Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

In this age of large-scale urbanization, cities have become a major battleground between different forces vying for political, financial and cultural power. Urban spaces have become targets of militarized interventions as well as sites of economic extraction and dislocation. Hiba Bou Akar’s new book, For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018), provides a window into how urban planning is being used to turn some neighborhoods and urban peripheries in the Middle East into militarized frontier zones between competing political, military and sectarian organizations. MERIP editor Steve Niva interviewed Bou Akar by email in May 2019 about how such interventions can become a form of war by other means.


 

Your book shows us how the seemingly unplanned and unfinished urban expansion of Beirut since the end of the civil war in 1990 is actually the planned outcome of multiple sectarian-political organizations intervening in Beirut’s urban fabric in anticipation of a future war—a kind of war in the time of peace. What is the logic of this kind of war and how is it being fought?

 

The end of the civil war in Lebanon did not bring peace, rather mutations in the logic of war. Geographically, this resulting war in times of peace is not fought with tanks, canons and rifles—it is fundamentally a territorial conflict where the fear of domination of one group by another is first fought over land and apartment sales and waged through zoning, planning and infrastructure projects. These territorial battles are mostly waged by religious-political organizations who often operate along sectarian lines. The result is that Beirut’s south eastern peripheries have been transformed into contested frontiers of urban growth and sectarian violence in anticipation of future violence according to the logic of, what I call in the book, the war yet to come.

Temporally, the logic of the war yet to come involves a present moment from which the future can be imagined only as a time of further conflict. Spatially, it invokes a regulating logic according to which Beirut’s peripheries are envisioned not only as spaces of urban growth and real estate profit but also as frontiers of future wars. The logic of the war yet to come is ultimately not about an inevitable future of war, but about how the anticipation of future wars shapes the present.

The outcomes we see in Beirut’s urban peripheries, then, are actually planned spaces that are often low income and have overlapping industrial and residential zones, highways that are never finished and playgrounds that are never built. These spaces are continuously reconfigured through recursive cycles of violence, producing patchworks of destruction and construction, lavishness and poverty and otherness and marginality. These spaces are what I describe as the geographies of the war yet to come.

 

You appear to be suggesting that the ultimate decisions about urban planning in these areas are not determined by state or city planners. Who are the main agents of urban planning for the war yet to come?

 

In Lebanon, it is the former civil war militias who are key to shaping the geographies of the war yet to come. Since the end of the war, these militias have become major religious-political organizations and are the primary spatial and development actors. The four main actors I focus on in these areas are the Shi‘i organization Hizbollah, the Sunni Future Movement, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) and the Maronite Christian Church, which is associated with several religious-political organizations.

Rather than being located outside the state or in opposition to it, each of these religious-political organizations functions through a constellation of affiliates that span the public and private sectors. Their networks of loyalists include cabinet ministers, heads of municipalities, street-level bureaucrats, bankers, housing developers, landowners, draftsmen in public and private planning agencies, police officers, militiamen, religious charity workers and even asphalt company employees. As hybrid entities they cannot be defined simply as non-state actors or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Neither are they just political parties, since in addition to participating in the government, their activities range from organizing militias to distributing religious-based charity, passing through all other forms of social and political engagement in between.

Lebanon’s religious-political organizations thus challenge established divisions between state and market, private and public, government and insurgency. Together, they provide soldiers for the Lebanese army and contribute to the government functions essential to the maintenance of state sovereignty. Yet, individually, they operate separate NGOs and paramilitary groups that have played roles in local and transnational wars in ways that challenge national sovereignty to varying degrees. For example, the importance of the state is considered to fade in the largely Hizbollah dominated area of al-Dahiya, where the state is seen as absent and indifferent to the struggle of the Shi‘i poor. The state’s role here is widely assumed to have been taken over by Hizbollah, which is often described as a state within a state. Yet, when discussing the reconstruction of downtown Beirut, the same state had been invoked as capable of mobilizing massive power in consolidating capital, eventually privatizing the heart of the city while provincializing its poor peripheries.

The rising power of such complex actors is not unique to Beirut. Religious-political organizations have played important social and political roles in a number of other post-conflict and post-colonial cities, making it critical that we understand how such actors continuously shape the state while also constituting what is “outside it,” especially in our current neoliberal moment as states continue to roll back whatever social services they had provided for their citizens, leaving it to actors like religious-political organizations to provide alternative forms of socio-economic and political security and safety nets.

 

How does the transformation of Beirut’s peripheries into militarized frontiers differ from the gentrification of downtown Beirut into high end condominiums and shopping malls after the civil war—a form of urban planning based on a neoliberal logic of profit maximization rather than the anticipation of future war?

 

Beirut’s peripheries tell us a much different story about planning and its temporalities than the one usually told about post-war Beirut, seen through the prism of its downtown post-war reconstruction project that was characterized by neat colorful master plans, glittering buildings and emptied out streets. In contrast, Beirut’s fast-urbanizing peripheries suddenly emerged in 2008 as frontiers of renewed sectarian conflict when dozens were killed in an episode of violence that was reminiscent of the civil war.

Of course, the neoliberal logics pursued by successive post-war governments have shaped the production of space in these peripheries through a range of policies, including decisions to give monetary compensation packages for the war displaced instead of developing comprehensive relief plans. It is thus important to consider central and peripheral Beirut in tandem because the two geographies are interlinked: Many of the war displaced families that were evicted from downtown Beirut sought affordable housing in the city’s southeast peripheries. Simultaneously the gentrification caused by postwar developments in Beirut caused an outflux of people to peripheral areas.

Profit-making is also central to how Beirut’s peripheries are arranged. Yet, these are contentious places, where profit making is but one aspect of space-making, and the territorial contestations in fear of future wars include other calculations. Ultimately, these peripheries are inhabited by low and middle income families who cannot afford to live in municipal Beirut. The post-war reconstruction of downtown Beirut, in contrast, was predominantly driven by profit, resulting in a project that dispossessed local populations of their claims to Beirut’s center and building instead a downtown that mostly targeted foreign capital.

 

There has been a surge in military urbanism with the United States and Israel leading the way in conceptualizing cities as future battlespaces in which to fight their asymmetrical opponents. Israel has also waged a continuous war against the Palestinian population under its control through massive infrastructure projects of walls, road systems and zoning practices that encircle and divide them. The Russian and Syrian militaries have simply targeted cities for destruction through a policy of urbicide. How does the militarization of urban planning in Beirut differ from these approaches?

 

The space-making practices of the actors I examine in Beirut’s peripheries after the civil war illustrate a complex relationship between space and violence. These are not solely geographies of destruction and annihilation, or fragmented geographies of apartheid and neocolonialism. The geographies of the war yet to come, instead, are shaped by construction as much as destruction, resulting in interlaced geographies of sameness and otherness that are crafted, negotiated and contested on a daily basis. In Beirut’s peripheries, planning, zoning and real estate transactions are central to the transformation of peripheries as frontiers of both skyrocketing urban growth and sectarian violence. These practices produce a nested geography of a thousand frontiers, where wealth and poverty, hope and fear, neighborliness and estrangement, empty and built spaces, women in bikinis on mixed-gender beaches and bearded men in white robes can coexist.

In addition to ruling the real estate and housing markets, religious-political organizations vie to control strategic hilltops and maintain access through residential zones in expectations of future wars. In one moment the window of an apartment is an ordinary window, but in future wars it could become a sniper location. This ever-present duality collapses the separation between housing and militarized spaces. The result is a militarization of everyday life.

Despite the wars these actors are waging, in the end, however, they manage to collectively run the Lebanese government while their alliances are in constant ebbs and flows. The geographies they produce are therefore a honeycomb of partnerships and differences, where many resources are shared even when disputed. In turn these practices create daily forms of contestation, but are also marked by forms of coexistence. In addition, the residents of these peripheries are all considered equal Lebanese citizens.

These conditions set these geographies apart from, for example, the experience of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories where the state in charge of arranging territories is an ethnonational colonial state that is providing housing for Israeli citizens through the dispossession of Palestinians. The complexity of the Lebanese political system also makes it difficult to square the contestation in these spaces fully within the framework of urbicide, which translates to the “killing of cities.” At the same time, the intervention of religious-political organizations positions these everyday spaces as potential targets of urbicide in larger regional conflicts such as when Israel targeted peripheral neighborhoods in Beirut’s southern district during its 2006 war on Lebanon.

 

How does the militarization of everyday urban life express itself in Beirut’s expanding peripheries?

 

This militarization of everyday life can be seen in the widespread talk and rumors about war and militarization that have accompanied the construction frenzy in these areas. For example, in Doha Aramoun, there were many rumors circulating around one housing development that stood on the corner of the main road that leads to Doha Aramoun, which, in contrast to the large flats in the apartment building behind it, has smaller affordable apartments with tiny windows and balconies that overlook both the Old Saida Road and the airport, barely 500 meters away.

One rumor was that the developers were Hizbollah affiliates who acquired this strategic site through quasi-legal maneuvers in order to put it in a position to place snipers and fighters at the entrance to Aramoun, Bchamoun, and Choueifat—as well as the airport and Beirut—in the event of war. Others questioned the logic of why the development had such small apartments rather than more expensive and larger apartments, implying that such density makes no sense as a housing development strategy but only makes sense in military terms: larger units would have generated higher returns for the developer, but smaller units allow for a denser concentration of residents likely to sympathize with (and fight alongside) Hizbollah.

These rumors circulated not only in beauty salons and grocery stores but also in municipal offices. Fast forward five years, however, many of the people who were anxious about this development stop by on their daily trip home to buy from the grocery stores and shops that line its ground floor. This development clearly illustrates the logic of building war in times of peace—and although life there has now assumed a quotidian normality, the same rumors have merely moved on to other sites of housing development.

 

In many parts of Beirut, the ruined buildings from the civil war have been replaced by new developments, yet in other places they remain. Why do we see ruins in some areas but not in others?

 

There are many reasons why ruins stay as ruins. The most famous is the Holiday Inn in downtown Beirut, where contestation over its future by its multiple owners has stalled redevelopment. The peripheral sites where I work, in particular Hayy Madi-Mar Mikhail, are a checkered geography of ruins and new construction. When I asked why some buildings were still in ruins while many others had been demolished and replaced, I learned that the church had intervened to stop the sale of many of these ruins to Shi‘i developers. This checkered geography thus reflects the territorial battle between the Maronite Church on the Christian side, and Hizbollah affiliated real-estate developers on the Shi‘i side. Ruins that stayed as ruins indicated that the land had been bought by the church. Ruins replaced by a new development indicate that the land had been bought by a Shi‘i developer. The area had become one of the major frontiers where Christians and Shi‘a are struggling over land. Thus, in this contested geography civil war ruins are the ruins of a contested past as much as they are ruins in contested presents and futures. This doubleness—ruins as products and leftovers of the civil war and as indicators of a territorial war in times of peace—illustrates one of the ways in which peripheries are transformed into contested frontiers.

 

The modern practice of urban planning is one of arranging spaces of progress and development toward a more harmonious collective future, but you suggest that in Beirut’s peripheries we are seeing a distinctively dystopian form of urban planning without development and seemingly without a future. Are we seeing this elsewhere?

 

Although the task of organizing cities is an old one, it was the Western project of modernity that imbued it with a teleology of order and progress, which became the normative discourse within the planning profession. Even during the darkest days of the civil war in Lebanon, officials and planning experts were still imagining a future of peace, order and prosperity after the war. However, since the end of the war, this expected future has increasingly become less about peace or development and more about the inevitably of future conflict. As a result, the practice of urban planning emerged as a tool of conflict and war as much as that of peace and order. Within this alternative planning regime, innovative techniques are deployed to craft a spatiality of political difference in an attempt to keep war at bay while enabling the powerful to profit from ongoing urban growth.

In this context, contemporary planning practice in Lebanon has become little more than an exercise in ordering space, a tool of power brokerage in sectarian battles. Planners have mostly become the technicians of this new regulating logic, signaling a shift in their approach away from deploying urban planning as a tool of development aimed to alleviate poverty in urban peripheries, toward planning as a tool to manage these peripheries as frontiers of sectarian conflict.

These spatial practices challenge the common conception of planning as a tool through which to order the present in the interest of an improved future. They also debunk modern narratives about peace, order, and progress by collapsing distinctions between peace and war, order and chaos, construction and destruction, progress and stagnation.

Such conditions, however, are neither exceptional nor limited to the paradigm of “cities in conflict” like Beirut, Belfast or Medellin. Today, we are at a global moment in which the imagined future in most places in the world—in both the Global North and South—is one of conflict and contestation characterized by ecological crises, anticipated terror attacks and unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants—a horizon of the war yet to come. Fears generated by these anticipated bleak futures have rendered the ability to organize towards futures that are fully inclusive of a racialized, religious, ethnic and gendered other increasingly more difficult. Understanding and exposing the many forms of exclusionary practices and atrocities committed in the name of these fears is therefore crucial to configuring projects of social change.

 

Yet you still suggest that urban planning could be a powerful tool for building a different and more just and inclusive urban future. What forms could this take?

 

Despite my criticism of planning practices in Lebanon, new movements that use the tools of urban planning are emerging through the cracks of this dystopian tableau—movements that may one day challenge sectarian-based political alliances and their geographies of fear. In Beirut, these movements are experimenting with using the tools of planning, as attendant to more general processes of space-making, to initiate dialogue among city residents about their built environment, providing opportunities for public participation and stimulating new imaginings of collective futures.

These processes have the potential to craft new spaces for social engagement and knowledge circulation and offer platforms for organizing toward a different horizon, one that sees beyond the inevitability of new wars. We recently caught a glimpse of such hope in the work of Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City), a movement of professionals, academics, and activists that managed to win 40 percent of the vote in Beirut’s municipal elections in 2016, and with Naqabati (My Syndicate) that won the presidency of Beirut’s Order of Engineers and Architects in its 2017 elections.

I am also working with local civil society groups and NGOs to use planning tools as sites of research that allow urban activists to collect data and present findings to the public to mobilize beyond sectarian divisions towards new formulations of the public interest. Such practices might also speak to the possibility of imagining a different future for spaces of conflict across cities of the Global South and North. They involve reimagining the scope and purpose of planning practice in places where differences may be so extreme that the future cannot always be imagined as peaceful or uncontested, and where work has to be done to craft collective futures beyond the inevitability of conflict. ■

How to cite this article:

Hiba Bou Akar "Urban Interventions for the Wars Yet to Come," Middle East Report 290 (Spring 2019).
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