Post script: The ‘hideous’ tents that hurt Solidere

Yesterday I wrote a post about the loss of a pedestrian tunnel in downtown Beirut and suggested it was no longer needed due to the lack of foot traffic in the city center. Unsurprisingly some have seen this as an attack on Solidere, the billion-dollar company tasked with reconstruction project.

The loss of business downtown is not the fault of Solidere but of the war and political instability, especially the “hideous and smelly” tent city that Hezbollah led for 17 months in the area, Mustapha, one of Lebanon’s preeminent bloggers wrote.

The protestors, who were calling for the prime minister to step down, “had shut down the entire area for more than a year… killing all the neighborhoods’ business in the process,” he wrote. 

Mustapha has made some great contributions to the blogosphere but I disagree with him on the characterization of this sophisticated and non-violent sit-in, which in some sense can be seen as a pioneer in the “occupy” movement. Angry by the government’s tepid response to the 2006 war, the protestors had called for early elections and a new government. Having had an intimate experience with the tent city and its participants, I wrote the following response on his post:

I worked downtown between 2005-2007 and walked through the tent city every day. Of course walking five blocks is seen as an inconvenience (especially in Lebanon) but the protestors never infringed upon anything but the Riad Al Solh parking lots. It never smelled bad to me and no tents were pitched inside the internal cobblestone streets or harmed the gilded shops. But of course few of their clients were willing to brave a walk past ‘hideous’ campers to get there. 

One thing that sticks with me is what one of the protestors said on the last day of the tent city when he was packing up after the deal was sealed in Doha in 2008. He had run an impromptu coffee shop and was a little sad to be leaving. “There were the best days,” he said wistfully, in reference to the camaraderie developed with the fellow protestors over the sit-in period. I asked if he would ever come back to downtown (he was from Dahiyeh). He looked confused. “Come here? I could never afford a coffee here,” he smiled. “This place is not for us.”

I can see how many will interpret the post I wrote about the pedestrian tunnel to be an attack on Solidere or the person of Rafik Hariri. But any detailed reading of the project and the critical literature about it will reveal a more complicated picture. Is luxury tourism really the best fit for Lebanon? Was turning the historic city center into a private corporation the most beneficial option for Beirut’s battle-worn residents? Few Lebanese may know that there were actually several plans and conferences for re-developing downtown during the 1980s–at least one published into a book by AUB. These plans looked at, for example, how the reconstruction project could be led by the principles of reconciliation, such as schemes to incentivize the return of original landowners. Also to recognize the demographic shifts away from downtown in any rebuilding effort and to think about interlinking old Beirut to the other city centers that evolved over the years.  

Most of the published plans and detailed recommendations by civil society and academics were ignored by the politicians that came to power in the early 1990s and thereafter. And instead of a space for reconciliation and relinking, Solidere’s downtown became an island that largely targeted visitors over locals and aspired to gated elite communities instead of mixed ones. 

As Lebanon and the rest of the region looks for ways forward, I think it’s important to look at how governance and development have been defined and executed on the national and local level. One lesson I think we are all learning is the perils of excluding people from decision-making on the premise that those elites in power are in a better position to know what is best for society.