“We will find where you live,” a watchman yelled at me after taking a picture of ruins on his construction site. He had followed me across the street to issue the threat, claiming to have memorized the license plate number on my car. “Wait and see what they will do to you when they come to your house.”
This vast site, believed to be a 1st century artisan workshop (for at least part of its occupation), was uncovered late last year and could help tell the little-known story of Berytus, one of the most influential cities in the Roman empire.
The skyscraper is being designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, one of many celebrity architects transforming Beirut’s skyline with high end real estate towers worth billions of dollars and far out of reach of most Lebanese people. Piano is also designing the massive 160,000 square meter Pinwheel Project, which consists of a series of hotel and condo towers in the heart of downtown, as well as a city museum project, which is also to be built atop of a ruins discovery.
Sadly the type of violent threats and harassment I experienced is not unusual when attempting to document the wonders of the ancient world being unearthed for the first time in contemporary Beirut. One would assume that a 2,000 year old site is one the entire country should be able to see, to learn from, to explore, to be inspired by, to build a sense of place, pride in preservation or national belonging. But in Lebanon, history can be private property. Several journalists and activists have been threatened or physically attacked for documenting the impact of real estate projects across the country.
To appease critics, some investors have recently pledged to preserve very limited sections of ruins, displayed decoratively as part of their real estate projects or concealed in parking garages. Yet these are often placed out of context or difficult for visitors to access and comprehend. In the case of the Piano project, can the design of such a large building possibly preserve the vast vista of ruins beneath? Can the design be changed in any way meaningful enough to communicate its significance and that of ancient Berytus?
Upon closer view, we can see the interesting rock patterns in the walls. What do they tell us?
At the top corner of the site, the stones are entirely different, much larger and better carved, resembling grand Roman structures. Was there an important building near this site?
Most importantly, will the public ever get a chance to experience this piece of the puzzle of a city and great civilization we are just beginning to understand? With large walls surrounding the permiter, as seen in the photos above, passersby are not allowed even a glimpse of it. (Photos in the post were taken from other buildings or openings in the wall.)
At any rate, the site might not be around for much longer. Clearance may be closer than we think. In photos taken a few months ago, we can see nearly 20 tents set up in the dig:
But today there are only a few tents left, meaning the archeological teams may have largely packed up and left:
Is this why the developer is so aggressively keeping it off limits to the public? The site workers must have been threatened themselves if anyone is allowed to get a photo out.
It’s unclear if the diggers have already started to clear the area or penetrate to deeper levels as their position has changed since I first began documenting the site earlier this year.
Compare this image taken in January 2018:
To this photo taken from the same vantage point in recent days:
In addition to the removal of tents, we can also see the position of the two bulldozers is further into the site than they were early this year.
Here’s another shot from January 2018:
And the same vantage point today:
From a closer perspective, we can some of the amazing wall detail on the left section:
So what to make of the threats issued to me for taking these photos? They were taken from the public street, from the sidewalk, at a brief moment when the door to the site was open. There is no legal basis for banning photography in public space. There is no basis in banning the Lebanese public from seeing their own history. But who was the man who threatened me and why?
The owner of SGBL bank is known to surround himself with those capable of serious violence. His bodyguards have regularly engaged in alleged criminal acts, including armed assaults and even a shootout in nightclub, according to news reports. In 2015, a bodyguard formerly employed by the owner stabbed a man to death in broad daylight, and was subsequently sent to prison. Is this the type of violence and threats that a Pritzker-winning architect like Renzo Piano would like to be associated with?
Interestingly, SGBL itself claims to be “a strong advocate of culture and arts in Lebanon,” according to its website. While Piano, who has been involved in several projects across Beirut has said: “Cities are beautiful because they are created slowly; they are made by time. A city is born from a tangle of monuments and infrastructures, culture and market, national history and everyday stories. It takes 500 years to create a city, 50 to create a neighborhood.”
In fact, the city of Beirut has not been developing just for 50 or 500 years, but for thousands of years and several millennia. Would it be too much to dream that Piano and SGBL live up to their stated ideals? Since both Piano and SGBL have profited so generously from Beirut, could they possibly give something back by preserving a bit of its illustrious past for the coming generations to enjoy?
There is a fantasy among many in Lebanon- liberals in particular– that a silent majority of Lebanese do not support the country’s political establishment. That most Lebanese would prefer a life free from the political parties of today, which had largely been former militias established by warlords during the civil war. And if this is true, it is the millions of Lebanese living abroad that would be this best indicator of such a deep regime change desire, felt particularly by those who have fled their homeland due to the destruction warlords have caused.
So when voting was allowed for the first time this year from the millions of Lebanese living in the diaspora, many hoped the balance of power could shift, that voices of those opposed to the political establishment would be heard more loudly.
But so far, that doesn’t seem to be quite the case.
The voting is continuing as I type this, yet Lebanese TV stations are on the ground all over the world today, giving us a good idea of what the polling stations and early voters look like. And there are plenty of party colors to see.
In Brazil, it was basically an FPM street party:
Future Movement had its corner too:
The PSP and Lebanese Forces were not left out though:
Meanwhile in Ivory Coast, West Africa, nearly everyone seemed to be wearing an Amal cap or T-shrit:
This case was similar in Berlin:
Posters of the party leader, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, were even seen plastered around the voting area:
But the Future Movement ascots crew were not missing:
Meanwhile the PSP was strong in Montreal:
And in Washington, the Orange love was tangible:
Many reporters found this all too amusing, remarking on how well the rivals got along abroad. An Al Jadeed reporter in Africa was having a great time with partisans remarking: “all the parties are one heart today.”
But then one added: “We are only here for Nabih Berri.”
The Lebanese ambassador to Brazil was very proud that all the parties were represented and how “democratic” the affair had been. Suddenly places like Brazil and West Africa became “a model for coexistence” that the homeland should emulate.
Only one reporter noted that there were no representatives from alternative parties. None mentioned the fact that these parties all illegally reappointed themselves, cancelling elections for almost a decade. Or how they have failed to deliver any semblance of basic public services during that time, manage the garbage crisis or have direct roots in the destruction of the entire country and gutting of its institutions we are facing today.
In fact reporters could have suggested that Lebanese parties have gotten along very well in the postwar period and warlords are now friends and even have dinner together. So clearly hugs and smiles are in no short supply.
Instead of asking tougher questions about the parties, reporters focused more on the excitement of the day. And indeed many first time voters offered moving stories, especially elder voters living abroad much of their lives. Watching the polling station workers, carefully reviewing IDs and passports, the multi-screen displays at the ministry of interior, checking live feeds from every polling station worldwide, and the excitement and relative calm of the operation, it was hard not to get caught up in the moment. It was indeed a historic day and the largely bankrupt Lebanese state somehow managed to pull it off.
But what does it all mean? That Lebanon is hopelessly locked into its current party system and nothing of significance is going on with independents?
Independents are making a big showing this year, bigger than ever before. And party popularity, despite the loud partisans we may see in the streets, is at a low point and party leaderships are having to work harder for votes than ever before.
But we must have realistic expectations. Independents are not going to sweep to victory any time soon. Not because this is Lebanon and nothing changes, but because that is true in almost any established political environment, including Western democracies. It is very difficult for independents to break into an entrenched party system.
First and foremost it is hard to compete with that kind of money. Independents are generally small and young groupings that lack the huge campaign chests of major parties and even more importantly, the media and institutional power that they have been accumulating for decades, essential to sustaining their current positions of power.
But change is still happening, and we should look more carefully at how new political activists and collectives are having an impact on political culture and political practices, and not focus solely on poll numbers or election results. As I have argued in a major research paper I wrote at Oxford last year, political change is felt most strongly outside of elections and also in the ways that establishment political and media institutions react to the discourse and activities being put forward by activists.
Yes we can be optimistic for change. But we also have to be realistic about the deep power of political parties and how that power is maintained, no matter what their ideology may be. Independents are having an impact, but if they want to win, they need to understand more about what these parties have offered and continue to offer, beyond simply dismissing them as backwards or irrelevant.
When I exited the plane in Beirut last night, I noticed an Ethiopia Airlines plane parked next to ours and thought little of it. But as we walked through the skywalk and then into a long corridor, this sight confronted all arriving passengers:
Hundreds of young Ethiopian women waiting to be picked up by their “sponsors.”
This is the face of the kafala or sponsorship system.
In Lebanon and in several countries across the Middle East, the kafala system means women seeking jobs as domestic workers are treated not as individuals but as merchandise.
The young women’s lives are literally signed over to a person who has paid for their trip and contract fees and then takes legal guardianship over them. Basically governments in the region have relegated state control over migrant workers to their employers, who will be fully responsible for all their activities while in the country. So instead of treating the workers as any other tourists, students (or white folks in general) who visit or work in an Arab country–and are held personally responsible for their own actions– these women migrants are “adopted” by families or businesses who assume legal guardianship.
As one can imagine, this system leads to grave abuse and some have likened it to a form of modern day slavery. There are regular stories about sexually or physically abused girls and suicides are common. With no interference from the government, some families choose to lock domestic workers up at home in order avoid being held responsible for their activities outside the home. And yes in many cases, the women choose to flee to work illegally or independently, which is naturally a better deal for them and provides more money to send home to their families.
On the other hand, the workers desperately need jobs and many live in decent homes and become part of their adopted families. Many even come back to Lebanon after their contract ends and often sign new contracts to work for other employers or stay with the same family for years at a time.
But human rights cannot rely on the goodness of random individuals. The workers should be treated as human beings under the law, as normal adults and not adopted children. They should have the right to break contracts, change employers, be provided a safe working environment and have the option to leave at time. While some governments offer these rights on paper, little is done to enforce them and many women may find themselves trapped in the system.
Bahrain has recently taken steps to reform its kafala system, providing workers more freedoms, but gaps still exist in ensuring workers’ rights. It is high time that Lebanon also follow this trend of reform and give the worker’s basic human rights and also ensure they are being met by adequate policing and inspections. Having these workers line up on the floor is reminiscent of images of worker’s piled into slave ships. They are not chained up and have willing come in search of paid work. But they are still being treated as merchandise, tossed anywhere, not even offered a chair to sit in.
Lebanese should know better. They have faced a history of discrimination in foreign countries, along with other Arabs and Muslims. Just on our flight over from Frankfurt, we Lebanese were forced to stand or sit on the floor until our gate opened. This was unlike every other flight I witnessed, where passengers could sit comfortably until the gate was opened. But the Lebanese passengers had to be screened additionally and sealed off from the rest of the passengers in the terminal, as if they were somehow diseased and needed to be quarantined.
Having experienced abuse as foreign travelers and workers ourselves, we should be setting an example for how migrants should be treated, not repeating the same abuses and even much worse ones.
You can read more about the archaic kafala system here at migrant-rights.org and the efforts underway in some places to reform it.
With tensions between Lebanon and GCC countries rising everyday, it is essential to examine how Lebanon’s economy has become dependent on oil-producing states and the man who helped make it happen. Paul Cochrane reviews the latest biography on arguably the most powerful Prime Minister Lebanon has ever seen.
By Paul Cochrane
Academic Hannes Baumann notes early on in Citizen Hariri: Lebanon’s Neoliberal Reconstruction (Hurst, 2017), that “Rafik Hariri became even more politicized in death than in life”. This is especially true when it comes to powerful political figures with sizable organizations behind them that want to capitalize on assassination.
Posters of Hariri, like so many other slain Lebanese politicians still adorn billboards 12 years later, while for years outside the Mustaqbal TV building in Kantari there has been a billboard demanding al haqiqa (the truth, about his assassination) with an electronic ticker beneath showing the number of days since Hariri was killed in a macabre blast outside the St. George’s Hotel on Beirut’s Corniche.
The son of a Saida fruit-picker, Rafiq Hariri in some sense bucked the historical trend, having been neither a militia leader nor one of the established zu’ama. While a ‘self-made man’, Hariri was nonetheless politically assisted to be twice prime minister and a driving force in the country’s post Civil War political-economy landscape.
Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, who inherited tremendous wealth from a benefactor, Hariri benefited from the largess of the Saudi royal family, initially with construction deals and later as an interlocutor for the House of Saud in Lebanon during the civil war.
Hariri emerged, like Najib Mikati and others, onto the Lebanese political scene as the result of petro-dollar contracting fortunes initially made in the Gulf, crucial to understanding Lebanon’s post civil war environment. This is why Baumann, a German academic currently teaching at Liverpool University, opted to use an individual biography – Hariri’s – to explain social, political and economic change in Lebanon.
While there was little inkling in the 1980s that Hariri would rise to such political prominence, he certainly had business interests in the ‘old country’. In 1983, Hariri took control of top positions of Banque Mediterranee (BankMed, now 100% owned by the Hariri family), and in the same year drew up plans to reconstruct downtown Beirut. As Baumann put it, “it is hardly surprising that a contractor such as Hariri would regard a real estate project [Solidere] as his country’s salvation”.
Preliminary work began that year via Hariri-owned Oger painting the facades of buildings in the Mara’ad area and building a prototype block of houses in Suq Tawil, while the army, backed by the Lebanese Forces, fought an eight hour battle to evict the war-displaced squatters from Wadi Abu Jamil. Such moves reflected Hariri’s ability to wheel-and-deal to get projects off the ground, working with President Amin Gemayel to develop downtown, the littoral north of Beirut (around Dbayeh), and the southern suburbs.
Yet while Hariri had Gemayel’s backing (but not political support, at least to be appointed prime minister as the Saudis wanted) it did not allow him to develop the southern Beirut shoreline into high-end tourism and luxury residences: “The predominantly Shia inhabitants of the area interpreted the resettlement plans by the Maronite president and the Sunni contractor as an attack on their community,” writes Baumann.
Baumann’s text, emphasized in the subtitle Lebanon’s Neoliberal Reconstruction, is particularly adept at explaining how Hariri brought the global economic zeitgeist of the post-cold war era – neoliberalism – to the country and gave it a local twist.
As Baumann observes, “Hariri and his technocrats were importing global templates of neoliberal urbanism, currency management and privatization, but regional and domestic factors were setting the limits of Lebanese neoliberalism.”
Neoliberalism is one of those sticky terms that is hard to exactly define, as Baumann explains. He defines it as both an economic orthodoxy and a class project that restructures the state, emphasizing these inherent contradictions of “illiberal and monopolistic practices with free-market rhetoric.”
Privatization for example is a top goal of neoliberal doctrine, but Lebanon’s clientelist structureprevented the selling-off of state utilities and assets, as politicians wanted to keep hold of ministries and, importantly, retain jobs for their constituencies.
“Hariri’s policies concentrated wealth, resulting in high unemployment and continued poverty, while most Lebanese remained dependent on politicians for the provision of jobs, education or health care. This was the economic basis of clientalism. Inequality and a lack of public services were a direct result of Rafiq Hariri’s neoliberal economic policies.Neoliberalism thus reproduces the political economy of sectarianism,” writes Baumann.
When it comes to Solidere, the company created in 1994 to reconstruct downtown, Hariri used the neoliberal logic of the state playing a major role in extracting value from the city at the expense of the populace. This included signing over the land reclaimed from the Normandy landfill to Solidere, tax breaks for 10 years and not properly compensating many of downtown’s original property owners (a point still made in big letters on the side of the St. George’s Hotel: ‘Stop Solidere’).
As Baumman observes, “the mechanism by which property was expropriated illustrates one of the contradictions between neoliberal orthodoxy and practice: while one of the main functions of the liberal state is to defend property rights, Solidere represented an enforced, rather than avoluntary, transfer of such rights. The interventionist neoliberal state enables new forms of accumulation by dispossession.” Hariri’s real estate obsession as a core economic driver has also had long lasting negative ramifications: a building bonanza that has squeezed the less well-off out of the capital, cemented over archaeological sites, and privatized the few remaining public spaces, including beaches.
Hariri’s plan for economic reconstruction being based on physical infrastructure was a “fallacy”, writes Baumann, as instead the Lebanese economy was absorbed into the rentier system of the Gulf oil states and as an outlet for Gulf capital (by rentier he means an economy which derives all or much of its income from resources, such as hydrocarbons, while another definition is an economy deriving income from property or securities – so not industry or manufacturing). Without the Gulf and its petrodollars, argues Baumann, Lebanon would be on a slippery downward economic slope.
Indeed, Solidere gives an indication at the micro level of how the whole country could be in economic dire straits if the Gulf connection sours. For several years downtown (Beirut Souks excepted) has been a ghost town with restaurants shuttered, and stores having moved out due to the drop in Gulf tourism. As of August 2017, 18.7 percent, or 250, of all residential apartments in downtown have not be sold, worth $750 million (the average value per apartment is $3.1 million), according to RAMCO figures.
The current malaise in much of downtown is indicative of one the problems of utilizing a neoliberal urban model in a not very stable part of the world: the Arab-Israeli conflict and its ramifications for Lebanon; Syria; and regional and global powers’ involvement in Lebanon and the wider Middle East.
Baumann links Hariri’s Solidere plans to his technocrats, supposedly apolitical globalization experts that were above Lebanon’s political sectarian fray, who developed Solidere and then joined his government. “They spoke the language of neoliberalism as an economic orthodoxy. They had allied themselves with the Gulf capitalist Rafiq Hariri, who was using neoliberalism to assert the power of this faction of capital in the Lebanese economy”, colonizing “state institutions and repurposing them to serve their goals”.
But these ‘apolitical technocrats’ got caught up in sectarian politics, not just by virtue of being connected to Hariri, while Hariri himself had to increasingly play the sectarian card in his own politics, especially from 1998 onwards among his Sunni constituency to get his party elected.
Hariri began “to pose as the main defender of his community’s political interest, and his philanthropy allowed him to claim Sunni leadership in Beirut by neutralising the Maqasid association – thus political damaging Tammam Salam – and expanding Hariri Foundation health centres”.
It was a strategy however that did not always work.As Baumann observes, in 2004, Hariri was far from popular among his Sunni constituency, including in his hometown of Saida – “a list backed by Nasserite MP Musata Sa’d won all 21 seats on the council, defeating Hariri’s list”. In Beirut, the Unity List won all 24 seats, “but a low turnout of only 23 percent undermined the image of victory”.
As Baumann observes, politicians were willing to play along with neoliberalism when it suited them, but not when it would challenge their power base.
Banks, Debt and High Interest
It was Hariri’s meddling with fiscal policy however that had major ramifications for the country, which continue to hang like a Damocles Sword over all Lebanese heads. Hariri made the decision to peg the Lira to the US greenback and seriously ramp up debt to fund reconstruction.
This led to a ‘merry go-round’ of government borrowing at high interest rates and Lebanese commercial banks overwhelming financing that debt. On the one hand this has caused Lebanon to have one of the highest debt to GDP ratios in the world, while secondly has enriched the elite and the banks. As AUB’s Jad Chaaban has noted, some 5 percent of the population control over 70 percent of the wealth in the banks.
Equally devastating for the economy, and where Hariri’s neoliberal agenda differed from elsewhere, was that high interest rates discouraged the banks and the wealthy from investing in new businesses or the Beirut Stock Exchange (which has just 15 listed companies, including Solidere). Indeed, why would you, when you could get around 15 percent during the early Hariri years, and today, 6 percent or more on the Lira.
As Freddie Baz, chief financial officer at Bank Audi, said in 2010, “Today it is a rentier economy; if I can still get 6 to 8 percent interest, why should I understand (invest in) the stock market?”
Billions of dollars in profits have been made from the debt, and in typically neoliberal outcome, little has been given back, while banks are strongly linked to politicians.
As Baumman notes, “lending to the Lebanese government remains the backbone of the banks’ business. In October 2015, claims on the public sector accounted for 20.6 percent of total assets of Lebanese commercial banks, while 38.1 percent were deposited with the central bank.”
A vessel for Gulf investment
Baumann ends his book on a negative note on the country’s contemporary situation. He argues, as have others, that Lebanon could very well be banking on magic, given the high debt-to-GDP ratio, the weak economy, minimal foreign direct investment, and the lack of a comprehensive economic policy.
Furthermore, the local economy is overly dependent on Gulf petrodollars, be it in terms of remittances from Lebanese working in the Gulf (two-thirds of all remittances), to Gulf investment, capital and tourism. The latter has largely dried up due to the Syria conflict, and the Gulf’s economic fortunes are looking less rosy than they have been in decades, due to low oil prices and economic diversification moving at a snail’s pace.
“Lebanon has become a vessel for Gulf investment, and is now almost completely dependent on the oil monarchies. Rafiq Hariri was the chief architect of this dependence…Lebanon is tied to cycles of boom and bust in the Gulf,” writes Baumann.
The Gulf states have left it too late to wean themselves off oil, and Lebanon has left it too late to wean itself off the Gulf. As Baumann acerbically concludes, “Lebanon still has little to offer beyond mountains, beaches, a pleasant climate and clever bankers. Rafiq Hariri took no steps to transform the Lebanese economy to a more sustainable model. His political rivals – mainly former militia leaders – have no workable model of economic development beyond predatory rent-seeking through state largess.”
While Hariri’s political-economic legacy negatively impacted the majority of Lebanese and has saddled the public with a gargantuan debt, even his actual death has cost the Lebanese a pretty penny. The Special Tribunal For Lebanon (STL), set up to investigate his assassination, has already cost north of $325 million, with 51% coming from UN member states, the remaining 49% from Lebanon.
Paul Cochrane is an independent journalist based in Beirut, covering the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has been featured in over 80 publications, including Reuters, Money Laundering Bulletin, Middle East Eye, Petroleum Review and Jane’s. You can find his work at www.backinbeirut.blogspot.com
Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. I’m not a fan of quoting cliches, but in these Machiavellian times, few phrases seem to articulate the situation better. Take the case of the recent media campaign praising Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s recently resigned prime minister.
Now it’s very normal to see posters praising politicians hastily strung up on light posts across Beirut. As you would expect, these are usually produced by a PR company or low budget design shop associated with the politician in question and hung up haphazardly by his supporters, illegally, often under the cover of night.
But what if the group putting up the billboards is not loyal to the politician in question, but actually allied with his enemies?
I began to wonder about this when I saw a Facebook post revealing Hariri billboards in or around neighborhoods loyal to his rivals, Hezbollah and Amal.
The next day on my way to work, I noticed more of the same posters with the same font and message “#We are with you” plastered across many parts of Beirut.
To the corniche:
On nearly every light post, as far as the eye could see:
Yet the last few locations are not known to be strongholds of Hariri, but of other parties such as Amal and the SSNP. This was made abundantly clear during the clashes of 2008, when militants from these parties took over the streets fairly easily and strung their flags across these locations.
In the decade since, SSNP flags have appeared regularly across Hamra street and the party’s annual march turned into a military-style parade a few weeks ago that saw hundreds of party faithful take over the entire of Hamra street:
I thought about all this when I looked up at one of the posters, which had been put up so shoddily, it appeared to give Hariri a grimacing look:
I asked some tough-looking middle aged men sitting in plastic chairs below the posters if they knew who had put them up. At first one of them, a burly man in his late 40s, answered by saying “the Lebanese people put these posters up” and “it’s natural for a people to support their prime minister.” Sure, I replied, there is public support and then there are printing companies that print hundreds of these and distribute them in trucks. He smiled and vaguely suggested it was “political parties… all the parties,” that worked together to install the posters in their respective neighborhoods.
But I pressed him further: “But only certain parties can do that in Hamra.” Finally he conceded. “Yes we are the ones who put those up. The Hezb, the Harake and the Oumi Souryi.” This is shorthand for Hezbollah, Amal and the SSNP.
That’s a pretty savvy, next-level media strategy isn’t it, I replied. “Well the Saudis are donkeys,” he said nonchalantly.
“And what about this one,” I continued, pointing to the grimacing Hariri. What happened there? The man motioned to one of his cohort sitting in a chair behind us. “That’s Ali’s fault, I told him to fix it, he didn’t know what he was doing.” Then Ali shrugged and shot back: “You didn’t give me enough wood to put it up properly.”
I left the bickering men and tried to corroborate the story elsewhere on the block. But most people said they had not seen who had put the posters up because they found them in the morning when they opened their shops. So apparently the operation had happened overnight. But another group of men admitted laughingly that it was indeed the “Hezb, Harake and Oumi.” And they thought it was pretty hilarious too.
If this is true, could the Saudis have ever imagined this outcome? Were they assuming that Hariri’s resignation would have been taken at face value and that his opponents would have simply said good riddance, creating greater division in the country? Could the Saudis have imagined that Hariri’s opponents would be demanding his return even more vociferously than his allies?
Of course this goes beyond billboards: the President of Lebanon and the leader of Hezbollah-traditional opponents of Hariri–have been demanding his return on a near daily basis. Even the leader of the Catholic church in Lebanon, Cardinal Bechara Rai has demanded his return, making an unprecedented visit to the Wahhabist state.
This spawned some interesting memes. Here the two are speaking in code:
The highlighted letters in the Hariri caption say: “I’m being detained” to which Rai replies: “We all know.”
Perhaps the Saudis had imagined the Lebanese would react in a simplistic “sectarian fashion” where politicians or crown princes prioritize their own sect above all others. I wonder where they got that idea?
Suffice to say, Hariri’s opponents and even internet trolls have successfully thrown the ball back into Saudi Arabia’s court and the Saudi leadership probably didn’t see this coming. But since the Saudi royal court (or whatever is left of it) has effectively declared that Lebanon is at war with them, we can only hope the disintegration of their media strategy will give them pause before pursuing further actions on the ground.
Wouldn’t it be great if all wars were limited to creative media messaging, and the winner could be decided with likes and retweets instead of missiles and bullets?
“We praise Hariri, the government and the people for the recent victories in the face of terrorist forces.”
Today this quote may sound like it came from Saudi Arabia, where Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister, is supposedly taking refugee due to what he says is a threat against his life from Iran. But would it surprise you if this flattering quote came from none other than an advisor to Iran’s supreme leader who visited Hariri just one day before he departed and announced his resignation from Saudi Arabia?
The advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati visited Hariri last Friday and added: “The formation of a coalition government between March 8 (Hezbollah-led coalition) and March 14 (Hariri-led coalition) is a victory, a great success and a blessing for the Lebanese people.”
“We had a good, positive, constructive and practical meeting with Prime Minister Hariri, especially since the Iranian -Lebanese relations are always constructive and Iran always supports and protects Lebanon’s independence…”
Does this sound like an Iran that is threatening Hariri or congratulating him?
But you might say, hold on, wait a minute- this must be some sort of Iranian propaganda. Hariri would never endorse this speech, which is a total lie.
Actually not only did Hariri endorse this speech, he sent it out through his email list to hundreds of journalists on Friday, shortly after the meeting. In fact Hariri sends an email almost every day about his speeches and those that visit him. Surely his staff would not have broadcast a message Hariri believed to be harmful propaganda?
Also have a look at the pictures. Hariri seems to be smiling and very at ease in both shots:
Of course this does not substitute for an actual transcript of the meeting and we may never know what all was said. But it does seem odd that Hariri would be distributing a speech by someone who apparently just threatened his life.
An alternate narrative circulating in Beirut is that Hariri’s life was not threatened (the Lebanese army and police both denied having any intel on this), but that he resigned out of fear of upsetting Saudi Arabia, where he and his family have huge amounts of financial assets.
What’s also interesting is that the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar also began after a warming of relations between the gulf state and Iran. In that case, Saudi Arabia couched the move as part of the war on terrorism. So is the war on corruption just the latest pretext to consolidate power? Can Saudi Arabia simply not tolerate any cracks in its campaign against Iran?
Like Qatar, Hariri also seemed to be warming up to Iran and its allies in Lebanon over recent months, speaking frequently about the need for dialogue and compromises, working on joint legislation with pro-Hezbollah MPs on such issues as a raise for civil servants and electoral reform. That’s what was so surprising about his resignation-things actually seemed to be going relatively well in Lebanese politics ( a sentiment confirmed by the leader of Hezbollah) and elections were finally expected this year.
Here is the full email as sent by Hariri’s office. Notice that Hariri had other meetings that day, including one with the head of a television network in an effort to combat intellectual piracy and stolen cable channels. It seems like a mundane issue and an odd way to end a day marked by fear.
Full email below:
Press Office of the President of the Council of Ministers Saad Hariri
03- 11– 2017
Hariri receives Velayati
The President of the Council of Minister Saad Hariri received today at the Grand Serail the senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, accompanied by the Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Mohamed Fathali and a delegation, in the presence of Hariri’s chief of staff Nader Hariri.
After the meeting, Velayati said: “We had a good, positive, constructive and practical meeting with Prime MinisterHariri, especially since the Iranian-Lebanese relations are always constructive and Iran always supports and protects Lebanon’s independence, force and government.
We praise Prime Minister Hariri, the government and the people for the recent victories in the face of the terrorist forces and we hope to see more success. The formation of a coalition government between March 14 and March 8 is a victory, a great success and a blessing for the Lebanese people.
The victory against terrorists represents the victory of all of us against terrorism, and what has been achieved on the Syrian arena, as well as the victory of the Syrian government and people against terrorism, is our victory and our success. We know that these terrorists are supported by the Zionists and by the Americans. Defeating them means defeating the Zionist and American conspiracies against us. The victory of the Iraqi government and people against the separatist movement is also another form of those victories. In conclusion, the Lebanese victory against the terrorists and the Syrian and Iraqi victories represents the victory of the resistance axis at the level of the region and this is the victory of us all. We listened to Prime Minister Hariri regarding the actions taken at the regional level and we support them for the interest of the region.”
Electoral law Committee
Prime Minister Hariri headed at the Center House a meeting of the Ministerial Committee for the Implementation of the Electoral Law, attended by ministers Ali Hassan Khalil, Mohammed Fneish, Nouhad Al-Machnouk, Gebran Bassil, Talal Arslan, Ayman Choucair, Youssef Finianos, Ali Kanso and Pierre Bou Asi and the Secretary General of the Council of Ministers Fouad Fleifel.
Premier Hariri met with the CEO of OSN network, Martin Stewart, who said that he discussed with Prime Minister Hariri the participation of the network in the conference to protect the media creativity from piracy and the need to protect intellectual property in Lebanon, thus preserving the Lebanese economy and creativity.
The man is kicked, slapped and beaten by men speaking with Lebanese accents and cursed repeatedly until he pledges allegiance to Lebanon’s army. (Flagged for violence: click ‘watch on Facebook’ to view)
Tfih. I randomly received this on whatsapp and had the sudden urge to share it! What the fuck's going on in this…
Acts of violence, particularly against Syrians, are not new in Lebanon. The most infamous is that of parents coaching a child to beat a defenseless Syrian boy. First with his hands:
And then with a stick:
Even more disturbing is a video of a man threatening to butcher Syrian children with a knife as he waives it in front of them.
“Which one of you should I behead first,” the man tells the crying children.
The story was covered by The Daily Mail, which reported the man had been arrested. Police also said they opened in investigation into the video of the family encouraging the child to hit the Syrian boy, according to a report by Al Jazeera.
But it is unclear what happened to those arrested or investigated and if anyone was held accountable in other cases, such as the beating of this boy:
Meanwhile the Lebanese army has said it will open an investigation into the deaths of four Syrians killed during recent operations against Syrian militants in Arsal. Middle East Eye reported the bodies showed signs of torture.
As a response to much of this violence, a protest was recently held in Beirut to demand basic rights for Syrian refugees. However, some Lebanese media and web personalities reacted angrily, claiming the protestors organized to attack the military, and many have offered jingoistic responses:
But no evidence of protestors attacking the military has been provided. What we have seen is a recent surge in videos of Syrians cursing Lebanese on Facebook.
Many Lebanese were enraged by the videos and feel that Syrians should be grateful for the hospitality. Indeed, Lebanon has hosted far more refugees than any country in the world as a percentage of its population, exceeding European countries allowance of refugees by thousands of percent. The US and European countries have taken in shamefully low numbers of refugees compared to Lebanon and attacks have occurred against refugees there as well, perhaps in even greater numbers.
But none of this excuses the acts of brutality we have been seeing. And chances are, far more abuse is happening than is being recorded on camera.
It is true that many Lebanese have suffered a history of violence from Syrian occupation forces during the civil war and many Lebanese were tortured in Syrian prisons. But let us not repeat the abuses that were caused against us. Let us not repeat the abuses brought against Lebanese civilians and children by Western, Israeli and other Arab forces, even local militias, infamous for their torture and massacres.
If crimes can be justified against one person or group, they can be justified against anyone. We have already seen Lebanese face the brutality of their own security forces during protests of recent years and the government has even banned protests as a whole, including protests by Lebanese citizens who are enduring unprecedented levels of corruption.
It is also true that Lebanon’s army has endured some of the toughest battles of its history while defending territory on its borders with Syria and many young soldiers and senior officers have been killed in those battles.
To truly support Lebanon’s army and the integrity of the institutions they seek to defend, the basic human dignity of all persons in the country should be respected and protected, no matter what their nationality or ethnicity. For the sake of Lebanon’s own safety and the relative freedoms citizens still enjoy, all police and military investigations should be closely monitored and the right to free expression and police accountablity needs to be demanded vigilantly and constantly.
UPDATE (19 July 2017)
Not long after this post, Lebanon’s Interior Ministry Nouhad Machnouk announced on Twitter that the assailants in the first video have been arrested. However the extent to which they will be prosecuted remains unclear.
The following article originally appeared in Take Part, a US-based online publication that has recently ceased operation. I’m posting it here in case the Take Part website is taken down during the corporate restructuring period.
JANNAH, Lebanon—At the bottom of a lush valley between rocky peaks of Mount Lebanon, strawberry farmer John Abu Akar may be the last man standing in the path of a dam project worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But he has a few tricks up his sleeve.
When a minister’s motorcade of tinted-window SUVs rolled through his village in 2012 to announce the multinational project, Abu Akar sabotaged the signs directing visitors to the location of a press conference so they pointed instead down the gravel path leading to his farm. Around 10 black American-model vehicles soon pulled in; security agents jumped out and confronted Abu Akar. Unaware that they were in the wrong place, they demanded he move his car from where it was parked in front of his house. They told him they worked for Gebran Bassil, one of Lebanon’s most prominent politicians and the dam’s chief proponent. “Who is he? What does he do for a living?” Abu Akar asked them, playing dumb. Sitting on his porch with a beer in hand, the half-shaved 37-year-old recalls the story with a wry smile as the Abraham River rushes behind him. “We made fun of them a little,” he says, laughing.
Four years later, the reality is more sobering. Work on the dam, which will be one of the biggest in the Arab world if completed, began last year, leaving wide swathes of the valley carved out and thousands of trees bulldozed. (A claimed completion date of 2016 seems unlikely to be met.) Most of the farms and homes in Abu Akar’s village, known as Jannah—Arabic for “paradise”—have been leveled. Jannah sits on the upper banks of the Abraham River, which runs beneath snowcapped peaks to the Mediterranean Sea, about 12 miles downstream from Abu Akar’s home. It cuts a winding path through the verdant Adonis Valley, which is lined with waterfalls and natural springs and home to some 700 animal and plant species, making it one of the most biodiverse regions in the Middle East.
Experts warn that blocking the river and building the dam, which will require flattening up to 500 acres of hillside forest, will not only stifle the river flow and destroy natural habitats but endanger a vast underground network of aquifers that feed Beirut’s primary water source, the Jeita spring. The spring, 20 miles southwest of Jannah, produces a subterranean river that courses through the Jeita caverns, a major tourist attraction and a symbol of national pride seen on postcards and currency notes.
Cutting off the flow of the river could significantly drain the Jeita spring, according to the Hannover, Germany–based Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, which conducted a multiyear study of the project. Thus providing electricity and water to one part of Lebanon may threaten the water supply of its capital. The institute also found that because the dam is to be built on a porous rock formation, most of the 10 billion gallons of water proponents claim it will store will be lost, absorbed by the earth. “In view of the current findings, it is strongly recommended not to go ahead with the construction” planned, the institute concluded in 2012.
But for Lebanon’s politically ambitious Ministry of Energy and Water, the Jannah Dam will be nothing short of a miraculous feat of human over nature, providing much needed water and electricity to surrounding towns. A promotional video by a local contractor bears a strong resemblance to a trailer for an action film, complete with dramatic music, explosions, and title cards bearing phrases such as “They accepted the challenge” and “Failure is not an option.”
Despite the Lebanese state commissioning the German institute to undertake its study, which involved three years of field testing, the Ministry of Energy and Water’s advisers have dismissed the results as “totally wrong” and politically motivated. They have also rejected the complaints of Minister of the Environment Mohammad Machnouk, who said the project failed to provide an adequate environmental impact study and lacked approval from his office.
Yet the digging and razing continues. The Ministry of Energy and Water places the initial budget at around $300 million, which includes the cost of a hydroelectric plant and the 300-foot-high dam.
Activists and environmental experts say the budget is likely to mushroom to closer to $1 billion when factoring the costs of land purchases, annual maintenance, and a tunneling system to deliver the water. The principal contractor, Brazilian conglomerate Andrade Gutierrez, made headlines last year when its chief officers were arrested in São Paulo as part of an alleged corruption scheme to inflate prices on major projects. The firm paid $286 million to settle the charges in a plea deal reached in May. Dam opponents say the company’s track record gels with postwar Lebanon’s notorious record for state corruption and white elephant infrastructure projects.
“Look at all the projects that happen in Lebanon—none have been produced at estimated cost; all of them have been constructed at subpar quality,” says Karim Eid-Sabbagh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of London who studies the political economy of water and natural resources management in Lebanon. Jannah, he believes, “will not ever produce what [government officials] are claiming. It’s just money out the window.”
Aside from wasted funds, experts say the dam will exact a heavy toll on the environment.
“You won’t have any biodiversity. You will have a catastrophic situation: missing trees, more erosion, habitats of species gone,” says Roland Riachi, a water management expert and a researcher and lecturer at the American University of Beirut. “Even sand on the beaches comes from rivers. It’s the destruction of a whole ecosystem.”
Abu Akar, too, thinks about the effect on the valley’s wildlife, which includes populations of wolves, hyenas, boars, hyraxes, and birds: “What will the animals drink when the river runs dry?”
Its human presence dating to antiquity, the Adonis Valley is named after the Phoenician deity, the favorite lover of Aphrodite, whose killing by a wild boar, legend has it, is what turns the river red once every year. (More likely, the hue comes from sediment that pours through at the end of the winter.) All along the banks of the valley’s Abraham River are temples to Adonis and other archaeological sites, including Ottoman-era mills and stone bridges. It is believed that the Phoenicians used the river to float timber to their Mediterranean port of Byblos, from where it was shipped to Egypt to build furniture, rooftops, and ships for the pharaohs. A thousand years later, the Romans built a series of staircases throughout the Adonis that connected it to their temples and palaces in the Bekaa Valley; portions of the route still can be traversed. Following logging of the valley by successive civilizations, from the Babylonians to the Persians, the Roman Emperor Hadrian banned the felling of trees in the first century, making the region one of the world’s first protected forest reserves. Latin inscriptions announcing the prohibition can be seen carved into boulders across the valley.
Environmental activists say dam builders have chopped down thousands of trees and that the number could reach as high as 300,000 or more. Drone video captured from above the area by the Lebanon Eco Movement, an association of environmental organizations, reveals the scale of the destruction: Bald, crumbling mountains are a stark contrast to the green hillsides that will be razed next. The flow of the river is slowing from the buildup of debris; its surface is covered in a thick layer of algae. The destruction is sure to affect the 16,000-acre Jabal Moussa Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-recognized biosphere a few miles downriver from the dam site that is recognized as a protected forest by the Ministry of Agriculture. Two thousand years after Hadrian’s declaration, says Joelle Barakat, conservation manager for the Association for the Protection of Jabal Moussa, “we have ministers who laugh at you if you say you don’t want to cut down [trees].”
During summer Sundays, narrow roads leading through the reserve are thronged with cars and buses full of families out to picnic and camp along the riverbank. Since its establishment in 2007, the reserve has been producing maps and publications categorizing and documenting the hundreds of flora and fauna species native to the area and carving paths to archaeological sites such as the Hadrian inscriptions and the Adonis temples. Barakat says the reserve receives 10,000 visitors per year, which it hopes to boost by supporting family-owned inns.
“We believe the importance of Jabal Moussa reserve stems from the Adonis Valley,” says Barakat. “The whole region is culturally linked to this valley. The dam will have a direct effect on the riparian ecosystem that is there—it won’t be there anymore.”
In the summer months, the Abraham River, fed by snowmelt, is reduced significantly, creating wading pools among the rapids. Barakat says government flow studies failed to take into consideration seasonal changes, evaporation, or filtration down to underground resources—a finding confirmed by the German team, which concluded that existing flow meters are outdated and inaccurate.
The Ministry of Energy and Water maintains that the impact on nature will be limited and that the number of trees cut so far is only 5,000 and will not exceed 50,000. Repeated attempts to contact the ministry went unanswered.
Although Jannah is one of the largest state projects in Lebanon’s history, no environmental impact assessment was carried out before construction began. Public reviews are not protocol in Lebanon. Because sectarian politicians and affiliated sectarian media often scapegoat personalities and individual rivals rather than address broader, more complicated public service problems—which could implicate the attackers’ own side as well—such projects are seldom investigated and proceed with little oversight. Only after a group of hikers and environmentalists encountered signs in the valley announcing the project two years ago was a complaint lodged with the environment ministry.
Other experts are convinced that the dam will not even succeed at its principal aim: retaining water. The entire Adonis Valley is underlain with porous karst stone foundations, jagged rocks ubiquitous throughout the country that give rise to the limestone caves, underwater aquifers, and springs spread across Lebanon’s mountain ranges.
Video captured by a drone shows damage to the Adonis Valley as a result of construction on the Jannah Dam project.
Along dirt tracks on the drive to Jannah, recently carved wide for construction vehicles to pass, limestone facades are evident along the freshly cleaved mountainsides. A six-foot-wide cave opening can be spotted, partially obstructed by a pile of rock crushed to create an access road for construction vehicles and equipment. Inside are several deep crevices, one filled with stalactites hanging from its ceiling.
The valley floor’s permeability could cause the dam to lose more than two-thirds of the more than 10 billion gallons it aims to store, according to the German report. In a 2012 email obtained by TakePart, project leader Armin Margane pleaded with a senior Lebanese official at the state-run Council for Development and Reconstruction: “If construction of Jannah Dam goes ahead it would lead to a failed investment because at a cost of $300 million not more than around [2.6 billion gallons] of water could be stored.”
The Ministry of Energy and Water maintains that it will seal the porous valley floor through grouting, a technique in which concrete is injected across the inundation area behind the dam. The German team described this move as “practically impossible” and maintained that any attempt to seal the valley floor would “significantly reduce” the flow to the Jeita spring, which it estimates provides 75 percent of Beirut’s water.
Riachi says that even if grouting were attempted, the enormous amount of cement required would cause the project cost to balloon to at least three times the stated estimate. He uses an old Arabic proverb to make the point: “It would be like trying to tile the ocean floor.”
Several dams built on karst foundations, the permeability of which can compromise the integrity of the structure, have failed or faced severe problems in the United States. A 2009 report prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers noted that half the U.S. dams deemed “unsafe or critically near failure” were built on karst foundations. “Numerous attempts at grouting solution features in karst have been ineffective,” and “grout has proven to be a short-term risk reduction measure,” it stated. The report concluded by listing a number of “minimum steps” to reduce failure, such as building deep underground walls to attempt to hold water back, though it does not indicate the success rate of such measures.
Mosul Dam in Iraq, built on karstified rock in 1984, is facing the imminent threat of collapse, according to both Iraqi and American engineers. The Corps called the dam “the most dangerous in the world,” forecasting that a collapse could release a wave of water more than 40 feet high that would submerge Mosul and flood Baghdad, killing up to 1 million. Although warned repeatedly about the unstable nature of the rock by successive foreign consultants, Saddam Hussein’s regime ignored this advice and went ahead with the project, viewing it as a symbol of state power and vowing to use grouting as a solution. Problems emerged two years after construction, when the structure was compromised as water running through the bedrock began eroding caves and causing them to expand. Despite a reported 104,000 tons of grout poured over the dam’s lifetime, new problems arose after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, when the maintenance operation, which involved a 24-hour-a-day concrete injection schedule, came to a halt. At a height of 367 feet, Mosul Dam is only slightly taller than the Jannah Dam, although its carrying capacity is far smaller.
In Lebanon, the Chabrouh Dam, completed in 2007, also sits on karst rock. Researchers say the dam is now leaking at a rate of 52 gallons per second. The recently completed Brisa Dam is largely empty, as seen in pictures distributed by activists. The country’s largest dam, the Litani, built in the 1970s on the advice of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, has failed in its expectations to deliver water to farms across the arid Bekaa Valley. It now irrigates just 1.5 percent of Lebanese agriculture and leaks some 80 gallons per second, according to Riachi. “These are all failures,” he says.
Another major concern is that the Adonis Valley is a high seismic activity zone, with three fault lines traversing the axis of the proposed dam, according to a United Nations Development Programme preliminary study of the project in 2008. The presence of the faults was the study’s second-biggest concern following the presence of “pervious karst” beneath the dam axis.
In a conference hall at the new Hilton Beirut Habtoor Grand hotel, which towers over the concrete sprawl of Beirut, a line of suit-wearing, stone-faced parliamentarians sat awaiting the start of a televised pressconference. Hastily organized by the Ministry of Energy and Water in response to growing criticism of the Jannah Dam project, over the course of nearly two hours the June 3 conference paraded contractors, architects, and project consultants before the cameras to present a series of charts, which they said proved their assessments of the project were sound.
In the front row were members of the political coalition supporting the dam project, led by Gebran Bassil—the former minister whose route Abu Akar had blocked in 2012. A rising star in politics, Bassil, 46, now heads the Free Patriotic Movement, a powerful parliamentary bloc founded by his father-in-law, Michel Aoun, a former army commander. The station covering the event, known as a mouthpiece for Aoun, regularly panned its cameras toward Bassil and other members of his coalition.
Throughout multiple presentations, the German team was constantly dismissed as producing “a viewpoint,” not “science,” while its series of reports, released in 2012, were called “old,” allegedly disproved by subsequent tests carried out by the prominent local engineering firm Khatib & Alami. The company, which has executed a significant share of government contracts over the last several decades, also claims that soil samples from the site indicate an “excellent” quality of stone and “no possibility” of leakage. Khatib & Alami’s tests were not made available. It was largely a party affair; only a handful of journalists or average citizens attended, and there was no discussion of grouting and the industry-wide skepticism about it.
At one point, Khatib & Alami lead engineer Adel Abou Jaoude held up a printout of a report from the French consulting firm SAFEGE, highlighting one key sentence on an overhead projection: “We have a favorable view toward building the dam.” What Jaoude failed to mention was three subsequent paragraphs qualifying the statement with the condition that the floor of the dam reservoir be sealed or grouted to prevent leakage. The report states this would be a “very difficult” task and could increase the costs of the project. The SAFEGE report confirms a positive soil finding on one side of the riverbank; testing on the other side—the side especially rich in karst stone—is pending.
Raja Noujaim, a retired quality control expert and a leading activist resisting the Jannah project, believes the testing was performed deliberately on the less permeable sections of the river valley. He also points out that the SAFEGE report makes a series of vague and conditional statements and relies heavily on tests conducted by the government. Particularly curious is the discrepancy between the SAFEGE report presented at the conference and one that the firm released three months earlier that extends its reservations toward not only the waterproofing of the dam floor but also the dam foundations. “They put them under pressure,” says Noujaim. “Otherwise they would not be paid.”
Riachi agrees: “SAFEGE initially said it was a bad site for a dam and then said their position was one of reservations.”
With near constant political instability and unregulated crony capitalism in Lebanon, maintenance of the dam could become a critical issue. The Lebanese state is infamous for its failure to maintain and deliver public services such as electricity and water. Despite billions in investment, the state electricity company’s power plants and transmission networks have suffered blackouts up to 12 hours per day for 30 years.
Garbage collection is equally problematic, with waste regularly dumped into rivers and rural areas or flushed untreated out to sea and a raft of failed sanitation and sewage projects. Beirut’s streets were lined with piles of trash last year following the overburdening of the country’s main landfill, due to a lack of oversight and planning by government bodies. Several municipalities resorted to burning their trash, sending cancerous toxins into the air, according to local university studies, which also warned of garbage residue from the piles seeping into groundwater and affecting agricultural production. The crisis, which led to extensive street protests, persists a year later, with plans now to create landfills along the Mediterranean, adding more pollution to existing sewage drains along the once pristine coast.
The nation’s potable water network is no outlier in the state of dysfunction. Tap water runs only a few hours per day; most households are equipped with plastic rooftop reservoirs, and residents are often reduced to buying water from private trucks. Because neither the tap water nor the private supply is treated, nearly the entire country is forced to buy crates of bottled water for drinking and cooking. Poor maintenance and mismanagement by the ministry and its labyrinth of regional water agencies are a major part of the problem. A 2011 studyconducted by one of the government’s engineers found that nearly 50 percent of water in the network is lost because of outdated infrastructure and leaking pipes. Some aqueducts are more than 100 years old; Beirut’s main pumping station was built in 1896 and cannot be expanded.
“Why don’t they spend a few million dollars and repair the pipes?” asks Noujaim. He and other experts believe a series of small dams, wells, and lakes would serve as a more sustainable solution. “These people care about selling big projects, even if they don’t work. They care about money. You are dealing with Ali Baba.”
After the technical presentations, the press conference took a decidedly political turn as Bassil was introduced to much fanfare. The dam project will create an annual state revenue gain of some $180 million, Bassil said, though he did not reference the $100 million environmental cost Gicome calculated.
Known for his off-the-cuff remarks, Bassil dismissed concerns about the fault lines running beneath the dam, saying, “If it’s seven on the Richter scale, then who cares? All of Beirut will be gone anyway.” Government-hired experts had earlier claimed the dam’s concrete structure would help protect against earthquakes and that disaster is unlikely. “Only 12 dams have been ruptured in the past,” said a French expert working with Khatib & Alami.
Bassil is famous for promising during his term as energy and water minister 24-hour electricity in Lebanon by 2015. (He also promised, during his stint as telecom minister, fiber-optic internet by 2010.) With blackouts worse than ever this summer and internet speeds in Lebanon still among the world’s slowest, the hashtag #BlameBassil has periodically trended as the population complains on social media about public service failures.
Though Bassil has been appointed minister of foreign affairs, he maintains a frequent presence at events related to the Jannah Dam. At the hotel press conference, he touted the project as a pillar of “strategic national interest” and security and spoke in conspiratorial tones when describing opposition to the dam.
“What is this reason that a state…, two and a half years after starting a project, needs to stop it?” Bassil asked, throwing his hands in the air. “Cutting down a tree? That an earthquake could happen? An old study? Every day they are creating reasons to stop the dam. What makes all of these concerns lack value? One thing: politics. We spent $100 million, and we have to stop. Why? So someone can have fun?”
Bassil painted his party as a victim of political sabotage, singled out, he says, for abuses that others get away with, such as rampant illegal logging or polluting landfills. Forest fires, he argues, decimate 14 percent of Lebanese trees annually. “Now they are mad about 5,000 trees? Let the environment minister go chase after those [who are] logging trees,” he suggested to rousing applause from the conference audience. “If we are talking about environmental impact, this is over; it’s done,” he said. “The trees have been cut; the site of the dam has been excavated. If there was environmental impact, it happened already.”
The deep commitment to harnessing water and dam building in Lebanon far predates Bassil and his coalition. The notion that Lebanese rivers flowing to the Mediterranean are wasted dates back to the French mandate period: The precolonial water management system, wrote Riachi in an op-ed for Beirut newspaper paper Al-Akhbar, “was judged too archaically managed by the locals and needed to be modernized by a good-willed colonizing power.” This notion was extended during the 1950s, when American engineers first proposed the Jannah Dam as part of diplomacy efforts at the height of the Cold War. Today, Lebanon is embarking on $1.9 billion worth of future dam projects, many of them supported by loans from international lending organizations such as the World Bank.
In the hills overlooking Jannah, Andrade Gutierrez has set up dozens of mobile homes for its engineers in the picturesque mountain village of Kartaba. The firm is celebrated for creating jobs and bringing traffic to local business. In the town’s main square, the windows of offices rented by the company are covered with decals showcasing its projects; a giant rendering of the Jannah Dam is spread across an entire storefront.
Down below in Jannah, however, farmer Abu Akar is bent on giving Andrade Gutierrez hell. He regularly chucks rocks at the passing dump trucks because, he says, in addition to the destruction of the valley, they operate on Sundays in contravention of Lebanese law. His sister parks her Jeep strategically on the narrow road leading to the site to obstruct traffic flow. But it is a lonely battle.
He points to where his neighbors used to live. All that remains are three stone houses on a hillside, nestled amid a handful of oak and olive trees. They are an island of the past surrounded on all sides by newly carved gravel construction roads. Abu Akar says about 100 villagers—more than half the town—have vacated, as their homes were flattened. About eight families received sums of around $80,000 each, he says. “What will they do with that? Buy a small apartment and then what?” He vows to stay despite the enormous dam wall that is set to be built only a few hundred yards from his home and remaining fields, eclipsing the bounty of sunlight that shines down on his greenhouses: “No one is going to move us from here. I won’t leave even for $100 million.”
Abu Akar walks up to a home built of roughly cut boulders, with a porch made of straw and tree branches. Its former occupants, his great-grandparents, are buried under a slab of tombs around the back, near a one-room church with a dozen dusty pews. (Abu Akar says his great-great-grandfather was the first to settle in Jannah, in the 1820s.) Inside, under a chandelier, hangs a fading portrait of John the Baptist wearing a gold crown as he pours water over a half-robed Jesus, knee-deep in another river, the River Jordan. Outside the church, a cast-iron bell is propped up by a piece of decayed wood wedged between two gnarled olive trees. The inscription on the bell says it’s from 1885.
Just beyond Abu Akar’s greenhouses are vast bulldozed plains. He surveys the construction site. Once densely forested mountainsides have been shaved haphazardly, as if buzzed by a giant electric razor. Toward the center of the site lies a mound of bulldozed branches and tree trunks piled a dozen feet high, as if mauled in a natural disaster.
“Look at what they have done,” Abu Akar says, pointing to a large splintered tree stump. “They didn’t even cut them down properly.” The image seems to be at odds with a tree-replanting program put forward by government contractor Khatib & Alami to uproot and move thousands of the trees that needed to be cleared for the reservoir basin. Mountainsides have been reduced to loose sediment. Rockslides from the highest peaks of the excavation are evident throughout, particularly in the V-shaped section where the dam structure will be erected. Bubbly limestone facades are exposed in multiple sections of the construction area. Abu Akar says he witnessed water being pumped out of the project’s tunnel excavation, casting further doubt on the state’s claims of “excellent” rock integrity.
Abu Akar still has a few crops in the construction area but says he can’t bring himself to collect them: “I don’t have a heart to go inside. I’ll cry if I go there. It was the most beautiful valley in the world.”
He changes the subject and puts on a face of defiance mixed with sarcasm. “It’s all business; everyone wants to fill his pockets,” he says. “They make themselves out to be leaders, but they are worth the sole of my shoe.”
Something fun today in a mad world! Check out this new video by The Wanton Bishops recalling vintage Beirut action flicks and it is shot in Dalieh, the last natural coast of Beirut endangered by a real estate project.
With environmental disasters and public service dysfunction everywhere you look, there’s never been a better time to investigate Lebanon and a greater need for investigative reporting. Next week, I’ll be teaching a course on investigative journalism at AUB and I encourage all students who are interested in producing work with a social impact to sign up.
We’ll look at some of the past investigations I and other journalists have been involved in, investigations that have often led to real changes in policies and government practices, yes even in Lebanon.
These include investigations that revealed information that was hidden from the public including the destruction of priceless ruins in favor of real estate projects, and some projects that have been halted due to public pressure that followed reporting.
We’ll also look at how to investigate infrastructure projects such as the Boutros Highway, which was halted after reporting and public pressure campaigns that followed it, as well as the Janneh Dam, which remains ongoing despite the serious threat it poses to the national water supply and essential ecosystems protected for thousands of years. We will also look at the ongoing destruction of the coast and reporting and activist campaigns that intervened in contesting massive projects and pushing for new laws to protect public lands and hold politicians and business owners accountable.
With the garbage/airport/pollution/seagull massacre issues continuing, there will be plenty more to investigate as well as follow up on the issues mentioned above with more ruins, coastline and heritage threatened every day. For AUB students interested in the class, the CRN number is 22167.
UPDATE: For Fall 2017-18 the CRN is 10959 / MCOM244B
And for those who are not students, Beirut Report is always looking for contributors. I walked through the process behind a couple of previous investigative stories during this TEDx talk last year and offered tips on how anyone can start an investigation, even if you are not a trained journalist:
So what are you waiting for, let’s investigate! You may not change the world (at least on the first try), but you may change your perspective on an issue and be able to share that with others to make an impact in your community, as some of these previous stories did.
For those interested in contributing to Beirut Report click on the “submit a story idea” tab on the top menu bar or get in touch via the “contact us” option if you don’t have a story yet but would like to get invovled.