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Youth Citizenship in Divided Societies

Horsh Beirut and the Dalieh Campaign:

Campaigns to re-define rights and re-claim breathing space

For years now, activists and NGOs have campaigned for the re-opening of the Horsh al-Sanawbar, Beirut’s Pine Forest and the largest green space. The Horsh--at the centre of this sprawling city, but at the margins of people’s geographies--has been raised as a central issue by activists, many of them youth, campaigning for greater access to public space. The Municipality’s decision to keep it closed since its restoration in 1995 (except to foreigners and permit holders) was exposed for its absurdity, but also for its complexity. Indeed, this is not only a precious bit of green, it is also a space that lies along the old demarcation line and illustrates an ambiguous relationship to public space overshadowed by security concerns. However, since 2010, the campaign for the re-opening of the Horsh has gained more publicity and--in the context of dwindling empty lots, rising density, congestion and the spectre of further restriction of public access to open spaces (Dalieh and Ramlet el Baida)--the Horsh has become part of a larger set of concerns carried by a coalition of NGOs. “Public space is now in the public eye,” said the member of a youth-led NGO advocating for the re-opening of the Horsh. “Before it was the environment or heritage but now it is public space”.

“With Dalieh, they went too far”, said an activist to explain why the project for a private resort on this 112.000 square metres of Beirut’s seashore is attracting wider public interest. This rocky peninsula just next to one of the country’s landmarks, Sakhret al-Raouche, still offers access to the sea, which is a rare sight on the Lebanese capital’s shoreline. The Civil Campaign to Protect the Dalieh of Raouche describes it as an “open access shared space” because despite its public usage the site is for the most part privately owned. However, until the mid 2000s ownership was distributed among numerous families and until 1989, construction on this portion of the seafront had been restricted. In 1989, a decree that was never made public changed the legal status of the site in order to enable construction and over the next 15 years a single owner gathered most of the plots constituting Dalieh.

Sakhret al-Raouche, off the Western coast of Beirut.

Sakhret al-Raouche, off the Western coast of Beirut.

When last spring the current owners raised a fence to restrict access to the area, the news of the construction of a private resort on the site made the headlines. Now, the campaign to protect Dalieh, which gathers young and established activists, architects, environmentalists, academics and practitioners, has been exemplary in its tactical approach, persistence and achievements. The experience acquired through this campaign may even now serve to support similar campaigns in other parts of the country. By highlighting Dalieh’s place as a site containing people’s memories, strolls, annual celebrations, archaeology, breathing space, and rarified access to the sea, the Civil Campaign seeks to restore the public’s entitlement to this valuable piece of coast. In doing so, it is also re-defining public space and the public in Lebanon.

The struggles for Dalieh and the Horsh articulate an urban citizenship and right to the city around the environment, popular memory and leisure. As Khaled, a youth activist said:

“There is a correlation between citizenship and public space. With Dalieh, they are finally seeing it for what it is. It’s not just an appropriation of land, they’re taking away whatever is in common, whatever we have in common and it’s not just about a land we have in common. This is a right. Anybody who says that it’s not the case, arguing that 'it’s better is if it is private. It is better because it is going to be nicer.' They bought the whole commercial side of things where one can say that 'look it’s shiny, but you don’t have a right to it anymore.' A difference would have been created. By removing this common place, you’ve created a difference, you’ve created divisions. In this way, it is completely linked to the situation of citizenship.”

Activism around public space has entered a new phase, but not necessarily because public space is more important but because it crystallises a number of other concerns: the rapid private-led development of the city, the cost of living, striking inequalities and crumbling public services (electricity and water, in particular). In this context, the Dalieh campaign has shifted the agenda, avoiding the traps of political polarisation and starting to form a public around a particular issue. More than making space available for the public, Dalieh and the Horsh campaigns are sites through which a public is formed and that works as a prism through which a number of other issues are addressed and raised.

 

Horsch

Public acts: activists in Horsh Beirut.

What Dalieh represents is a different approach to space-making which does not see the state as the sole guarantor of public interest, nor state symbols and urban centres as the only source of political capital for contestation. Maybe out of a situation of last resort, the Dalieh campaign demonstrates a relationship to the city and citizenship which does not validate the power of the “state” nor the immutability of private property. In doing so, it challenges both liberal and republican definitions of citizenship. It challenges what are deemed legitimate demands in a neoliberal economy that sacralises private property and a republican citizenship that expects the State to be the main guarantor of public interest. They may not bring doing the sectarian system but they will create some necessary breathing space within it.

Konstantin Kastrissianakis - Beirut, Lebanon

27 April 2015

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