Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Battle for Public Spaces, Freedoms in Lebanon Continues

As public spaces projects have never been considered a priority by politicians, it is unsurprising that the current political class seeks to further suppress freedoms in both public and virtual spaces.

public spaces in Lebanon
Alternative Press Syndicate gather in front of the Palace of Justice in Beirut to protest violations against freedom of the press. Source: Facebook/NakabaBadila

Dana Hourany

The Mar Mikhael area in Central Beirut has recently seen a flurry of development on the streets. The Mar Mikhael Piazza Project, an urban initiative aiming to rejuvenate the bustling area, is primarily responsible for this. Under the direction of the Beirut Urban Lab (BUL), which is situated at the American University of Beirut, the project was started by the late Lebanese architect Habib Debs and designed in collaboration with Francis Landscapes.

This effort aims to provide green outdoor spaces for leisure, enhanced walkability, and relaxation in a city that is deficient in them.

Public spaces in Lebanon where individuals can unwind, mingle, and exchange ideas are few and far between. As these projects have never been considered a priority by politicians, it is unsurprising that the current political class seeks to further suppress freedoms in both public and virtual spaces. Recently, this has been evident in the summons and crackdowns on journalists and activists alike.

According to experts, the situation appears to be worsening as freedoms are increasingly at risk, with no indication of change in sight.

However, in an effort to bring the people of Beirut together amidst sectarian and political divisions and constant economic and political turmoil, Mar Mikhael Piazza has become a beacon of hope.

What is the project about?

Lebanese architect and urbanist Habib Debs was a hugely influential force in Lebanon’s urban design, planning, and heritage. He contributed to projects from Tyre and Tripoli to Damascus, Benghazi, New Cairo and Mecca – with his greatest local achievement being his part in Beirut’s ‘Plan Vert’. Now, BUL is taking this one step further with their ‘Piazza’ project; breathing life into Debs’ vision by encouraging walkability within Beirut while creating an array of green public spaces for its citizens.

With August 4th’s explosion leaving parts of Mar Mikhael severely damaged, BUL is determined to promote people-centered designs over vehicular access with this “sudden disruption,” Mona Fawaz, co-founder of BUL and professor of Urban Design at AUB, told Fanack. They hope Piazza can be used as a pilot before being implemented throughout other streets in Lebanon.

“Implementing our plan came with its share of difficulties, from having to deal with bureaucratic processes that prolonged progress, to being required to secure more funds as expenses steadily increased with inflation,” she added.

BUL has crafted a vision to improve the streetscape with street lights, benches, greening work and even an upgrade of its drainage system. With these changes in place, this multi-functional area will be suitable for many social activities. In addition, roads will be narrowed to replace street parking while sidewalks are widened so that citizens can enjoy a better walking experience.

Fawaz says that the project unveils a new beginning for this area and establishes it as a pedestrian-friendly zone connected to an upcoming network called Masar Al-Akhdar (The Green Spine).

The latter is based on Debs’ alternative proposal for the Fouad Boutros Highway, which runs from Charles Malek Avenue to Mar Mikhael, and aims to transform that designated spot into a lush green axis.

Social and environmental impact

The reason similar projects are absent from Lebanese cities and towns is due to post-civil war (1975-1990) planning regulations that have neglected to consider public spaces as part of their policies, Beirut-based nonprofit research and advocacy organization, The Legal Agenda explained. This was influenced by soaring property prices which have caused a surge in development and speculation within the real estate market, ignoring the need for communal hubs and open areas in urban layouts.

As neoliberal policies took hold of the economy, private entities sought to dominate and manipulate public spaces. Thus, places for people to congregate in cities have increasingly become commercialized areas, such as restaurants, malls and resorts.

Fawaz asserts that the BUL team saw that people were honest about their worries and apprehensions during their interviews before the project’s commencement; this experience, according to Fawaz, is a first and desperately needed one in the nation.

“We’re finally having an open discussion about how we will accomplish this and what type of space we want,” she said, adding, “this will be the first time in Beirut that we are sharing a public area of this kind. Naturally, questions were raised regarding who would maintain the parking, plants, roadways, and collective.”

Since individuals will be able to mingle and communicate with one another free of the consumerist limitations of malls that restrict the potential of human relationships, the BUL team believes that such public spaces will foster a sense of belonging and enable communities to move forward. The interactions would be more varied and not just focused on the needs of shop owners, according to Fawaz.

“In this economic development model, distributed spaces, a network of open areas, and what kind of economy you desire—whether you want a large mall with no people talking to one another or an approachable street where people can converse with one another about various topics of mutual interest—are in focus.”

The project is expected to be completed in July 2023.

The crackdown on virtual spaces

In addition to the physical realm, online spaces, where people in Lebanon express their frustrations and organize movements, are becoming limited.

In a region of authoritarian governments, Lebanon has upheld its reputation as an advocate for free speech by rarely imprisoning journalists, according to Human Rights Watch. In recent years, however, while few cases have made it to court, security forces have questioned numerous individuals for extended periods for criticizing and opposing the ruling class. They also continue to summon journalists for “out of line” articles and investigative pieces.

The most recent summons were issued to journalists Lara Bitar, editor-in-chief of the investigative journalism platform, The Public Source, and Jean Kassir, co-founder of Megaphone News. Bitar’s was prompted by a complaint by the Lebanese Forces (LF) surrounding an investigative piece detailing the party’s alleged role in facilitating imports of toxic waste to Lebanon.

Kassir, on the other hand, was summoned for a post titled, “Lebanon governed by officials wanted by justice,” which was published back on March 1st and contained mention of Ghassan Oueidat, the Attorney General, and Cassation Court authority.

The actions triggered public uproar and demonstrations in support of journalists and freedom of the press, which is constantly under threat in the crisis-ridden country. Even though Oueidat eventually withdrew the charges against Kassir and Bitar’s case was transferred to the court of publications, experts suggest that this could be the beginning of more stringent rules against journalists by politicians.

“It seems that the political class, alongside the security forces and the judiciary, have abandoned any attempt to mask their carelessness in dealing with dissent, and the Lebanese Forces are a good example,” Wadih Al-Asmar, president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights told Fanack.

“After claiming to oppose the government and anti-establishment sentiment, they ended up exhibiting similar behavior when faced with information that tainted their image,” he added, in reference to the Lebanese Forces.

Protecting freedoms

Crackdowns on journalists and activists are becoming more widespread in the MENA region; Egypt and Tunisia are two other examples. However, each nation’s situation is still distinctive in that while Tunisian President Kais Saied increasingly adopts an authoritarian style of governance by imprisoning and silencing activists and journalists, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has no intention of allowing for dissent despite the ongoing national dialogue with secular opposition parties.

Though the future of freedoms in the MENA region at large seems bleak, Al-Asmar says it is difficult to forecast how the situation in Lebanon will unfold.

“The charges were dropped against Megaphone, and the situation seems to be de-escalating,” he noted. “However, there is no guarantee that the ruling class won’t keep repeating this same pattern.”

Since mainstream media in Lebanon is mostly politicized and presents biased and sometimes false or incomplete information, the need for independent news outlets only increases, Al-Asmar points out.

“Such media would provide people with alternative perspectives and ensure that nothing vital is hidden from them, while also providing a counter-narrative to popular discourses that may have a negative impact on the masses,” he said.

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