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Why the Worry About Beirut?

Why the Worry About Beirut?

Wednesday, 27 May, 2020 - 08:45

Once what was known as the "reconstruction project” was launched, the Société Libanaise pour le Développement et la Reconstruction de Beyrouth (Solidere) adopted the slogan of “Beirut, the Ancient City of the Future”. Today, the city faces a crisis that is pushing it, very regrettably, towards becoming a city of the past.


For instance, all of the world’s cities are in crisis today: Exorbitant prices are chasing out residents as they work and study from home, which will facilitate doing away with offices after the pandemic. After over-crowding, the retrenchment of public services, and the excessive centralization in capitals, the latest virus came to strike some of the hallmarks of city-life: Restaurants, cafes, hotels, theaters, museums, cinemas and children's playgrounds. Thus, it is likely that returning to the countryside will become more prevalent and that those who hate cities will equivocate this to returning to God.


In Beirut, these crises are a thousandfold worse, because these hallmarks are not supplementary to the city. They are the city: this is how it was made by the sea, trade and services. It is enough to merely envisage Beirut without a university, bank, hospital, hotel, restaurant, newspaper, and publishing house, and without the Arab and foreign visitors ...


Today, the angel of death is laying its eyes on these hallmarks, one after the other.


Coronavirus, bankruptcy, and the fracturing legitimacy of the regime, and before all of them, Hezbollah's rifles that expel money and people, came together to accomplish the mission. The Israeli invasion of 1982 was a major juncture in this long, complex march. However, the juncture that would have the most influence in the longer term was how the invasion was fought. The city was desecrated in the 1980s, and its armed suburb, because it was armed, became more important than the city itself. Since then, the rifle has been prevailing over universities, banks, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, and newspapers, and with them, the Arab and foreign visitors.


This does not mean that the Lebanese political and economic structure was sound, but it had foundations that could be built upon: a parliament and elections, a decent industrial sector (food and textiles, shoes, publishing and printing ...), universities and newspapers etc. ... and most importantly: a strong relationship with the outside world.


Beirut's history only says this. In the 1840s, it had a population of eight thousand. However, the increased importance of coastal areas, because of the developments in trade, added to the city’s weight. European manufactured goods began, due to the industrial revolution, to invade the Ottoman Empire’s markets, and the Ibrahim Pasha's Syria campaign (1832-40) began connecting the region with the world.


By 1848, the population had increased to 15,000. On this path of ascension, even wars could yield benefits. The sectarian wars of the mountain pushed many Christians to move to Beirut. In 1888, during the Mutasarrifiyya period, Beirut was made the capital of a Wilayet (province of the Ottoman Empire) that included the entire Syrian coast, including Palestine. By the end of the century, the population had risen to 120,000. In those days, European and American, Catholic and Protestant, missionary missions were flourishing. Among the fruits of this process were the American University (1866) and the Jesuit University (1881). The printing press that multiplied because of the universities and schools revolutionized publishing and its industry. A written press emerged. Intellectuals emerged as well, and they brought calls for renaissance and cultural revival along with them.


The authorities of the French Mandate created Greater Lebanon and made Beirut its capital in 1920. The Lebanese Republic was proclaimed in 1926. Accelerating economic growth expanded and Beirut multiplied its prosperity, but, at the same time, political and sectarian tension were also growing: The 1948 Nakba and the subsequent rise of Nasserism, and the ever-present quibbles between sects over the distribution of the shares of power. These time bombs detonated their small explosion in 1958 and then their largest explosion in 1975, taking advantage of the presence of armed Palestinian groups and the arms that were taken up to confront it. The invasion of Israel in 1982 ended one era and ushered in another.


But between 1952 and 1975, and except the short interruption in 1958, political stability and openness to both the West and the Arabs turned Beirut into what it would become: a regional, educational, and cultural center, attractive to capital... the flexibility of the banking system and the free zone in the port were complemented by good educational institutions that produced the cadre needed to manage the capitalist economy. Its relatively extensive liberties turned the city into a single lung in the region's tight chest. The freedom enjoyed by Lebanon's media did not suit neighboring military regimes: Nassib al-Matni was assassinated in 1958, Kamel Mroue in 1966. Michel Abu Jawdeh was kidnapped and taken to Syria in 1973. This kind of behavior became custom later on with the Pax Syriana: Salim Lawzi, Samir Kassir, Gebran Tueni...


The religious sects and their alliances with foreign powers were eating away at this structure... Nevertheless, the War of 75 did not bring the economy to a total halt. Lebanese agricultural and manufactured goods continued to meet national and Arab market demand, and the media and publishing remained. Even the tourism industry could make us of opportunities granted by the periods of calm between battles and wars.


Hariri’s reconstruction rebuilt some of what the militants had destroyed, but it built it at a heavy cost, leaving the country with huge debts, and it expanded the gaps between classes, regions, and the size of the different economic sectors. However, the most damaging factor was the regional peace project’s failure to take off. The same regional factor that hampered the peace project that began with Oslo Accords in 1993 would go on to claim the life of the man behind reconstruction and a few of his companions after a decade later.


Many details must be referred to better illustrate the image and deal with its complexities, which, however, cannot be addressed in this haste. Other factors must be addressed to avoid simplification, but the most important and most prominent factor for the collapse is nonetheless the alliance between the effects of sectarianism and the radical orientations that have a hatred of the West and the outside world. This alliance, which still rules over us, planted the largest of the daggers in Beirut’s chest, and it could make it a city of the past once again.


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