How activists reclaimed Beirut’s coast and why it matters
As I have written previously, a new boldness appears to be gaining strength among Lebanese activists in the context of the garbage crisis and #youstink movement. In addition to facing off politicians in the typical form of large-scale protests and marches, we have also seen unprecedented acts of civil disobedience such as challenging security barriers at the Prime Minister’s office and the holding of a sit-in at the environment ministry for nine hours, as thousands gathered outside in support. We have also seen the protests extending beyond garbage to other failed public services such as electricity and water shortages. Yesterday we saw that energy channeled into a new front: the unregulated privatization of the Lebanese coast.
Like dysfunctional public services, the unlawful seizure of public seafront properties has gone on for decades with no accountability, as politicians and their cronies create luxury marinas and resorts restricting access to well-heeled customers and leaving very few public swimming areas for the majority of people in the country who cannot afford entrance fees. (Over 1,000 illegal resorts occupy the coast)
Yesterday a protest was called to occupy one of these upscale marinas built on public property known as Zaitunay Bay. (The Bay is owned partially by a prominent former minister and the marina pays a pittance to the state- only $1.5 per square meter–despite collecting exorbitant berthing rates for the dozens of yachts parked there.)
After a couple of hours, the activists from #youstink and other groups decided to move the party to the famous Raouche Rocks area further along the seaside promenade (corniche) where another luxury project is being planned and the coast has been fenced off to the public. Here prominent investors tied to the former prime minister’s family have put up a razor wire fence in preparation for a major real estate development, seen by activists and lawyers has a clear violation of the law. (See my in-depth piece in the Guardian for more background on this story.)
For over a year, activists known as The Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh have been trying to stop the project and open the space to the public by lobbying politicians, organizing an international design competition for alternatives and even convincing the environment minister to issue a decree to protect the area. Ironically the environment minister himself–the same one being held responsible for the garbage crisis–had called the razor wire “hideous” in a Facebook post on his personal page. Police subsequently destroyed the homes of fishermen to make way for the private project, claiming the homes were built illegally. Yet many questioned why the fence and many unlawful luxury establishments blocking the coast were not included in the police “law enforcement” action.
Lawyers associated with the campaign have also argued that the fence contradicts constitutionally enshrined rights of access to the sea and endangers the public with its layers of prison-like barbed wires both above and below the esplanade, as pedestrians often recline or lean on the rails. Following intense lobbying from the Dalieh campaign, the minister had even issued letters to relevant authorities calling for the removal of the razor wires in August 2014. And yet despite all this, the 377 meter fence has been up for a year. Until yesterday.
Activists from the #youstink protests came equipped with pliers–young, old, male, female, middle class, poor–and literally began bringing it down with their hands:
Here is a video I shot from the scene:
Finally the view of the sea was unobstructed again, revealing the famous pigeon rocks, on countless postcards of Lebanon, but increasingly hard to see for city residents due to rampant and illegal developments.
Once the fence came down, there was a few minutes of celebration as protestors chanted about corruption, the daily theft by the ruling political class, the unelected parliament, the lack of employment and marginalization of the poor. Finally one says “Now that we have liberated the coast, let’s go enjoy it!”
I then filmed the crowd walking toward the sea as police man just stand by and watch. In fact a few dozen police, including a riot squad, were deployed at the scene. But they merely watched as citizens took down the fence.
Finally it was time to reap the benefits and enjoy the sea.
Activists made their way down to rocky coast that had been used for hundreds if not thousands of years as a swimming hole by the city’s residents.
Before the fence had gone up, this spot known as Dalieh el Raouche had been used by generations of Beirut residents, known for its natural pools, coves, caves and grassy areas to picnic and enjoy time with the family. It is feared that the private project, proposed to a celebrity architect, will end all this free access and limit the area to elite sunbathers who can afford entrance or membership fess.
When the protestors began to head home as the sun began to sink into the sea, they had stripped the 377 meter fence in its entirety:
Left behind a sign, reclaiming the public access to the area, reading “This Sea is Ours”
And allowing average citizens once again, the right to gaze out at the sea, one of the few rights that seem to be left in this country.