Originally published in Mashallah News on May 14, 2011.
The Arab and global audience has borne witness in recent months to massive pitched battles in the central squares of the region’s capital cities. Capturing and defending urban space has emerged as the most effective way to unseat a chosen regional despot; indeed, each revolution and protest movement has become nearly synonymous with the urban space it has occupied and spread from.
Can we imagine an Egyptian revolt without Tahrir Square? Or Bahraini resistance without the camps in Pearl Square? It has become clear that the uprisings taking place are deeply rooted in urban public spaces and that the ability of protesters to occupy spaces has been essential for the success and spread of each movement.
The success of the uprisings has not been accidental. Downtown Cairo, for example, was built under the design of French urban planners who mimicked the urban planning techniques Baron Haussman’s late 19th century redesign of Paris. Hausmann’s plans were centered on a large square with boulevards radiating out, while in between there lie many pedestrian streets and linked alleyways that lead to Tahrir Square, alleys originally intended for British colonisers to spend their leisure time wandering through.
Protest organisers, deeply aware of this geography, published a pamphlet outlining ways to re-enter the square, of which many were inaccessible to cars and tanks and thus were easy for pedestrian protesters to secure and cross safely. This mobility, as well as their ability to engage in sustained confrontations in the Square’s radial boulevards, was critical to their success in holding their ground.
In contrast, Manama’s Pearl Square sits at the centre of a number of huge, modern thoroughfares that are surrounded by empty space, making it easy for tanks to enter, attack and hard for protesters to covertly regroup. Protesters were never able to hold the garden for more than a short period of time, and after the protests were put down, the government, aware that even having a small garden in the centre of this square meant it could be occupied, has since quietly demolished the square’s “Pearl” monument and garden forever. As a replacement, they announced plans to replace the roundabout with traffic lights — which are, of course, impossible for protesters to occupy.
Searching for Beirut’s Tahrir Square
Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square has long been regarded as the heart of the nation and a gathering place for people of all walks of life and religions. Historically, this was true. However, the 1975-90 civil war effectively made the Bourj a no-man’s land. After the war, Solidere, a public-private company linked to then-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, was created and amidst much controversy was given the right to confiscate the property of between 100,000-150,000 people living Downtown so as to reconstruct it.
“Urban planning has contributed to dividing the city and keeping enclaves apart, shutting public spaces that might bring people together.”
Subsequently, Solidere’s brutally destruction destroyed most of Beirut’s Central District and the displacement of all of its inhabitants in the 1990s and rendered the area a wasteland bordered by shops beyond the means of most of Beirut’s inhabitants. While during the war about one third of Downtown suffered damage, between 1991 and 1994, the years following the signing of the peace accords, 90 percent of Downtown was irreversibly flattened by corporate bulldozers. The Lebanese government has so far put about $1 billion of public money into the company, while it is expected to make between $3 and $5 billion in profit — a profit the area’s former residents, who will not be allowed to return, will not receive much of.
Mona Harb, Associate Professor of Urban Planning at the American University of Beirut and author of several books comments, “Urban planning has contributed to dividing the city and keeping enclaves apart, shutting public spaces that might bring people together.” This made Martyrs’ Square an empty, pretty place you drive through, and while it physically remained at the heart of the city, for all but the die-hard nostalgic, the square meant nothing.
In recent months, an anti-sectarian movement has emerged in Lebanon, modelled after protest movements in other Arab countries.
In 2005, this all changed. Rafiq Hariri’s assassination and the ensuing Cedar Revolution commanded a million into the streets, and, facing a lack of suitable space, the demonstrators chose the empty centre of Beirut’s biggest construction site to gather in. Martyrs’ Square became, overnight, “The Square” and Lebanese political bloc March 14 leaders quickly erected a [thus-far permanent] shrine to Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in the centre of it. Martyr’s Square was now not only demolished, but claimed by one of Lebanon’s two main political blocs, marking it, like the rest of Beirut, not as a centre for all citizens but as another district under sectarian control.
Re-appropriating a divided cityscape
In recent months, an anti-sectarian movement has emerged in Lebanon, modelled after protest movements in other Arab countries. But the case here is different. Lebanon is a relatively democratic state, albeit a form of consociational democracy called “sectarianism” in which individuals vote as a part of their religious group. This system was developed under the French Mandate as a way to bolster Maronite Christian control over the fledgling colony by inflating their electoral numbers. It has since fulfilled this goal and thus subverted real individual liberal democracy in Lebanon according to the one person-one vote formula. The protesters have modified the famous chant, “the people want the fall of the regime,” to a more locally applicable, “the people want the fall of the sectarian regime” — a call for the instatement of full democracy and an end to the explicit involvement of religion in mass politics.
The symbology of protest in Lebanon has transformed over night.
The movement has set up tents in cities across the country after a series of large protests held in spring, and they are promising to stay put until representational democracy is established. These tents are festooned with banners denouncing the sectarian regime. In Beirut, these encampments are found in Sanayeh and in two locations abutting Riad al Solh Square in Downtown. Organisers, who hail from many different groups and do not align themselves under any particular political banner, have made it clear that they are not interested in the politics of symbolism, but have chosen these locations because they face the homes of Lebanon’s sectarian regimes: the Interior Ministry and the Parliament, respectively.
The central square of Beirut is long since flattened and it seems every other corner of this beaten metropolis has been turned into canvas for posters preaching sectarian warfare. Despite this, the anti-sectarian movement is opening up spaces in a country plagued by cantonisation. And in the process, they are developing a geographical discourse of direct action that rejects the symbolic and demands concrete change from a perpetually hung Parliament. The symbology of protest in Lebanon has transformed over night. Suddenly, as images of a million waving flags Downtown for only themselves and the camera to see is being replaced by thousands marching neighbourhood by neighbourhood and pitching lonely tents in the face of police brutality. This movement, these tents seem to say, is one for and from every neighbourhood and every city in Lebanon.
Sajida Nsaif, a student and activist at the Riad al Solh encampment, explained that when they set up the camp after an anti-sectarian protest in March, they had intended to camp out directly in front of the Parliament. They were violently beaten and pushed out of Downtown by the gendarmerie but managed to occupy their current location immediately across the street. “We have taken a place in a bourgeois neighbourhood. This is a touristic space; it is not intended for us.”
“What are they, afraid of the people?”
Alia Rizk, another protester at the camp, continues: “Martyrs’ Square has become a symbol of March 14 and of March 8. But we are here [in front of the Parliament] to be an annoyance [for] these corrupt sectarian leaders.” From the language of protesters, it is clear that their demands for representational democracy are aimed at lawmakers and they intend to coordinate their presence geographically so as to confront them.
Mona Harb comments that “Riad al Solh has become the anti-space” in Beirut’s political geography. She also stresses that it and remains more ‘appropriatable’ as a space from which to articulate political demands because “it is not as marked on a sectarian level,” but more operates better as a political space, in relative contrast to Martyrs’ Square.
The decision of the anti-sectarian movement to set up camps throughout Lebanon reflects a promising trend towards decentralisation. As Harb continues, it reflects a mentality of “we go there and mobilise, not ‘you come here [to Martyr’s Square].’ [That place] is also a part of my country, and this anti-sectarianism issue has no geographic boundaries.” By mobilising throughout the country, the protesters have ensured that “cities like Amchit and Tripoli are part of my geographical understanding of the movement, which is a major achievement given that places are so sectarianly marked in Lebanon.”
As Nsaif declared from the Riad al Solh encampment: “we have been here two weeks and we may stay for 10 years. What are they, afraid of the people?”