Dividing and Rebuilding Beirut: Lessons from a Contested City

By Katja Simons

Will the US-led invasion of Iraq make Baghdad into another Beirut? How will the battle to reconstruct Iraq develop? Despite obvious differences, a look at the history of the Lebanese war, where external forces played no small role, may hint at what lies ahead.

Last year an upscale, subterranean Japanese restaurant designed by the Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury opened in Beirut. The underground restaurant is located on the old Green Line, amid heavily damaged, war-torn buildings inhabited by people living in sheer destitution. Despite this, its patrons see nothing but the sky and need never engage at all with their surroundings. The contradictions captured in this bizarre scene on Damascus Street are part of Beirutís post-war rebuilding process.

For the past ten years tremendous efforts and resources have been put into the reconstruction of the city center, which once held the title “Paris of the Middle East.” Before the war, Beirut was the only city in the region offering a full spectrum of services and resources like banking, excellent educational and medical facilities and fine dining and entertainment. During its golden age, Lebanon attracted more than 1.5 million visitors annually. Visitors came to see rich archaeological sites and experience the unique night life, azure Mediterranean and mountain resorts. Today, Lebanon is working hard to promote its attractions and to regain its strong regional role as a business and leisure hub.

The Lebanese War

The war in Lebanon, between 1975 and 1990, left more than 150,000 people dead and over 200,000 injured. One-quarter of the pre-war population of 4 million emigrated. The country was in ruins. Countless buildings, as well as the infrastructure of the capital and its surroundings, were destroyed.

The civil war in Lebanon grew out of an imbalance of power in the government. The changing demographic ratio between the countryís various religious groups Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christians, and Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Drusesùwas no longer reflected in the power structure. Despite the gradual decrease of the Christian-to-Muslim ratio, Maronite Christians held most of the positions of power. Both sides established private armies to defend their interests. Tensions increased when militant Palestinians who had been expelled from Jordan in the early 1970s entered Lebanon, contributing to the violent outburst of the conflict in 1975. Interventions by Palestinians, Syrians and Israelis made the civil war in part a proxy war for regional powers. The Lebanese conflict became fully intertwined with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fatah guerrillas in the south conducted strikes in northern Israel, which led to several acts of retaliation. In 1982, Israel launched a full-scale invasion into Lebanon that killed 17,000 people. The siege and bombardment of West Beirut lasted for seventy-three days. With indirect Israeli support, the Maronite Phalange forces massacred Palestinian refugees in the Sabra-Shatila camps of Beirut. When the Multi-National Forces (MNF) intervened, anti-Western militants committed a series of suicide attacks against US Marines, French barracks and the US Embassy. After the “disastrous intervention” of the US as part of the MNF (as Edgar OíBallance calls it in Civil War in Lebanon), the US “concentrated on preventing the UN from instigating any action regarding Lebanon that would be contrary to Israeli interests.”

Eventually, in October 1989, the Arab League produced a peace plan (the Taif Accord). The Lebanese National Assembly met in Taif, Saudi Arabia, and decided on an agreement called the Document of National Understanding. The militias agreed to disarm. Syrian troops were to remain in Lebanon. A more representational political structure was introduced. The Maronite president, the Sunni prime minister and the Shiite speaker of parliament were given more equitably divided powers. Parliamentary seats were apportioned fifty-fifty between Christians and Muslims. At last, Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in May 2000.

Tensions, however, remain in Lebanon today. Over 380,000 Palestinian refugees are still living in twelve camps. Christian groups demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops. A constant cycle of violence continues between Hezbollah guerillas and Israel in the south.

War Divides the City

Urban warfare was a main feature of the military operations in Lebanon. In this kind of warfare, the fighting takes place in streets and alleys and moves from house to house, causing tremendous human suffering. One of the early examples of urban warfare was the infamous, long-lasting “battle of the hotels,” when various militias seized luxury waterfront high-rises that towered over adjacent Christian and Muslim neighborhoods. Fighting and sniping were followed by short ceasefires. During the years of war, Beirutis always lived in a half-light between explosions of violence and breaks in the fighting in which the streets became safe enough to go about daily business.

In the years of war, Beirut was divided along ideological and religious lines. A new mental map of the city emerged. The city was renamed East and West Beirut and was divided by the Green Line of demarcation extending from Martyrsí Square in the historic center along Damascus Road to the south of the city. Christian forces took control over East Beirut, while Muslim and Palestinian militias assumed control over West Beirut. As a result, previously mixed areas were segregated. Almost the entire Muslim population in the eastern sector was expelled. Christians in West Beirut were replaced by Shiites from South Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley.

The Central District and the areas that flanked the demarcation line, which once were a common place for all Beirutis, became the main combat zone. The war destroyed all such common spaces and reinforced the formation of exclusive, enclosed and insulated places. Self-sufficient sub-centers developed in different parts of the city, preventing civic interaction throughout Beirut. People fled the city and moved to safer places at the periphery. Shop owners and businesses followed, moving to the coastal areas north of the city where new suburban commercial centers mushroomed. The main roads leading to the mountains were also chosen for businesses and residential areas. Refugees of lower socio-economic status arrived south of the city, and low-quality housing, small local shops and illegal dwellings grew rapidly.

These unplanned and uncontrolled developments were the direct result of wartime anarchy. Today, they pose a great challenge for post-war planning aimed at reconnecting the city. The end of the war brought with it a physical opening up of the city, but the demarcation line remained deeply embedded in the mind of the Beirutis.

Post-war Reconstruction: Displacement and Preservation

After the war a new battle began over how to rebuild. The immense reconstruction program was estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars. The development and reconstruction of the Central District was a priority for the government. This district contained the historic core made up of important buildings such as the Parliament and a number of ministries, the Municipality, the Central Post Office, banks and the cityÆs most renowned public squares and houses of worship.

Beyond the tremendous amount of physical destruction, many obstacles stood in the way of reconstruction. One obstacle was an enormous landfill that consisted largely of organic household waste placed at the edge of the Central District. The site, which had grown out of control and spilled over into the sea, covered 2.7 million square feet and stood forty-five feet high. Another major barrier to reconstruction was the property situation; over 80,000 people lay claim as owners and tenants to the 900 war-scarred buildings in the city center.

The reconstruction was also hampered by the Lebanese administration, which was extremely weak and financially ruined. Therefore, the modus operandi was to minimize the role of the public in planning the new center and to increase the involvement of private actors. A law was passed in December 1991 giving the municipality the authority to create real estate companies to speed reconstruction in war-damaged areas. The companies would be responsible for preparing the land for sale to clients, implementing the urban plan and developing real estate, as well as providing property and services management. Rafiq Hariri, prime minister and billionaire developer, created the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District (Solidere) and became one of its largest shareholders.

The reconstruction project in the historic center of the city covers 19.4 million square feet, of which 6.5 million will be land extended into the sea. The project displaced residents and squatters. In compensation for their property, landowners, tenants and lease-holders were granted stocks in the corporation. This gave rise to loud public protests. Alarmed critics claimed that the existing property patterns would be dissolved and that the relocation of the population would wipe out the social fabric of the area.

As soon as the buildings were vacated, Solidere rushed into action and cleared the area. Apart from a few buildings, entire sections of the central district were demolished. According to Rodolphe el-Khoury in the book Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City, dynamite sticks and bulldozers were ômore efficient than fifteen years of warfare in building a tabula rasa in place of what used to be the old downtown.ö By failing to preserve historical monuments, the reconstruction operation became one of the most controversial projects in post-war Lebanon. Expectations of full-scale archaeological excavations were also crushed as a long-term strategy for the archaeology of Beirut was not implemented. The incompatibility between the interests of developers and guardians of cultural heritage could not be resolved.

A Grand Master Plan

The planning for BeirutÆs Central District (BCD) got off to a poor start. A grand modernizing scheme that proposed radical changes to the urban structure was criticized for being too monumental. After some public debate, it was replaced by a new plan that preserved the historical layers of the city and made new development possible.

The fundamental concept behind the present master plan for the Central District is to maintain the ôcity memory.ö As Angus Gavin and Ramez Maluf illustrate in Beirut Reborn: The Restoration and Development of the Central District, the emphasis was placed on acknowledging historic street alignments and devising a set of urban design and building envelope controls to encourage the redevelopment of the traditional street form. The framework contains no land use plans except for defined sites for utilities and public and cultural facilities. The use of other land is flexible and subject to market demand. Project milestones so far include office and commercial buildings at Place díEtoile, the Saifi residential neighborhood and administrative buildings such as the UN House. Martyrsí Square, one of the key public areas on the cityís former divide, still awaits reconstruction. Other future projects will be the rebuilding of the Souks of Beirut, the transformation of the landfill to a waterfront park and the construction of a marina and an archeology trail.

The Challenges of Inclusion

The achievements of the physical redevelopment of Central Beirut are impressive. Noticeably, the focus has been on architecture and design, however, the great challenge that remains is to create an inclusive urban fabric. It is easier to rebuild roads and parks than it is to strengthen social cohesion and bring the city back together.

The downtown was once Lebanonís melting pot, where people from all walks of life came together. If the Central District is to become the public and social center for the country, additional effort will have to be made to shape an environment which is pluralistic with respect to ethnicity, religion and socio-economic status. It is essential to ensure the right housing mix and to connect the reconstruction project with adjacent areas of BCD.

As the redevelopment of the Central District is shaped by the private sector, the main question is how to safeguard the public interest. The dangers of an entirely market-driven, private project are great; markets respond to economic power, not social need. As a private company, Solidere is obviously not obliged to address the growing social and economic inequities in Beirut. It does have, however, the unique opportunity to step out of its private sector role to be a pioneer in shaping a center of national reconciliation, thereby catering to a variety of different demands.

The Lebanese government should not disengage itself from the responsibility of meeting the needs of its citizens. The governmentís role in areas like housing, that are dominated by private developers is to regulate private market activities and provide incentives to invest in the construction and maintenance of housing for low-income groups. Reconstruction should not be considered a one-time project, but the first of a series of complex tasks involving institutional development. Reconstruction must be linked to sustainable development goals, and public participation should be sought to strengthen civil society. Public involvement in planning for the Central District will promote healing and help to clarify what is important to the people of Beirut.

The remarkable rebuilding efforts in the city center have been of utmost importance to revitalizing Beirutís role as a cultural capital and reestablishing its place in regional tourism. But the rest of the country should not be forgotten. To further strengthen the country, the gap between the Central District and other areas needs to be bridged. Reconstruction should be carried out in the context of a country-wide plan that would determine the distribution of resources between regions, and between cities and rural areas.

Dr. Katja Simons (katsimons(at)hotmail(dot)com) is an urban sociologist and was a planning consultant with Solidere, the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District. She lived on and off in Beirut during 2001-2002 and is now living in New York City.

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