Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Imagination, not exclusion, revives central Beirut

After weeks of demonstrations in Beirut’s city centre, last week the Beirut Traders Association held a press conference. The association, a bastion of bourgeois Lebanon, asked demonstrators to leave the downtown, saying their actions were undermining the area’s economy. The association’s head, Nicolas Shammas, then uttered a phrase he would regret.

Mr Shammas vowed that the area would never again return to being, as he put it, “Abou Rakhussa”, a colloquial term referring to the pre-civil war atmosphere when goods were sold off the pavement. “Rakhussa” derives from the Arabic word for “cheap”, so Mr Shammas was effectively saying the demonstrators were cheapening the area, planned as a hub for high-end retail outlets.

Not surprisingly the phrase hit a nerve. Many people interpreted the remarks as those of a prosperous merchant telling Lebanese of more modest means that they should steer clear of a luxury area they would degrade by their presence. Since the demonstrators had spent weeks protesting against serious government failings, his warning was doubly insulting.

But in one way Mr Shammas cast a useful light on the original flaw in the city centre area, managed by a private property company named Solidere. The company was formed after the 1975-1990 civil war to facilitate reconstruction of the largely destroyed district, and former property owners were compensated with shares.

From the start, the 1991 master plan for the area, which defined Solidere’s reconstruction model, provoked controversy. In 1992, writing in The Beirut Review, sociologist Nabil Beyhum criticised the project for, among other things, focusing on luxury shops while excluding popular ones: “Conceived of as an island of wealth and power, the city centre would no longer have a centralising role but would instead become an island like all other urban islands which arose during the war.”

Since then, many of Mr Beyhum’s predictions have been borne out. The city centre, while attractive, has indeed emerged as an urban island, cut off to a large extent from the areas around it.

Yet, ironically, this was not true in 2005, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from all over Lebanon descended on the area after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Now, a nonsectarian protest movement has chosen the city centre to condemn government inaction and corruption.

Political disputes have allowed the area to play a role as geographical unifier, located as it is between predominantly Muslim western Beirut and mainly Christian eastern Beirut. Mr Shammas doesn’t realise that there is more to a city centre than spaces of consumption. In his plea for protesters to leave the area, he failed to mention that large swaths of it were already empty, many shops having long closed down.

It would be unfair to Mr Shammas not to recognise that politics have indeed partly been the undoing of the downtown. In 2006, Hizbollah and its political allies, in an effort to force the resignation of prime minister Fouad Al Siniora’s government, staged a sit-in of several months in the area, killing its economy.

There was more than a little schadenfreude involved. The identity Solidere sought to embody, that of a bastion of style and luxury in the heart of Beirut, was sure to provoke the ire of the protesters at the time, who mostly came from low-income backgrounds. Moreover, Solidere was identified with the rival Hariri camp, the late Rafiq Hariri having owned a significant share in the company, so it became a political target.

But there was more to it than that. The opening of the new Beirut Souks in 2009 drew businesses and customers away from the central part of the city, causing businesses there to close. Solidere has also been inflexible, continuing to charge high rents and making shops unprofitable as Lebanon has gone through an economic downturn brought on by the war in Syria.

Today the area is struggling – it has fallen far short of Hariri’s dream of turning it into an axis of regional commerce. To walk through the area is to see Lebanon’s unfulfilled ambitions during the past 15 years. Mr Shammas’s disappointment is understandable, for those ambitions were shared by Lebanon’s business community.

But he is dead wrong in blaming demonstrators. The area was suffering long before from a lack of tourism due to regional tensions. Its desire to appeal to the financial elite only made matters worse, as it kept many Lebanese away. Paradoxically, returning to “Abou Rakhussa” might revive the city centre, even if it shatters the glittery image Mr Shammas seeks to project.

Cities are living organisms, a fact ignored by Solidere and Mr Shammas. Whatever vision they have for the centre, it will not thrive if large parts of it remain empty. This requires more than blaming protesters. It requires an imaginative policy by Solidere to resurrect the area. Mr Shammas should know that.

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