighboring countries. But in the midst of all that hustle and bustle, many middle class and lower income families called this space home, as well as more affluent families residing in their old palaces. The city center lived according to the rhythm of its squares, streets and avenues, in that these breathing spaces and pathways allowed the locals to go about their lives in harmony. Al-Balad, considered the most vibrant part of the city, with its political, administrative, commercial and cultural functions, played the role a center of a capital is supposed to have: that of a place of meeting and exchange between citizens from all the walks of life.
Almost completely expropriated after the war by private company Solidere, 80 % of city center was razed to the ground, despite opposition from civil society. In its place, a neighborhood aimed almost exclusively at the wealthy emerged, lined with luxury shops and restaurants with extravagant offices and residences housed in hyper secured towers and condominiums. The city center became restricted to the political and financial elite, its public spaces were perceived as exclusive and unfavorable to those who had nothing to do or consume there, a place where the security presence was ever more hostile. It ended up being deserted by the vast majority of Beirutis and Lebanese, the interweaving of urban and social functions that once made its streets, souks, avenues and plazas was gone, it was no longer a place for people to meet. By preventing people from rebuilding the center of their capital themselves, on the grounds that this was the business of a higher authority (even if it was a private one), Solidere not only deprived the people of a unifying space and social cohesion, it also deprived them of a common project, and hindered the people from healing collectively from the injuries of the war and from writing a common history together.
Making the ephemeral sustainable
However, since October 17, citizens have taken over as the narrators of their city’s story and exercised their right to the capital. In this new state of permissiveness, the voids of the city center have revealed their potential. A new city center could be rebuilt by the people and for the people, in their most diverse components and in particular in a way that caters to the middle class, the disadvantaged, and the marginalized. But this occupation is necessarily ephemeral and is doomed to disappear with the end of the movement. However, it has made it possible to highlight needs that Beirut and other Lebanese cities do not meet: platforms for debate and expression, meeting and gathering places, affordable shops, and accessible public spaces where people can walk, enjoy street food, practice simple pastimes, take strolls, hold parties and simply enjoy their time. Above all, this total subversion of the order established by Solidere and the state shows a deep desire to take part in the future of the city and in becoming active citizens, to take a stand against an abusive authority that seeks to control public space, to impose privatization and increased commoditization.
The question is how to promote citizen participation in the future. This is a mission for institutions and administrations, which we hope will be renewed in the near future, there is a need to respond to these needs and aspirations. This is in any case the condition for the current ephemeral experience of these temporary spaces to become a lasting achievement.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 30th of November)
Since October 17, Lebanon has been witness to the largest popular movement in its history, a revolution seeking to bring down a corrupt political system that has brought the country nothing but stagnation and misery. But among the most interesting phenomena seen in recent weeks is the re-appropriation and spontaneous reconfiguration of public spaces: from Zaytounay Bay in Beirut to Sahet el-Nour...