“Achrafieh is now like the Champs-Élysées,” said Brain Beirut founder Said Hadifeh in a promotional video posted on social media.
In the video, Hadifeh walks along the illuminated streets of the neighborhood alongside Tareck Karam, chairman of the Lebanon of Tomorrow association. Together, the two organizations coordinated the installation of solar-powered street lamps in Achrafieh.
“They support the commercial signs and allow residents to move safely,” he said. “With the return of street lights, we feel safer and more comfortable moving around the neighborhood,” said an Achrafieh resident in the same video.
Over the past few months, Brain Beirut has undertaken various public projects. They redid walls, filled potholes, marked roads, fixed sidewalks, and installed advertising boards bearing the association’s slogan “I Love Achrafieh.”
“We are a group of Beirut intellectuals, specialists and figures who seek to improve the quality of life in the capital,” Hadifeh told L’Orient-Le Jour. Despite being an executive with the Al-Mashreq Insurance Company and a member of the Insurance Arbitration Council within the Economy Ministry, he said he is planning to expand Brain Beirut’s work, which is so far limited to Achrafieh, which has not yet fully recovered from the Aug. 4, 2020 port explosion.
Hadifeh said Brain Beirut aims to “bring people back to the neighborhood.”
Making up for public failure
“We can’t wait for the municipality to reassume its responsibilities, that would be a waste of time. So we’re doing the core planning work that falls to them,” Hadifeh said. Despite denouncing the failure of the public authorities, Hadifeh expressed his esteem for Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud, who facilitated the association’s work, and for Beirut Mayor Abdallah Darwish, who authorized the organization’s public works.
Brain Beirut was registered just a week ago in the Lebanese register for NGOs although it began its activities in May 2023, when it carried out its first renovation projects in Achrafieh. Hadifeh’s journey with NGOs began even earlier.
“I started on a personal level, with Be Beirut, an association that assists Beirut residents, founded by MP Jihad Pakradouni, [Lebanese Forces, Beirut I]. A person for whom I have great respect,” he told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Hadifeh, himself a member of the LF’s Central Council, also financed the installation of an impressive Virgin Mary statue, called Our Lady of Achrafieh, in October 2022. This initiative triggered controversy, with some critics noting the resurgence of sectarian tensions.
In the summer of 2022, Be Beirut got the owners of the Achrafieh’s power generators to get streetlights running again. “We managed to light up 70 percent of Achrafieh’s streets at night,” said Hadifeh.
For now, the two associations are working together to ensure the lighting on the expressways between Corniche al-Nahr, the Fiat Bridge and Justice Palace Crossroads are brought back into service soon.
Mona Fawaz, an urban planning professor at AUB and co-founder of the Beirut Urban Lab, said she never heard of Brain Beirut.
“But in Lebanon, the distribution of electricity in urban areas is a lever for consolidating political and sectarian clientelism. When a structure enters into an agreement with the power generators’ owners, one can assume that it also involves an agreement with a local political party. In Achrafieh, these companies are often linked to the LF,” Fawaz said.
Meanwhile, Hadifeh claimed political motives had no place in Brain Beirut. “Everything is done in collaboration with the state’s institutions, and there is no question of partisan strategy. The [political] parties already have their own associations,” he retorted.
“Even though I personally support their [LF’s] cause, I reject any politicization of Brain Beirut and its actions. Within the association, there is a diversity of political affinities, believe me,” he continued.
“We do not benefit from partisan funding. I personally contribute a significant proportion of the funds and I have a group of around 15 people by my side who have helped me to raise the necessary sums,” Hadifeh said in an interview with the online news channel Beirut24.
While the renovation of the entrances leading into Achrafieh was seen by its instigators as a way of making the area more welcoming to visitors, “it can also be seen as a way of closing off the Achrafieh neighborhood,” said Fawaz.
“There is no ambition to divide the area,” said Hadifeh, “the ‘I Love Achrafieh’ signs are a means of communication and this is an example of what will be done for all the other areas of Beirut without distinction,” he added.
But in Achrafieh, some NGOs working to improve the city’s urban environment seem to be more welcome than others. Fawaz’s Beirut Urban Lab can testify to this. Last July, the organization’s work in Mar Mikhael — as part of a project led by the former head of the Beirut Order of Engineers, Jad Tabet, and co-financed by French and Lebanese expatriates — was halted by authorities.
“We weren’t even able to apply an anti-slip coating to the sidewalks, and it’s raining now, it’s a real loss to residents,” said Fawaz.
This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.