"Down with gangster rule." Graffiti in downtown Beirut, February 2. Photo by Tom Rollins for Syria Direct.
When the reconstruction of downtown Beirut first began in the 1990s, one of the first acts by urban planners was to build a trench around the site.
Buildings were demolished, bit by bit. Mines were cleared, squatters removed.
Then, the serious work of rebuilding downtown Beirut—once a deadly frontline in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war—began.
According to Deen Sharp, post-doctoral fellow at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the story is a perfect indication of the violence implicit in post-war reconstruction projects—“how the built environment can be made to be the continuation of violence in conflict,” but also “how construction can be just as violent as the destruction of the built environment.”
In Beirut, the Solidere company in charge of rebuilding downtown offered property owners shares in the company in return for their property rights, before razing whole areas of downtown and ultimately rebuilding them in the form of banks, fashion boutiques and mall complexes.
That system of shares has been replicated by authorities and public-private holding companies in Damascus “to a certain degree,” Sharp says, but at the same time “people are also just being completely dispossessed of their property rights and not given any kind of compensation, shares or otherwise, in the company.”
Urban spaces have been repeatedly weaponized during the Syrian conflict—water and electricity infrastructure used in the service of sieges against civilian communities, roads cut off. But analysts and urbanists, including Sharp, believe that reconstruction could prove to be just as violent a process as the seven years of war that Syria has already lived through.
“That’s not very visible per se, but it’s of course equally violent—and can cause death and destitution—as a dramatic explosion of a building [can],” he says.
“[And] in the case of Syria, you quite evidently have reconstruction projects that are targeting certain populations in a way that the construction is not to promote social cohesion or to heal the wounds of war.”
Here, Sharp speaks to Syria Direct’s Tom Rollins about the parallels between Beirut and Damascus, then and now, and how processes of post-war reconstruction can often be as violent as the conflicts they follow.
[Read Syria Direct's report on downtown Beirut and reconstruction in Damascus here.]
Q: There already seem to be some parallels between Solidere in Beirut and what’s happening in Damascus. Would you say there’s crossover?
I’m very hesitant to make any direct parallels because the organizational structures and the information that’s available [from Syria] is very poor. But it’s very clear that in Syria, through [government-affiliated private firms] like the Damascus Cham Holding Company, they are doing this joint stock corporation model to a certain degree, which is what happened in Solidere, where you have a government-backed joint stock corporation that is made up of shareholders.
In the case of Solidere, it incorporated the landowners as shareholders. So in exchange for their property rights, they were given shares in the corporation that was dispossessing them of those property rights.
It seems that in some cases, this is also happening in Syria. So there, you have certainly a direct replication, but also—it seems—that people are also just being completely dispossessed of their property rights and not given any kind of compensation, in shares or otherwise in the company, and that these shares are just being divided up by elites who are connected to the Syrian regime.
But the broader point is that this nexus between the state and these joint stock corporations, which was what the Lebanese reconstruction process was framed around, is being replicated in Syria.
This nexus of the state and the corporation is one in which these corporation are given relative autonomy from the state to do the actual building of these urban fabrics. But in terms of who is placed in these corporations and who they are actually financially accountable to, it goes back to the state. And they take on certain state powers such as expropriation that normally wouldn’t be associated merely with a private enterprise.
Q: This system of transferring property rights into shares—why is that problematic for residents or property owners in an area like downtown Beirut or Basateen a-Razi in southwestern Damascus?
Well let me speak briefly about it in the context of Lebanon and in terms of what happened with Solidere and why it was problematic.
Constitutionally, to expropriate land in Lebanon, it has to be for a public benefit. I spoke to Baheej Tabara, the lawyer who designed the Solidere framework on behalf of Hariri, and he was—as he told me—very anxious about the fact that this scheme might violate the constitution. So he went to talk to a constitutional expert in Paris. And basically, the conclusion was that the only way to make this constitutional was if the ownership rights were turned directly into shares and put on a stock market, so that ostensibly the shareholders would benefit from the rising value of the land, and all of the infrastructure that Solidere then put in.
It turns out, and this is the remarkable thing about Solidere, that the shares are equal to when they were very first issued. So to this today, the shares are valued at the same before any construction or reconstruction took place. So basically their value is very low, if not worthless. And this has obviously caused enormous anger within Lebanon. But just put that issue to the side… the fact is that Solidere was not designed to have any social benefits. It was designed as a private company to maximize profit to certain groups—ostensibly its shareholders. It certainly hasn’t turned out like that in practice.
The reconstruction really became another way through which various competing groups pursued the types of conflict that went on before the Taif Accords in 1989. It is clear now that the Solidere project was designed to maximize the economic and political power of certain social groups. They were not even necessarily shareholders, but various groups connected to broader national and international factions.
Q: You’ve written before about how in the context of Beirut, reconstruction was a continuation of the war years. A lot has been said about how Solidere disrupted architecture and urban fabric in downtown Beirut, but socially or in terms of class and sectarian divides, what did Solidere cement in terms of Beirut’s urban spaces?
The main theme that I’m working on is how the built environment can be made to be the continuation of violence in conflict; how construction can be just as violent as the destruction of the built environment.
So in the case of Syria, you quite evidently have reconstruction projects that are targeting certain populations in a way that the construction is not to promote social cohesion or to heal the wounds of war, but to quite evidently further displace and further control certain political but also economic and social pathways of power.
[Ed.: In the wake of a project already underway in working-class southwestern Damascus, “Marota City,” analysts and human rights groups anticipate that future reconstruction efforts will likely see formerly lower-income, pro-opposition communities replaced by shining skyscrapers and malls.]
That was also very clear in the case of Lebanon after the war. The reconstruction really became another way through which various competing groups pursued the types of conflict that went on before the Taif Accords in 1989.
There’s been many instances that have been documented, but often kind of buried in media pieces, where the Assad regime for instance pressured a community to submit by just cutting off their water or their electricity supply. So not a bullet or a missile was fired but this siege mentality was done through cutting off basic urban services. And that’s not very visible per se, but it’s of course equally violent—and can cause death and destitution—as a dramatic explosion of a building [can].
Q: Can you explain how this type of reconstruction violence was carried out in post-war Beirut?
The very first act that Solidere did was to build a literal trench around the territory of Solidere. And for me, there can be nothing more material but also of course symbolic of how reconstruction is a continuation of conflict by the fact that the first thing this so-called reconstruction project did was to build a trench.
But also there were several instances where people within the Solidere area did not want to give up their properties, and buildings were basically made unsafe through so-called ‘repairs’ that Solidere carried out. There was a notable incident in 1996 when a building in Wadi Abu Jamil collapsed, killing 15 people, [and] much of the media reporting at the time accused Solidere of weakening the foundations of the building but no one was prosecuted.
As even Baheej Tabara, the lawyer of Solidere, said, the transfer of property from the owners to this corporation—Solidere—was a very violent act. And it was done against a lot of protest and disquiet among the Lebanese population. It was a highly controversial scheme from the start.
[Ed.: Sharp previously interviewed Baheej Tabara about the preparations for the Solidere development. “The concept was to force the tenants and landowners to form a stock exchange company against the value of their share,” Tabara said. “It was a kind of expropriation but it was not a real expropriation. But the tenants were forced into a company.”]
Q: Do you believe reconstruction in Syria will ultimately be more of a punitive and genuinely violent exercise than it was in Beirut?
I’m cautious, to be honest, of even using the term reconstruction. I do not think we are seeing a reconstruction in Syria. I would also question whether we ever even saw a genuine reconstruction in Lebanon. I very much see the complete urban failure that we see in Lebanon today—whether that be the garbage crisis, the crisis of electricity, water, getting basic services like gas and so on and so forth—which of course we see in Syria now, are very much rooted in the fact that the war was continued through other means.
I very much see that happening in Syria, and obviously very much worse, and these kinds of issues and problems are going to carry on.
And it’s very clear that many of these projects are not going to promote social cohesion or better housing for the Syrian populace, that it’s going to be the continuation of a crisis in basic urban services—electricity, housing, roads—and basically the ability for the vast majority of Syrians to live dignified, humane lives.
The war against the Syrian people has not ended.