How Lebanon’s Protesters Have Reclaimed Public Space

BEIRUT—A protester carefully places a plastic water bottle in the correct recycling bin under a tent run by volunteers, before scurrying back to a crowd calling for the fall of the Lebanese government.

Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut is packed with demonstrators, a microcosm of what appears to be Lebanon’s largest independent popular uprising in recent memory.

A wave of protests and riots sparked off across the country on the evening of October 17, following a series of austerity measures, severe wildfires, and talk of new regressive taxes—including fees on phone calls made through WhatsApp—as the government tries to resolve Lebanon’s dire economic situation. Protesters are demanding that the government step down and that early parliamentary elections be held.

Many also want a pathway to end the country’s semi-democratic sectarian power-sharing system, in which representation is allocated proportionally to a multitude of religious sects. They want a secular state and an end to corruption.

Demonstrators put up tents in public squares in dozens of cities. In Beirut’s Martyrs’ and Riad Solh squares, people improvised a democratic, cooperative tent city that breathed new life into a district previously reserved for the ultra-rich.

In this makeshift city, the “Green Tent” group placed recycling bins all over, and its volunteers in green vests clean the streets at 8 a.m. Waste is sent to recycling groups that reintegrate it into the economy; for example, bottle caps are taken to a local NGO that makes wheelchairs out of them and donates these to people in need.

“Our gardens were burned in the Mechref and Chouf wildfires [two weeks ago], where we grew up,” Karma, one of the founding members of the Green Tent, told CityLab. “So, we decided our contribution to the protests will be through environmental and social work.”

Tents for first aid and legal aid were set up just around the corner from a community kitchen. Walls became a colorful cacophony of street art and protest slogans.

The protest encampment in Martyrs’ Square. (Kareem Chehayeb)

At 6:30 p.m., crowds of people gather and have open discussions about politics, the future, and what the protest movement ought to do. Everyone is eager to have a turn with the microphone.

“[It] became sort of like a fantasy microcosm of what people want Lebanon to be,” Tarek Zeidan, executive director of LGBTQ+ rights group Helem, told CityLab, adding that his organization’s unbranded tent was intended to be a safe and inclusive organizing space. “This isn’t an information booth; the socioeconomic grievances are queer people’s grievances, too.”

The creation of the tent city was “extremely organic,” Zeidan added. “A few people volunteered to help with logistics, and people donated their time and their cars for transport and helped purchase tents at cheap prices.”

“It became a space in a decentralized format that never existed in Beirut, certainly not in the heart of the city.”

Protesters taking part in a public forum. (Kareem Chehayeb)

Prior to the tent city’s emergence, a handful of tourists would often be seen taking pictures of the nearby Mohammad al-Amin Mosque standing side by side with the Saint George Maronite Cathedral. But apart from this Instagram cliché, the capital’s downtown district was a glamorous ghost town.

Empty luxury apartment and office buildings overlooked streets populated mainly by pigeons and soldiers guarding the area around Nejmeh Square, where the parliament building is, and the prime minister’s office at the Grand Serail.

With the exception of a few luxury stores, the district is virtually empty of businesses.

Prior to the country’s 15-year-long civil war beginning in 1975, it was a bustling downtown, only to be privatized and revamped in the 1990s, following extensive demolition. Property owners, both commercial and residential, lost their homes to Solidere, a construction company led by then-Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. They were given shares of the company or were allowed to keep their property if they could maintain it to the high standards of the project. Only a few were able to do so.

“Downtown Beirut was turned by the oligarchy into a major real estate project … [and it] emptied the city center of the popular classes,” economist Jad Chaaban told CityLab, adding that the area turned into a “gated community” for the wealthy.

“The tents set up during the revolution attacked this model, and helped bring back regular people to the heart of the city. They helped regain privatized public spaces.”

A young Beiruti protester in his early 20s said that he was elated about this pushback. “My [maternal] grandfather had a simple shop,” he said, asking to remain anonymous. “Solidere gave my mom and her siblings shares that today are not worth more than $1,000, even though the property today is worth millions.”

Growing up, the downtown district was always an “alien space” for him, he said. Now, it’s a public space in a capital city where areas for the general public to congregate are scarcer than ever. “These are protests against the powers of capital and of privatization that have excluded us everyday citizens,” he said.

However, the tent city was not without angry neighbors, hoping to contain or even destroy it.

Lebanon’s main security institutions ramped up their presence on protest squares to “protect citizens and protestors, and to open roads.” Security forces fanned out across the squares, rather than at their peripheries. Unlicensed food vendors that flocked to the area were told to leave, and steel fences were added at different spots where protesters congregated.

But the state wasn’t the tent city’s only adversary.

Police put out a fire set by men who attacked protesters’ tents on October 29. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

On October 29, political partisans carrying sticks attacked protesters and swarmed into the tent city. The riot police watched, interfering minimally, as the partisans set tents on fire, looted the community kitchen and electronics, and attacked protesters who confronted them. Not even the designated children’s section with donated books was spared. It took them two hours to demolish everything.

But some protesters quickly regrouped to rebuild what they could. Zeidan was among them.

“They destroy, but we build,” he said as he rushed back toward the square.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned shortly after the incident, but protesters only briefly celebrated, focusing more on the reconstruction effort.

Chairs, tents, and other objects destroyed beyond repair were piled up and topped with a Lebanese flag. People gathered around the makeshift monument under the night sky and took pictures.

Then they got back to sweeping streets and rebuilding their tent city.

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