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City profile

1. Uniqueness of the city

Beirut is not just Lebanon’s seat of government and the country’s economic heart it is also the ground for and the symbol of Lebanon’s multi-confessional character. For better of for worse, this port city became the nation’s capital city, gathering communities which represent almost all of Lebanon’s 18 confessional groups. In differing numbers and to different extents these communities have been integrated into a city of over 2 million residents – representing almost half of the country’s population – knitting and tearing its fabric apart. As such, Beirut is more than the centre of power for the disparate Lebanese groups to control; it is the space where coexistence is tested, negotiated and reconfigured and where every Lebanese experiences his national self. Maronites, Palestinians, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze and Greek Orthodox were the civil war’s main contenders who, at different times between 1975 and 1990, fought and allied with each other, seeking support from foreign powers such as the US, the USSR, Israel, Syria, Iran, France, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. This network of relations between Lebanese confessional groups and with competing foreign powers is in constant flux and produces a very unstable country set against the backdrop of an extremely volatile region. Sitting on the East West rift, Beirut forces proximity upon the disparate groups, nurturing the Arab and Western imaginary with an iconography ranging from cultural effervescence and tourism to extreme violence and chaos. While it has been the stage and the stake of some of the most brutal fighting, it has also been the ground where the resilience of the Lebanese identity is played out.

2. Origins as an ethno/nationally/religious divided city in its imperialist/nationalist contexts

Since the 1830s, Beirut has undergone a number of phases of dramatic changes in which imperial and colonialist powers played a great part. The late Ottoman period, following a 10 year interlude of Egyptian occupation that ended in 1840, was characterised by a series of reforms that set the basis for Lebanon’s culture of sectarianism and turned Beirut into an economic and administrative centre of the newly carved Province of Beirut, which included the ranges of Mount Lebanon and Beirut. At the same time, Orientalist writings by French and British missionaries and travellers portrayed a society in flux; drawing particular attention to what they saw as the plight of Oriental Christians and motivating French and British investment in the city and region. By the time the French took over from the Ottomans, they had already built a railway network, enlarged the port and taken steps towards forming a Christian elite through education and investments. Thus, when in September 1920, General Gouraud proclaimed the establishment of the State of Greater Lebanon under French Mandate along the present national borders, he was also ensuring that Lebanon would have a Christian majority and favoured a Christian Maronite leadership with its version of Lebanese nationalism turned towards the West. Five years after the Lebanese were granted independence in 1943, the formation of the State of Israel, sparked an influx of Palestinian refugees and subsequently the arrival of the PLO (1970), bringing immense pressure on this small country, through the polarisation of Maronites and Sunnis over the Palestinian cause being fought from Lebanese soil and highlighting the split between Maronite Libanism and the then thriving Pan-Arabism defended by Muslims. The 15 year long civil war that ensued, pitted opposing Lebanese and Palestinian groups and, through them, their foreign patrons.

3.  Internal structuring of the city itself.

Ottoman Beirut
Growing out of the shadow of Damascus and Accra, Beirut became a prominent economic centre. As a provincial capital of the imperial administration, it saw an important landward development and by 1888, a significant expansion of its harbour. The rapid growth of the Maronite population brought about by violent clashes in the Mountain in 1860 between Maronites and Druze pushed the city out of its medieval walls. The first inhabitants of the Southern periphery were made up of rich, educated Sunni and Christian Orthodox Beirutis, who sought to escape the stifling density of the Ottoman urban fabric. The eastern hills of Achrafyieh, which in 1881 saw the building of the Université Saint Joseph, gathered Maronites and Armenian refugees who came to form with the existing Orthodox community, a largely Christian neighbourhood, following communitarian reflexes. Westward, the establishment in 1866 of the Syrian Protestant College by American missionaries, today’s American University of Beirut, would slowly pull the city and the intellectual elite into sparse, mixed neighbourhoods beyond the newly built army barracks. As the city grew, the old city centre which symbolised Lebanon’s then cultural effervescence, underwent a number of infrastructural changes, preparing the ground for French urban incisions and grand architectural gestures.

French Mandate 1920-1943
While the tight fabric of Beirut inspired the Orientalist fantasies of some, it also became what the modernist agenda of the French Mandate saw as a sinister condition to be overturned. This period witnessed some of the most dramatic interventions on Beirut’s organisation: the restructuring of the city centre along Haussmannian models and a deep connection between the harbour and the hinterland through Damascus Street, the future Green Line. Whereas the Ottomans gave much attention to the city’s landward development, the French, on the other hand, made its harbour the centrepiece of their Levantine colonial enterprise. During the French mandate, Beirut became the commercial, military and communication relay of the colonial administration and the capital of the nascent state.

Independent Lebanon
Shortly before independence (1943) Beirut had completed the elements whose presence and later redefinition would structure much of the capital’s spatial development radio-concentrically. The ellipsoidal shape the city had acquired at the turn of the century through its East-West expansion along the water was replaced by a southward sprawl turning its back on the sea, consolidating the suburbs with the centre and annexing surrounding villages. As migration inflated the city, Martyrs Square and Damascus Street would become territorial markers of homogenous neighbourhoods, between a Christian East Beirut and largely Muslim West Beirut. By the late 1960s, Hamra, in West Beirut, would become the cultural and commercial centre for an educated and mixed bourgeoisie that would characterise Beirut’s cosmopolitan aura, at the city centre’s expense. The southern suburbs of Beirut absorbed part of the large influx of Palestinians, whose tent camps would gradually turn into dense, segregated neighbourhoods of haphazard concrete constructions. These were joined in the 50s and 60s by a growing Shiite rural-urban migration, drawn by the city’s economic boom and escaping an agricultural crisis and fighting between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in the South. Marginalised from the centre and out of any municipal control, the Shiite neighbourhoods grew into large introverted zones of informal construction with the only pieces of infrastructure being the main roads to the South and the airport, surrounding the area.

The 1975-1990 Civil War
As part of the Demarcation Line, Beirut’s city centre ceased to be a functional city centre within the first two years of fighting as businesses and ministries were looted, tall buildings were transformed into military positions and the civilian population was forced out. The sectarian division in Beirut rapidly increased as residents in formerly mixed neighbourhoods moved to the ‘appropriate’ side of the Green Line. As this tendency was consolidated, so was the terminology of East and West Beirut, with Damascus Street as central axis, turning it into a central vacuum triggering Lebanon’s nuclear fission. In this process, on both sides similar patterns of new replacement locations were found for businesses. Banking branches opened on both sides of the city; shopping malls were built on agricultural land; new offices were built in sleepy villages on the outskirts of the city. Elsewhere, notably in Beirut itself, residential buildings were converted into offices, ground floor apartments became shops, individual houses or first-floor apartments became militia headquarters. Spaces within which people circulated and interacted shrunk still further. Consequently, territorial and confessional identities, more so perhaps than at any other time, were beginning to converge.

4.  Recent/contemporary nature and stage of the ethno-national conflict.

As the most traumatic page of Lebanese history, the civil war has cast a shadow over Lebanese collective memory. The period that followed the signing of the Taif Accords which ended the war in October 1989 was one of a push forward, fuelling economic development and the making of Lebanon and Beirut into major tourist destinations. It was also a period dominated, on the one hand, by self-made tycoon Rafiq Hariri and Hezbollah’s rise to political prominence on the other. Hariri was seen by some as the Prime Minister who rebuilt the country and by others as having turned Beirut’s city centre into an exclusive development, acquiring more land and wealth at the expense of growing socioeconomic disparities and a soaring national debt. During this same period, Hezbollah, with Iranian and Syrian support fought successfully the Israeli occupation of the South and established military control and a network of health and educational institutions throughout the South, the Bekaa Valley and the Southern suburbs of Beirut.
The assassination of Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005 gave rise to massive demonstrations against Syria, which was largely blamed for the assassination. On the 8th of March, a counter demonstration lead by Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian groups gathering over a million people on one of the city centre’s main squares voiced support for Syria and condemned the anti-Syrian movement.  On the 14th, the mass rally demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops and an end to impunity brought together a pro-Western coalition of Sunni, Christian and Druze leaders, called the March 14 coalition.  On April 26th, under international pressure, Syrian troops withdrew and thus started a period of great instability, with the assassination of prominent political and intellectual figures and growing polarisation between the two movements. Martyrs Square became for both sides the centre of this contestation which was, in fact, larger than Lebanon and involved power struggles and competition between Syria and Iran on the one hand and the US, France, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, on the other.
However, Lebanon saw some of its most violent years since the Syrian pullout. The 33 day war between Hezbollah and Israel in July 2006 would kill over 1500, mostly civilian, Lebanese and bring to the ground many villages in South Lebanon and much of Dahiyah, the southern suburbs of Beirut inhabited mostly by Shiites and a Hezbollah stronghold.  Moreover, tensions between March 14, the government in place since June 2005, and March 8, joined by the popular Christian former general Michel Aoun, reached a turning point when Hezbollah lead militias into West Beirut following the shut down of its communication network by the government. 81 people lost their lives as Beirut saw the worst clashes between Lebanese factions since the civil war. 

5.  Prospects/expectations/scenarios for the future

The current fragmentation of the city characterised by the enclaves around the residences of political leaders and the pervasive presence of militias and watchmen in the different quarters and the absence of any space transcending the communitarian realm augur more difficult times ahead. Beirut and Lebanon are going through a period of great uncertainty over the future. Even as March 14 has secured its electoral win over March 8, election results have not resolved any of the issues that make up the power struggle. US moves to re-establish links with Syria and start talks with Iran, peace talks between Syria and Israel and the prospect of a détente between Saudi Arabia and Syria, the International Tribunal for Lebanon investigating Rafiq Hariri’s assassination, all have a direct impact on speculation about Lebanon’s future.
Beirut, however, is at the core of the redefinition of Lebanese nationhood and sovereignty, with the current positioning of Hezbollah’s undeniable power in a very sectarian environment being one of the main concerns. The residents of Beirut may be forced to accommodate Shiite demands for a greater role in government, yet at the same time there is a deeper recognition that peaceful Lebanese coexistence must be based upon a delicate and dynamic form of power-sharing.

6. References

Hanssen, J. (2005). Fin de siècle Beirut : the making of an Ottoman provincial capital. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Harik, I. (2003) ‘Toward a New Perspective on Secularism in Multicultural Societies’, in T. Hanf and N. Salam (eds.) Lebanon in Limbo: Postwar Society and State in an

Uncertain Regional Environment, Baden-Baden: Nomos. Verglagsgesellschaft.

Kabbani, O R 1998 Public Space as Infrastructure: The Case of the Postwar Reconstruction of Beirut, in Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City. NY: Prestel-Verlag. 

Kassir, S. (2003). Histoire de Beyrouth. [Paris], Fayard.

Khalaf, S 2006 Heart of Beirut: Reclaiming the Bourj, London: Saqi Books. 

Makdisi, U. S. (2000). The culture of sectarianism: community, history, and violence in nineteenth-century Ottoman Lebanon. Berkeley, Calif., University of California Press.