Lebanon News

If walls divide protesters, can bridges unite?

Riot police stand guard on the Ring bridge as Hezbollah and Amal supporters stand on the Khandaq al-Ghamiq side and anti-government supporters on the other side in Beirut, Oct. 29, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: On the morning of Dec. 18, security forces placed towering concrete barriers at entrances surrounding Riad al-Solh Square in Beirut. The previous evening, supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement had attempted to invade the space, where protesters have gathered since the nationwide uprising began on Oct. 17, for the fourth consecutive time.The men are widely believed to have come from the Khandaq al-Ghamiq area, a low-income Shiite neighborhood adjacent to Downtown Beirut.

TIGHTENING SECURITYThe installation of the walls follows clashes between security forces and supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, following the spread on social media of a video in which a man insulted Shiite religious figures and political leaders.

Men chanting “Shiite, Shiite,” burned and vandalized cars, and threw rocks and fireworks at members of the Internal Security Forces, who responded with tear gas.

“Building the wall was a temporary security measure,” caretaker Interior Minister Raya El Hassan told LBCI television in a Dec. 18 interview, adding that security forces were over-extended and exhausted.

Mohamad Tabboush, a 37-year-old resident of Khandaq al-Ghamiq, expressed little surprise at the clashes.

“The reaction to the video is to be expected - no serious injuries happened and, given the content, it could have been much worse,” he told The Daily Star. “You can’t say that [certain people] didn’t push supporters to react to this insulting video.”

The footage was later revealed to have been recorded and posted by a Sunni Lebanese man living in Greece. It appears that he had acted alone. A senior sheikh from Dar al-Fatwa, the highest Sunni authority in Lebanon, sought to distance his sect from the controversy and to reassure aggrieved Shiites.

“We tell our people in the Shiite community that those who harm [or insult them] ... are not from us and do not represent the Sunni opinion,” Sheikh Hasan Merheb told local TV channel Al-Jadeed.

RESIDENTS DEFEND

NEIGHBORHOOD According to a 2015 study conducted by researcher Rouba Wehbe, 69 percent of Beirut residents hold negative perceptions of Khandaq al-Ghamiq, with many considering the area “dirty” or “unsafe.”

Mahmoud Arzouni, 47-year-old resident, said that he did not want the neighborhood’s reputation to suffer as a result of last week’s clashes.

“Khandaq is a road that leads to Downtown. You cannot conclude that just because people came from this area to cause tensions that they are residents here,” he said.

“We are not militants, we are ordinary people. I, personally, am against the reaction that came after the video, because if a few people want to start sectarian tensions, we should not be the ones fanning the flames.”

Arzouni added that he supported the protests. While the video was shameful, he said, it had nothing to do with the uprising. He said that demonstrators’ grievances about the country’s economic crisis were shared by all Lebanese citizens, regardless of sect.

“Everyone’s financial situation is in decline,” Arzouni, who works in a restaurant, told The Daily Star.

“The people who are still participating [in the protests] are better than me, because I am going to my work, while they are calling for our rights as a full-time job.”

However, not all Khandaq al-Ghamiq residents share Arzouni’s perspective. When asked his opinion about the new barriers around Riad al-Solh, Tabboush praised them as a sensible security measure.

“I think these walls are good for both sides. The protesters will feel safer this way, and the pressure will be released from our side,” he said. “Besides, building walls is better than what happened during the Civil War.”

COMMUNITY SPACE

CONTESTEDDuring the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-90, Beirut was divided by checkpoints, barbed wire, and armed militiamen, who often shot at those attempting to cross - but never a wall. Khandaq al-Ghamiq is situated along what was once the Green Line, which separated the east and west of the city, and its name translates as “deep trench.”

In a research paper published in May by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Wehbe explains that Khandaq al-Ghamiq offers a perfect example of the localized nature of sectarian tensions in Beirut.

“[Khandaq al-Ghamiq] has been subject to repeated bouts of political violence since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, an event that crystallized Shiite-Sunni urban segregation,” she writes.

Many protesters have expressed outrage at the barriers, and accused politicians of trying to divide the movement. By the morning of Dec. 19, several of the wall’s panels had been spray-painted with graffiti declaring “Beirut is Ours.” Protesters also organized an evening rally in solidarity with Khandaq al-Ghamiq, emphasizing the nonsectarian nature of the uprising.

“This move is not good, and only serves to divide people,” one protester named Lea told The Daily Star. “Khandaq is being stereotyped as a militant area, even though we saw mothers gather there and should know how peaceful and normal the area is,” she added, referring to a symbolic march last month. Hundreds of women walked on Nov. 30 from Ashrafieh to Khandaq al-Ghamiq, where they were greeted by local women throwing rice.

Wehbe recommends that instead of tightening security, authorities should focus on improving the lives of residents in Khandaq al-Ghamiq and similar areas.

Instead of further marginalizing the neighborhood and its inhabitants, she believes that “encouraging dynamics that have a positive impact on public space” and “social policies introducing affordable housing solutions” will help to build a vital sense of “urban belonging.”

Arzouni agrees. “These walls are not acceptable,” he said, sitting in a local cafe.

“We are all Lebanese people, but these walls are working to divide us even more.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 24, 2019, on page 2.

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