Little has excited the Lebanese in recent months, thoughmuch has contributed to their anxiety. However, it was onenews item in February that seemed to hit public moralehardest. From an initial figure of around 250 establishmentsin the downtown area, we learned that around 80 had closeddue to the ongoing sit-in by opposition supporters. A 30%closure rate in three months is ominous by any standard.
A few years ago, I was chatting with the late SamirKassir, when he remarked about an odd habit he had noticedin the Solidere area, particularly its mostly emptynorthernmost quadrant: drivers stopped at red lights, thoughthere was little traffic, and even fewer pedestrians, tomandate such discipline. Why were Lebanese who would havebarreled through red lights in any another part of Beirut solaw-abiding?
Kassir wasn’t sure, but he was toying with the idea thatdrivers were somehow intimidated by Solidere’s modernity.Here was an area of town that imposed esteem, he speculated,that commanded respect.
Was that the case? Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but onething is certain: very few Lebanese fail these days tomention the deep resentment they feel at what has happenedto the downtown area; and the vast majority of them reactnot from a political standpoint, but from the standpoint ofpeople proud of a part of town that had symbolized Lebanon’sbest qualities and its genuine emergence from civil warafter 1990.
This is not the place to discuss the opposition’smotivations in suffocating the downtown area. However, itmakes sense to ask why an action directed against thegovernment has ended up punishing the private sector. Partof the reason—and there are numerous examples of oppositionprotesters arguing precisely this line—is that thegovernment and Solidere have been regarded as synonymous byprotesters. Certainly, the company’s close and ongoingassociation with the state; certainly, too, the hazy barrierbetween what belongs to Solidere and what belongs to theHariri family, have helped reinforce this conviction.However, that doesn’t make it any less fallacious. Inturning Solidere into a hostage to politics, the oppositionhas, intentionally or not, widened its dispute so that it isnow one directed against the Lebanese economy, and moreparticularly against the better outgrowths of free-marketcapitalism.
Downtown once again a battlezone
It doesn’t take much to capture the symbolism of themoment—on either side of the political spectrum. For themajority, a part of town that for a long time embodiedLebanon’s ability to transgress war, has again become afront line in a domestic crisis. Where the late Rafik Haririsought, perhaps excessively, to banish war from the downtownarea (recall that a war memorial planned for the city centerwas, instead, trucked off to the Defense Ministry inYarzeh), those contesting Hariri’s legacy have never broughtLebanon closer to civil war. To borrow from sociologistSamir Khalaf, the reclaimed heart of Beirut may soon be incardiac arrest.
The narrative of the other side is no less evocative, andunconditional. Hariri’s Beirut, because of its exclusivity,was never a valid Lebanese symbol. It was perhaps a symbolof the bourgeoisie and entrepreneurial skill, but one whoseimpact most Lebanese never felt. Far from being therepresentation of a Beirut at peace, it personified acallous, unjust city. How could there be true harmony andserenity if a part of the population was not invited topartake of its postwar pleasures?
Whatever one thinks of either argument, neither reallyaddresses the much more mundane matter that cities are, inone way or another, reclaimed by businesses. Ideas count fora great deal, urban policies and politics the same, butultimately it is money that keeps cities going, and anability to use that money to develop. And neither narrative,as it has played out today, is satisfactorily keeping themoney circulating, even if the Hariri vision was always muchfriendlier to businesses.
Those who saw the Solidere area as the symbol of aresurrected Beirut never paused to wonder whether it wasalso an island that had merely kept Lebanon’s divisionsoutside its boundaries. Why does this matter? Because noprosperous free market can last if it is built on shakyfoundations nationally. If Lebanon is to thrive, then itsdifferent political forces will have to agree to a commonvision for the country’s economic future. The Lebanese arenot there yet. The downtown area may have epitomized postwarpeace, but not everyone bought into this, and that’s afailing that can be put at the door of the policymakers.
On the other side, the opposition seems to have little senseof the advantages of the free market, which doesn’tdifferentiate between political forces. If Solidere loses,so does Lebanon’s economy, and so do all Lebanese. Povertyand unemployment play no favorites. That’s why both sideshave a duty: the opposition should end to its protests inthe downtown area; and the government should oversee aprocess leading to a national consensus on Lebanon’ssocial-economic priorities, by spreading that concernoutside the boundaries of a contested Solidere.