A few days ago, while driving through the northern suburbs of Beirut, I was fortunate enough to glimpse a curious crane operation underway. Of course, having grown up in this country, I immediately knew what was going on. Like so many aspects of Lebanese public life, the nation’s highways have become an arena for competing territorial-political claims.
In this case, the flag being hung was that of the Lebanese Forces (LF), one of many civil war-era militia groups that have evolved into political parties over the last twenty years. Last Sunday, the LF held an annual mass commemorating LF fighters that have been killed over the years and the flags, which went up earlier in the week, were apparently an ideal way of promoting it.
The banners were strung up on every other highway lightpost over a significant chunk of the Lebanese coastline, stretching at least from Dbayeh, through to the neighborhoods of Jal el Dib and Nahar el Mot (See below).
Much to my surprise, and illustrating the breadth of the campaign, I noticed the same yellow crane (with same company logo visible as the first image of this post), a full two days later, when I was on the coastal highway again. Apparently it was an ardous 3 day operation as the crane team had now worked its way to the opposite side of the freeway in the suburb of Dora.
Fortunately this dangerous–and highly disruptive-work was being undertaken with full safety precautions–i.e. two men standing in the middle of the road waiving flags to warn on-comming traffic:
Interestingly the men used Lebanese flags as a hazard warning, a move that fit neatly in line with the campaign’s nod to patriotism, with actual Lebanese flags (not to be confused with similar looking LF ones) being deployed by the crew at equal intervals:
Interestingly, the LF flag campaign comes to an end at the pedestrian highway bridge (also canvased) just before the port of Beirut:
And every subsequent light post leading to the city center suddenly appears naked:
This may be for good reason. The Beirut port area, a significant asset during both the civil war and post-war period, is also home to the headquarters of the Kataeb, a sometimes rival Christian militia turned political party, (with a relatively similar historical trajectory to the LF and most Muslim and Christian ruling parties for that matter). In fact, the same light posts pictured above were canvased with Kataeb party flags–also bearing a vague resemblance to the actual Lebanese flag– earlier this year, ahead of a party event/occasion.
It’s important to note here that the actions of the LF and Kataeb are by no means unique. As noted at the start of this post, territorial street claims have simply become a fact of life in Lebanon. The same is practiced by Amal and Hezbollah, which frequently dominate the airport highway, as well as the pro-Syria SSNP and pro-Western Future Movement, all of which also either stem from or continue to be armed movements. Thus what I’m trying to do here is not single out the LF’s specific role or practices but the very common general phenomenon of laying claim to the city’s streets, a core strategy adopted by nearly everyone in Lebanese politics. Due to the intimidating/ territorial nature of the factions ruling Lebanon, their practices including flag hanging are rarely questioned. I would pose a few:
Do the LF and others actually pay to advertise on these spaces? Do they require a permit or unwritten agreement from the municipalities to conduct such dangerous and disruptive highway work? Or do the cranes operate unilaterally on the premise that no one would dare stop them? If any political strategists are reading this–or anyone with access to the answers–I would appreciate hearing your comments.