The nature of the crisis between the government and opposition that began in early December was recognizable thanks to the nature of the battlefield: Beirut’s downtown area, the jewel in the crown of the late Rafik Hariri’s reconstruction program, and premier symbol of the capital’s conceit to be a cosmopolitan business center for the region.
In descending on the city center, managed by the Solidere company, the opposition, led by Hizbullah, sent several messages. For the mainly poor Shiites forming the bulk of the effort to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Seniora, it was partly a class thing: Solidere is as much ours as anybody else’s, the demonstrators seemed to be saying, whether we are poor or not. But the tactic also included a hefty dose of blackmail, with demonstrators warning Seniora that the downtown area, so central to his and Hariri’s efforts to attract capital to Lebanon, was a ready hostage to the country’s political divisions. But the massive sit-in was also, lest we forget, an opportunity for demonstrators to do what everyone else does in the downtown area: enjoy themselves, (for the young men) ogle girls, and be part, if only for a moment, of what Beirut is all about – regardless of the maximalist rhetoric employed by political leaders.
Area of conflict
Recent events were hardly the first fight over the downtown area. When the destroyed old city center was being rebuilt in the early 1990s, publicists and academics were already flicking drying concrete at each other over what the resurrected downtown area should represent. The Hariri vision was not especially subtle, but it was effective: the area was to become a centerpiece for Beirut’s once again becoming the Middle East’s financial crossroads, a luxurious hook to draw in foreign capital and capitalists. The area’s physical attractiveness would project an image of modernity appealing to money-makers all over. At the core of the new city’s efforts would be high-end commerce, banking, but also real estate.
The critics quickly cried foul. What kind of city center was this that disqualified part of the society? Here was an opportunity to use the area as a vector of integration, and instead it was being turned into an exemplar of exclusion. Writing in The Beirut Review in 1992, a notable critic of Hariri’s reconstruction plan, sociologist Nabil Beyhum, lamented: “If the objective of reconstruction is to transcend the Lebanese war, then it must reverse the profound sociological changes caused by the war at the level of service, public transportation, road networks, and cultural and economic activities…. Reconstruction must act to regenerate urban society, serving as an example for society as a whole.” Beyhum had no doubt that Hariri’s ambitions, by blocking out many Lebanese, was failing as a “regenerative” experiment, and as one of conciliation.
In retrospect, Beyhum’s judgment was too severe. The downtown area undoubtedly helped the Lebanese “transcend” their war (even if its recent use has threatened to reverse this). It is indeed a playground mainly for the middle class and the wealthy, a pristine area that has offered much less class diversity than the prewar old city. But oddly enough, this stern benchmark for social integration – that all Lebanese should somehow aspire to feel equally at ease in all areas of the capital – while laudable, is also mildly absurd for anyone who knows how cities function.
Social stratification is something all cities face, even those that are quite successfully integrated. Far from being an unfortunate phenomenon, the rise of wealthy areas is a necessary component of any city’s economic and social regeneration. It’s happening in Harlem today, and is what transformed London’s Docklands. As Hariri instinctively realized, a prosperous neighborhood appeals to those who are prosperous, and that’s where investment comes from. It’s also true that Solidere’s plans, while they were haltingly developed, leading to the destruction of attractive buildings eminently salvageable, brought residents back to the downtown area. Before 1975, the old city had become a charming but deteriorating 8:00 am to 6:00 pm hub, where few people lived. Its integration only took place in the daytime, as it does today. After dark, its appeal dissipated.
The real challenge for any city is not bringing wealthier areas down to the level of its poorer inhabitants in the name of doubtful integration; it’s making sure that poorer areas can be brought closer to the standards in higher-income areas. That’s why many demonstrators’ antipathy for the downtown area in December was so paradoxical. Protestors showed their displeasure with what the area represented, but delighted in being able to get their message across amid its posh confines.