Beirut’s lessons for how not to rebuild a war-torn city

By Julia Tierney – Washington Post: Link to Original Article

The Syrian conflict has divided and destroyed many of the country’s most important cities. Should the fighting cease, they will require massive reconstruction. Yet I spoke with urban development specialists at the National Agenda for the Future of Syria who fear that the war-torn cities of Homs and Aleppo will never be rebuilt. Instead, they will be razed to the ground and another Solidere will be rebuilt in their place.

Their references to Solidere are intriguing. Solidere is the name of the private company contracted to rebuild downtown Beirut after the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). However, Beirut’s reconstruction had wide-ranging political and economic repercussions that offer an object lesson in how not to rebuild a devastated city.

Solidere turned Beirut into a city of exclusion. Its iconic architecture and tax incentives attracted foreign investment, in turn helping the country’s economic recovery. But more buildings were torn down during reconstruction than were destroyed by the war, transforming Beirut’s war-scarred layers of history from the Roman, Mamluk, Ottoman and French periods into a city without memory.

During the civil war, Beirut was separated by checkpoints between Christian East and Muslim West. Daily movement today is disrupted by what Mona Fawaz, a scholar of urban planning, describes as architectures of security. Soldiers and blast barriers guard the entrances to Solidere’s downtown. The sidewalks outside public buildings are protected by concrete walls and barbed wire, forcing pedestrians onto the road. The areas surrounding politicians’ homes or political party headquarters are blocked by checkpoints. The only public park was, until recently, closed to the public for security reasons. The sentiment that those living here need to create a bubble and live inside the bubble for them not to lose their minds is one often expressed to me, and which I also feel after two years of living in Beirut. These frustrations mean that half of Lebanon’s young and educated emigrate at some point in their lives.

Solidere also symbolizes the extent to which reconstruction has blurred the boundaries between public interest and private profit. The process of postwar rebuilding was especially lucrative for members of government and their business associates, none more so than billionaire Prime MinisterRafiq Hariri, who upon purchasing $125 million of shares in Solidere became the largest shareholder in the very company to which his cabinet awarded the most lucrative reconstruction project. Hariri also owned Lebanon’s largest private construction company, whose director was appointed the head of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, meaning, in the words of architect Hashim Sarkis, that “the agency that the government used to control private development has now reversed its role.”

Lebanon went deeply into debt to finance reconstruction, and with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 149 percent, it is today the world’s third-most-indebted country. The interest payments total more than a third of the government’s annual spending. Yet because politicians and their families control one-third of all banking assets — and because Lebanese banks own around 85 percent of the debt — these payments profit the very political leaders sinking Lebanon deeper into debt.

Lebanon’s reconstruction has preserved the war economies once lining the pockets of militia leaders. During the civil war, the militias established civil administrations to service their sectarian constituencies. In return for taxing the population under their control, they collected garbage, provided water and electricity, managed traffic and maintained roads. Yet the militias also turned war into a strategic resource. From drug-trafficking to pillaging the port to speculating against the Lebanese pound, the militias procured about $1 billion annually, creating personal fortunes for their leaders and perpetuating the civil war.

Postwar reconstruction came without political reconciliation. The former warlords are today Lebanon’s politicians, ministers and heads of government. These include (but are not limited to) Walid Joumblatt, the Druze leader who despite displacing tens of thousands during the war was named minister of the displaced; Nabih Berri, who led Shiite forces and has been speaker of parliament since the civil war’s conclusion; as well as presidential candidates Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun, whose Christian militias battled each other throughout the war. Their inclusion may have persuaded them to lay down their arms, but according to Reinoud Leenders, these politicians are less willing to surrender the economic windfalls from violence and state collapse. Today, they sit in a paralyzed parliament — which has failed to elect a president in more than two years (or pass a budget in over a decade) — where they line their pockets through a system of sectarian patronage.

The pathologies of reconstructed Beirut are laid bare in the deterioration of basic services. Every summer when the faucets run dry, the streets are blocked by tanker trucks delivering water to the plastic cisterns atop apartment buildings. Compared with the average international broadband speed of 22.4 megabits per second, Beirut’s internet crawls along at 3.2 Mbit/s — and only when there is electricity. There are daily blackouts of three hours in Beirut and up to 18 hours in the rest of Lebanon. The government subsidizes the public electricity provider $2 billion annually, totaling 40 percent of the public debt; but with half the bills uncollected and politicians divided over privatization, the World Bank refers to Electricité du Liban as “the Poster Child of Confessionally-Induced Waste in Public Spending that Plagues Public Finances, Businesses, and Households since 1981.”

Everyone must purchase potable water, and those who can afford it pay for a generator, but there is no individual solution to garbage. A private company is responsible for both the collection and disposal of Beirut’s garbage. The council of ministers renewed its contract three times without an open tender and its payment per ton of garbage is one of the highest in the world. So when the landfill, which had long reached its absorptive capacity, was closed last summer and putrid garbage began piling on the streets, the Lebanese people participated in the largest protests since the assassination of Hariri in 2005 and the withdrawal of Syrian occupying troops. They were demanding not simply a solution to the trash crisis but an end to corruption disguised as sectarianism.

As the economic downturn and insecurity of the Syrian war bleed across the border, Lebanese policymakers point to the business opportunities of reconstruction. I spoke with real estate developers who hope to be called upon for rebuilding and commercial bankers who want to reopen their offices in Syria.

But as international donors and development specialists look towards reconstructing Syria, they should heed the lessons from Lebanon. Politically paralyzed, infrastructurally fragile and deeply indebted, Lebanon is a model for what postwar Syria should avoid. A cessation of the hostilities is essential in Syria. Yet reconstruction without dismantling the war economies and political patronage networks perpetuating them means that Syrian reconstruction will resemble Lebanon, in all its division and dysfunction. More than rebuilding, what is required is reorienting the political economy away from war. Lebanon reveals this is especially problematic when the same perpetrators and profiteers of the conflict hold political office in the postwar era.

Julia Tierney is a doctoral candidate at the University of California Berkeley in city and regional planning.

Our Heritage is being raped by SOLIDERE

Two days ago an article in Lebanese French newspaper said “The Roman hippodrome in Beirut engulfed by the promoters: Three of his predecessors had refused to do it, Gaby Layoun, Minister of Culture, has done it. He allowed the decommissioning of the site of the Roman hippodrome in Beirut and its redevelopment into a luxury residential complex …”

If this is not enough, the Lebanese government is about to bury a 2500-year-old Phoenician port in Beirut’s Minet El Hosn region with three towers. The port was discovered recently. It is located behind Hotel Monroe. The discovery of this port last summer was kept in the dark by the SOLIDERE evil tsunami. A tsunami that is destorying anything Phoenician, Roman, …. anything that speaks about Lebanon prior to the Islamic Conquest. The excuse given is development. but this excuse doesn’t work on some Lebanese who are eager to save their history. Many countries developed their cities but saved its heritage. For me, there is nothing that will replace the destruction of a Phoenician port. No excuse can convince me that 3 towers are more important to Lebanon than its history and heritage. The ruins will bring in thousands of tourists every year while the 3 towers will bring  few hundreds tenants from the Gulf region. Why from the gulf? Because you and me (the reader) will not be able to afford to buy an apartment in these towers. Anyway, what kind of Lebanese is willing to live in a tower that destroyed for ever a Phoenician port?

What kind of a company is SOLIDERE that is willing to destroy such a treasure? Isn’t it enough what they destroyed already? How about the first law school in the world that was discovered few years ago and SOLIDERE flooded it with sewer waters and build over it? This is a small crime committed by SOLIDERE to our heritage. They do not only destroy, they do not pay taxes. Even SOLIDERE formation is illegal (Follow this link to read about it http://www.cggl.org/scripts/new.asp?id=862).

Our heritage is under attack and yet only few Lebanese are up to face this attack. Some are busy fighting for their political leaders the battles of Don Quixote, others busy with their plastic surgeries, some with their western prostitutes, many with their clubs, food and arjileh, …. oh and many torturing migrant workers (something I will address soon).

My question is, where are those who used to say we are not Arabs, we are Phoenicians? Where are you today? Working in the Gulf? Collecting money from the Gulf countries and Iran to finance your political parties?

Some are trying, but their move is still in cyberspace. For those interested in keeping informed you can check the Facebook group: Phoenician Port of Beirut: Slipways of the Phoenician Harbor of Beirut, or sign this petition PROTECT THE PHOENICIAN PORT on BEIRUT PLOT 1398!!

Nothing will change if the NGO’s, communities, parties act as one to save our heritage. I’m wondering even our Phoenician heritage is not a common point between those who used to claim we are Phoenicians???

While Israel Seeks to Turn Gas to Gold, Lebanon will turn it to certain pockets.

Israel seeks to turn gas to gold according to the AP story published today. In short Israel is setting a plan for a national investment fund that would tap an anticipated natural gas bonanza to fuel both an export-geared economy and provide a nest egg of $10 billion in under a decade for future generations. Some of the revenues would be invested in strategically critical targets such as education and health. Lebanon will use the revenue from oil excavation primarily to lower public debt according to Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Miqati. Public debt in Lebanon rose to $55 Billion Dollars in 2010. In 1992, Lebanon’s national debt was around 4382 billion Lebanese pounds (around 2.9 billion dollars). Late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri took office and since then the debt kept Mushrooming in alarming rate. By 1997, the net public debt of the gross domestic product (GDP) have  increased more than 100%. There are many reasons for such increase, they are complicated and connected. You had the Syrian regime occupying Lebanon and taking cuts from every deal done in the country. You have the development initiated by Late Prime Minister Hariri. You have corruption on every single level, …..

Developing Lebanon, I should say reconstructing downtown Beirut, and the corruption of the Lebanese political system are the one to blame for the $55 Billion Dollars deficit. If we look at what was called “development” of Lebanon, all we see is new fancy building in downtown Beirut with couple of new bridges. Lebanese still get around 4 hours of electricity per day, no water system, no infrastructure, no sewer systems, no recycling plants, ….. nothing. Just few new buildings and bridges. Oh and by the way, the new buildings are owned by a company called Solidere that was formed by Rafiq Hariri himself through a parliament decree  …. oh well this is another story to talk about.

Add to all that the corruption. Or as Lebanese call it “Shatara” (cunning). If you are not “cunning” in Lebanon they call you stupid. This “cunningness” is at its top level in the Lebanese political system. You see politicians arguing on TV all day and behind the scenes they will be wheeling and dealing with each others and use their “shatara” to fill their bank accounts.

To solve our debt problem, Lebanon needs implement several solutions and modifications. The problem resides in the fact that all these modifications require political and administrative reforms that the political class could not want or not afford to operate in the present situation. Why would they change a system that is making them millionaires (some billionaires).

With gas and oil extraction, they found the solution for the debt, they will use the revenues to pay it off. For sure, they will pocket millions of these revenues. They already setup companies in order to suck all the profits to themselves.

So while Israel is setting up its future generation, Lebanon will be setting up its politicians and their families. They will be doing it twice. The first by paying a debt that they accumulated and stole part of it. the second by allowing them to rip the benefits of the revenues to their own companies.

What will the Lebanese say? He doesn’t care as long as the deputy, the minister, the za3im, the leader, …. hires his son for few hundred dollars per month.