First we meet Rajwa, a Lebanon-based activist and member of the Mashaa movement. Her campaign began with something as simple as a trip to the beach, but ended with her taking action against the co-option of public spaces by private interests in post-conflict Beirut. She used tools including Google Earth to map out not only the city's seashore, but the political-corporate interests keeping the public at the gates.
I'm Rajwa from Beirut, Lebanon. My work focuses on public spaces, mainly, with a group called Mashaa, which is an activist movement made up of many different people trying to reclaim and free occupied public spaces such as seashores, rivers and gardens.
Mashaa was created in September 2012, after a very hot, sticky summer. We are mainly journalists, economists, activists, citizens, web-developers, graphic designers and illustrators. We were discussing what to do about the coast of Lebanon and the fact that we had lost access to so many beaches that were formerly public or free, as the entire seashore was becoming occupied by a variety of illegal building projects. We started thinking about what we could do about that, and planning for what we called our end-of-summer party.
Mashaa in Arabic means ‘commons’ in English, meaning anything that you cannot appropriate for yourself. So it means something that no one can own. The point was to promote the idea that we all, as citizens, have rights and access to property that belongs to the people, that it cannot be privatised or built on, or anything of the sort. The idea was also to promote this way of thinking, of being against the appropriation of public property by businesses or corporations.
During the summer of 2012 there were a lot of small initiatives, such as artistic performances on the subject of public spaces, including the 'Beirut Forest Festival' by the NGO Nahnoo, that launched a petition to reopen the biggest public garden and pine forest in Beirut, which has been closed to the public for many years. There was also a group called Dictaphone-Group, which created a performance called The Sea is Mine, explaining the history of the sea-coast in Beirut. We thought it was positive that people were thinking about these issues, and that there were NGOs working on the legal side. Our own thinking was more political, so we wanted to work out how we could be more effective on the ground. From the beginning Mashaa was conceived as a group of activists that would undertake direct action on the sea coast, to prevent any kind of further occupation of the seashore, and to see how we could regain our public spaces.
First it was important to demonstrate that these places, which are supposed to be looked after by the state, taken care of and open to the public, are actually being used for something else. That this is not the way it's supposed to be because these places belong to all of us. It's about bringing the power to change things back to the people, trying to make it possible for them to take back the property that should belong to the people and be passed on to future generations.
We started like that and then we tried to understand the laws around these issues better. Not only the main law that states clearly that everyone has free access to the seashore and that the seashore should remain as one integral entity – so if you're in the north, you should be able to walk along the shore right down to the south without facing any obstacles. An 'obstacle' could mean a gate, a wall, a security checkpoint, anything that stops people from passing freely. We started thinking - “let's do something” - and wondering what exactly to do. With experience, we got to the point where we better understood how things function, what to do in case the security people show up. And we have to talk to in case one of us is taken away etc.
We did a lot of research when we started, and we came to understand that this phenomenon of closing formerly open spaces has been happening for a very, very long time. During the Lebanese Civil War there were literally no laws and just chaos, as in any war. There were a lot of people trying to build, or actually building, on the sea coast: resorts, houses, factories etc. These things have carried on, and in a way this has become the new normal - “This is how it is – what are you going to do about it? Knock the buildings down? Blow them up? They’re concrete buildings and they’re already there.” We have to face this status quo.
The existing laws go completely in the opposite direction. They do protect the seashore. For example there was a decree published in 1983 during the Civil War, which states that any kind of illegal building on the seashore, whether it’s occupied or vacant, has to be knocked down by its owner, who will also pay what it costs to knock it down (for the materials and the rental of all necessary machinery). The owner is also liable for a prison sentence of three months up to three years, as is anybody who was involved in the illegal construction, or who helped facilitate it in any way. On paper the laws are really strict on these points, but somehow in Lebanon the rules are not applied. We started to understand that the laws are already on our side and that we don't want to advocate for a new law but simply to have the existing law, which is already very good, applied. The law defining and protecting public spaces dates from 1923, if I remember it correctly – it's really old, and it’s a French law. Since then there have only been small changes to it here and there. We’ve been running on the strength of that law.
It started with me wanting to go to the beach and trying to find a place that would be free of charge. I remembered going often to such beaches from when I was a kid. It had been great for me to be able to go to these places without needing any money or special privilege. When I tried to find them again, they were all already occupied by all sorts of big resorts. I tried to get in anyway. At the door, the security people stopped me and said - “hey, where do you think you're going? You have to pay a fee to get in”. I was with my teacher and we said - “we're not going to pay, because we used to come here freely and this is our land”. We handed them a print-out of the relevant law that we had brought with us. They said - “we don't care about your laws, we're not going to let you in. This is a private place and it has pools and things, so if you want access to it, you have to pay.” We insisted that we wanted to go in, and we forced our way in. It was actually the first time in my life that someone lifted me up from the floor, and I was thrown out. Since then the big question for me has been - how can I actually just go to the beach? It grew into a big source of frustration, I was not going to the beach very much anymore.
Eventually, that summer I was talking to friends and people I worked with as an activist, and we concluded that prices were really rising. It was twenty dollars before, and now it's fourty dollars just to enter the beach and get space – a chair or maybe an umbrella or something. We asked each other - "don't you want to do something about it? Like rent a big bus, organise tours? We could talk to fishermen and ask them to take us with their boats, and post on Facebook and ask people to join us? If we're 50 people, and we go to one beach, are they really going to kick us all out, or have such a huge and humiliating fight at the door? Or are they going to accept the fact that we have access to these places, as long as we don't use their chairs but sit on the sand that belongs to us?”
We spent months researching the laws, but also trying to understand what we can legally do. It helps us to understand the existing system that allows companies to get hold of public land and build on it in certain circumstances, which they call an 'exception to the law'. At the beginning we didn’t have a clear idea of what we wanted to do, apart from explaining the law to people. We didn't think people were really aware of it - we wondered why, if everybody knew that the beaches are free, they would accept having to pay a significant amount of money to access them? Why was I feeling that I was the only one actually having a fight at the door? It took a bit more research to understand who actually occupies the seashore.
At this point we knew that we were in a bit of a trouble. At the same time, we managed to find a document from the army containing surveys of the whole coast, scanning all the buildings and building projects that occupied the seashore. We also heard that a scan was being carried out by the Ministry of Infrastructure, because they were planning a law to fine occupiers and they needed to have data. They needed to calculate fines, so they had to know how much space each occupier had, whether they were there illegally, whether they were breaking any laws and so on. We waited for them to finalise the reports, and then got somebody from inside to get them for us. In this way, we found out the real names of the occupiers, and found the proof that we were looking for. After that, when we found images of building work that encroached on the coast, we tried to identify the name of the person responsible, the area covered, the size of the land, what it is used for and so on. Our work became more about that side of things, because we had data. We had had our own way of doing things before then, which was more intuitive. It was time to put the two ways of working together. At that point, we started really gaining credibility on Facebook. We were being called by the media all the time, to talk about public spaces and their co-option by private interests, because we had the data to back up what we said, naming who owned what.The fact that we were exposing these truths was creating problems for people, and we got some unpleasant phone calls. They did try to stop us many times. But there is also a weird attitude that prevails in Lebanon - all of these things are generally known, but
If we hadn't found this data, our group would have gone nowhere, because it was obvious that there were a lot of things we needed to know and we had no access to the necessary information. We had access to the content of the existing laws, but not to other kinds of data, and we needed a lot of people on the ground to go and physically find these things out for us. We grew from being a group of people that could invade a place, saying - “this is ours” - making a fuss and maybe going to jail, to being a group that is exploring what we can do now that we actually have valuable information. There’s a big difference.We became slightly obsessed with the research and lost contact with the grass roots a bit. We had started in an almost naive way - “if we go there, and we're 50 people, it's going to work and we're going to get in”. Later this became - “let’s really understand what we're getting into”. It’s not simple. It’s been going on for twenty years and it's functional. How do you break this thing, and what is it actually built on? Our research became more about trying to understand how the whole Lebanese system functions. We're talking about a state, and therefore a bigger scale than just public spaces. Our research could be applied to many other subjects. This took us to another level. Which was what our collective expected from the beginning, and it's really turning out to be very political. Right now we're trying to build a
We want to expose everything that we find, and we are discovering a lot of things on the way that we weren't expecting. You can find weird connections behind the companies that have access to these public spaces, and when you follow the connections, you can start getting an idea of who is behind all of this. Who's making the money? If you want to build something illegal on the seashore, you have to have a connection somewhere in the government to get permission. Most of these cases that we followed, for example, had a recurrent connection behind them, which was the Ministry of Infrastructure. But even behind that were a lot of other things.
When we obtained leaked data from the government with information about all the occupiers, we realised that a lot of the owners were women. I think that many male owners put their properties in the names of their wives, so that they themselves can stay hidden. We also know that there are a lot of foreigners, mainly Saudis, Kuwaitis and people from other surrounding countries, who own shares in these properties, or who own properties themselves; this is illegal. These people hide behind Lebanese names, but they are the main share holders. It's a great way of , for example.
When we started talking about these kinds of evidence, which are not linked to our main campaign, people generally didn't get involved in this conversation. But this led us to many other topics, so we used a lot of local media to distribute the information we’d discovered. We leaked things to journalists who were writing on related subjects, who often asked us for help with evidence and data, through our Facebook page or by personal contact.
For me, I think the hardest part is to work out the connections between people, because we generally do have a lot of access to information here in Lebanon. This kind of data is not held very securely, a lot of things are easily exposed and if you have connections, then you can find out anything you want. What’s more, if you have money (which we don't use), you can basically get anything you want. We had to work out the connections, because the information on its own will not give you those links. The hidden part is behind the data: “Okay, you want to know about this person, fine. You know that this person belongs to this party and that he owns this and this and you know all of these things.” This just states the obvious, but it gives you some hints about what you can look for, and where. When you look you eventually get to the second step, which is making the links between this person and other people and groups. This is the interesting part. It's like a puzzle - you just have to put the pieces together.
After months of research, we started planning in August for an end-of-summer Party that was intended to get all the NGOs, activists and people interested in the cause together. We would share the conclusions of the research that we had done. We did an open call for to draw, illustrate and animate work based on our data or research. In one month we managed to create a big event that around 500 people attended. We were under a lot of pressure, because we chose to hold the event in the middle of downtown Beirut, which is a big issue because of Solidere, a company owned by former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was killed in 2005 during a big car bombing.
To cut a long story short, at the end of the Civil War and towards the end of the 1990s there was a period known in promotional terms as the 'Reconstruction of Beirut'. Since the government didn’t have the money to help people rebuild their houses, shops or businesses, a company by the name of Solidere was created and granted the right to plan and build everything. This company was owned by the man who would later become Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri. Hariri was a Lebanese millionaire who made money in Saudi Arabia during the war, and was granted Saudi citizenship in 1978 because of his close relation with the Saudi king. What we found proves that he had been planning to make this deal with the government since the 1980's, which means that while people were killing each other, dying, disappearing, he was already planning how his company would rebuild downtown Beirut. And indeed the government gave him the right to rebuild everything, because it was completely destroyed, it had not been inhabited for ten years or more. The company bought the owners out, paying them very little money to buy the buildings, the shops and homes, basically everything. People argue that without him Beirut would have been in a terrible state, as if he was our saviour! They just didn't realise at that time what it was going to cost us...
Then they knocked everything down. Historically this area had been a very nice French and Ottoman mix of houses and stone buildings. It is also a very rich archeological site including the seven doors to Beirut city, a Roman bath, one the biggest Roman hippodromes ... all of this was totally erased and instead everything was rebuilt identically - what you see now is exactly what was there before, but made of concrete. In the agreement they made with the government, they also managed to obtain a whole 'reclaimed' area from the sea, with permission to fill it in with land. This area would eventually become the new water-front of Beirut. It’s currently half-built.
Today all of downtown is owned by one big company, Solidere. All of the infrastructure – the internet connections, the buildings, everything – is the property of this one company. For us it's a huge issue. It's like they have stolen the heart of the town, stolen our collective memory, our history. This project changed many aspects of the city, since the centre used to be the hub for anything related to transport (all trains and buses would depart from there), it had also an old souk where you would find anything you might need or think of, for instance. It was also the centre of the culture scene with many cinemas, cafes, theatres, and the national opera house (which now is nothing but a Virgin megastore). Around 135,000 people used to live, work or own a shop in downtown, but today Solidere has turned it into something much more consumer-oriented – restaurants, shops like Hermès – things that don't look like any of us and are not really of much use to us. It is a hub for high end tourism. Locals don't even need to cross through this area anymore to go to the other side of town, it's been totally isolated, you just take the bridge and cross over.
So that place means a lot to us, and that's why we chose to hold our event there. We launched a Facebook event to launch our new movement on the 28 september 2012. It was closed down a few times and we re-opened it. We also received threatening phone calls. In Lebanon, you have the Police and you have the Army, and they’re not really functional together, so since we’d been threatened by the Police, we went to the Army. We said - "look, if something happens, there are 500-1000 people coming, and you're going to be responsible for that. Because we told you that something is going to happen, and that is because we've been threatened."
The Army sent us backup, a whole troop to stay with us, and that's how we managed to do it. Solidere has super-high security all around and throughout the parts of town that they own and have built on, even though they pretend that this is public space. For instance, there is a high security presence in the area where we organised the party, and we did encounter security problems with them, because we were clearly not welcome in that part of town. There was one place that did feel welcoming, the St George Hotel, which everyone has become familiar with over the last ten years, because they put up a big sign reading: “Stop Solidere”. So we used it as a base to prepare for our event. I had never been inside the building but I knew the sign. The building is totally destroyed because the owners refused to sell their properties to Solidere. Since Solidere is very closely linked to the municipality of Beirut, which is in charge of allowing people to renovate buildings, the St George Hotel was never given permission to carry out any renovation, which is their big source of income. The hotel dates from the 1920s, so it's really part of all the pictures I've seen of this area.
The owner of the St George Hotel and Solidere are always fighting each other. There are always lots of things going on between them. So for us it was obvious he would become our ally, even if he had other aims too. Maybe he's our ally not because he likes public space, but because he wants to change things in order to be able to renovate his building. For me that's not a problem, as long as I get to do what I want too. And once we were at the St George Hotel, having this party, we did also say that even Saint George is built on public property, and that one day, we would like to see it too knocked down. The owner was okay with this. A lot depends on the way you do things... I guess it's about the way we approach things.
The party went well, and the movement started working. There were a lot of people attracted to the idea of regaining public spaces, talking about the beaches, trying to see what they, and we could do. But at the same time we had been labelled. And we didn't really know how to convince people we were independent, because they always tend to think there is somebody behind you who's giving you money for this campaign, who is actually promoting you (the owner of the St George for example, or some political party). People wonder where you are getting your messages from, where you are getting your information from? Why do you publish in this newspaper and not in that other one? Are you closer to this one than to the other one? That’s when we started having problems.
We started writing about our independence on Facebook, but it's not easy to gain credibility or to get people to believe you, especially in a place like Lebanon where the media is owned by politicians, where each politician has his own media group, his own TV, his own newspaper. So how do you actually tell people that? Well, the information you have, they can trust. When we found the plans, the documents from the Ministry of Infrastructure, it really allowed us to publish things in a way that allowed people to say for once - “okay, it's not just your information, it comes from somewhere else; you're not adding much to it, you're just publishing and publicising it.” It's more neutral somehow. It's a way of saying - “I'm not giving you any conclusions, I’m giving you the facts. And then you can draw your own conclusions.” That really saved us, along with finding this idea of working with pictures from Google Earth. At first, we actually had some comments on Facebook such as - . I would reply - “this is Google Earth, here is the link and the coordinates, go check it for yourself”. We always have a crowd telling us that they know who we get our information from, and that we are photo-shopping fake images in order to let people know that there are people building illegally on the seashore. We were able to tell them - “as it happens, I just found these genuine images on Google Earth. Did you ever try it? Just go and try for yourself!” Once we had the names and the actual data about the ownership of the land in the pictures we had found, putting them together became our main concern.
The idea behind our research was to start talking about access to the sea and to public spaces and to create a movement or a network that could spread all over the country, starting from the heart of Beirut. For us it was important, if we were going to be talking about Beirut, to start with downtown. Because it's a topic that everybody avoids. It’s as though we have a wound there and don't want to mention it because talking about it might make it open up and bleed again. Everybody seems to be thinking - “things are more or less okay as they are, so let's just not bring up the subject”. When we want to go downtown, we don’t just say - “I want to go downtown”. Instead we say - “I want to go to Solidere”. How can I accept that the heart of my city is called by the name of a company, that I should be obliged to get in a cab and say, “Can you take me to Solidere?” This is not acceptable for me! This historical area is associated with the so-called 'Golden Age of Lebanon' for my parents’ generation. For us, there is a romantic side to it and we want to preserve that collective memory. We already have the collective memory of the civil war, during which I was born. But I also want us to be able to remember the other side of our history, about a place that people shared and enjoyed.
The members of Mashaa started talking about this issue, which is also an issue among us personally, because it goes back to the fact that we are at the end against the transformation of the town centre into a shopping mall. We don’t really identify with the place and this is visible, because we never go there, we don't use it. None of us want to go there, and if we talk to friends from out of town or abroad, we say, “Don't go there, it's like a ghost town, it's totally fake, don’t even go there”. We wanted to understand why we have the strong feeling that this place does not look like us. What is it that we don’t like about this place. Why is there is something wrong with it?We started doing research on Solidere and on the law that was passed to allow Solidere to become Solidere; this was not a correct legal process, because there were a lot of problems with it. We found that legislators had been threatened, and even had to stop their political career or leave the country, and that they had been forced to vote in favour of this law. We talked to some Ministers who were part of the government back then and who said they were threatened. We know that it's a big project, we know that it's something that involves a lot of money and that actually, if you think about, this big project is run by one single company, one person or one Board of Directors. That's the scary part for me. We started with the idea of explaining to people that it's not only romantic nostalgia for us, because we want the Old Beirut back, but that it was more about this forced change of identity when it comes to business, lifestyle and money. In our research we found a lot of numbers that were pretty shocking for us; for example, that Solidere actually rents the whole seacoast for 2500 Liras, which is just under 2 dollars, per year per square metre. Let's say the area concerned is around 65, 000 square metres, that means $9,028 a year, which could be the monthly rent of one single apartment in downtown. You can imagine how much money our government is wasting! For us that was shocking, and when we showed our data to artists and graphic designers, some of them made a poster and an animation about it. They tweeted - “
There is widespread rejection of Solidere, there are people boycotting Solidere on a daily basis. They don't go there, they don't have coffee there or eat there, they don't do anything there. I myself don't want anything to do with it, and that is felt across all the generations, but it's also about a lifestyle. It has to do with a specific way of living, what your own standards are, where you want to go, or what you like. For us the main point was to say clearly that we are against Solidere, we are against one single company taking over the town centre, deciding what we should like, what we should want to eat, how the city should look. There is no urban planning involved, there is no input from the public, there is just one company that commissions big architects from around the world to make 3D models of modern buildings, and then they decide - “oh no, let's actually put this kind of building here and this one there”. That is how it gets done.
We decided to use this feeling of resentment and we did some research into how Solidere managed to take over downtown Beirut. We came up with slogans and messages to tell people that if they don’t like this place, there are real reasons for that - they should look at the numbers and look at what actually happened. We did some digging into the law that allowed Solidere to exist, we published the numbers, we did a lot of things like that. Since Solidere is a company, and it was owned by Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, this is clearly political, so we were immediately labelled as enemies of his party. But we don’t support any one side, politically. In Lebanon you have this kind of bipolarity in all situations, whereby if anything happens it has to be ascribed to one of two sides, and you have a fifty per cent chance that it’s this side or the other one. For instance, if you were to ask someone who killed the Prime Minister with a car bomb, there are two versions of the answer: fifty per cent would say - “it was Israel”, and the other fifty per cent would say - “it was Syria”. This is how it works. You have only these two entities and everyone has to fit their point of view into one or the other. No one can be neutral, because if you say you’re neutral, people will try to force you to fit into a side.In terms of political parties, you don't really have a clear left and right, you have alliances. So you have to be either in the '14th March' alliance, who are pro-American and pro-Saudi, or the '8th March' alliance, who are pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian. Because we were attacking Solidere, it was presumed we were attacking the Prime Minister and his party the Future Movement, which belongs to the '14th March' alliance. So we got labelled '8th March', which is not true at all.
This is fine with us up to a point, but sometimes we get people asking - “hey, why are you doing things this way – up to now, you were talking about seashore access to the beach, which is a nice thing, it's a beautiful idea – but why are you now taking it in a political direction and attacking Solidere?” Well, we are clearly attacking a whole system, one that allows a single company to own everything, that has its own private internet, its private parking spaces, instead of the state owning these things as it used to and making money for all of Lebanon out of them. Solidere has its own security, nobody's allowed to film there (in the whole of the centre of town) without obtaining a permit from the company. You feel like you're entering a huge private property.
We did some more research on this kind of system and we learned that, for example, Solidere managed to rebuild the entire town centre because of a precedent law that was passed in the 1980's, concerning a similar project that had happened with another piece of land. This land is further north, and it was kept vacant and hadn't been built on since the 1980's, probably because of lack of money. Recently the Lebanese owner made a deal with the biggest Emirates real estate developers the Majid Al Futtaim Group, a company owned by al-Futtaim, who's at number 376 on the list of the world's billionaires.Now they have started again to build on the land, so today we are bombarded with 3D models of the project and prototypes that you can find online and in newspaper and TVs adverts. This is how the system has been evolving. This became our big concern - to understand how this system, which allows a single company to take a huge piece of public land and transform it into one big private property, works.