GaWC Research Bulletin 51

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This Research Bulletin has been published in Political Geography, 21 (5), (2002), 717-725.


Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Reconstructing Space, Re-creating Memory: Sectarian Politics and Urban Development in Post-war Beirut

C. Nagel


For fifteen years Lebanon endured a civil war that transformed its capital city, Beirut, from the 'Paris of the Mediterranean' to a bloody battleground of rival sectarian factions. More than a decade after the civil war, Beirut is in the final stages of a multi-billion-dollar reconstruction effort that has attempted to re-create the 'old' cosmopolitan Beirut. This reconstruction process has represented not only rehabilitation of physical infrastructure, but, equally, an attempt to reinterpret Lebanon's tumultuous past and to create a new collective memory for the Lebanese 'nation.' In this respect, and despite corporate efforts to recast Beirut as a stable, unified place, the city remains a site of struggle over the meanings of Lebanese identity and nationhood. The physical remains of war may be expertly hidden by gleaming new structures, but Beirut is a politicized space of competing meanings rooted in the region's turbulent history.


Members of the Lebanese diaspora1 tend to speak of Beirut as an almost magical space where the romantic Arab world meets Western sophistication-a place embodying a sanguine combination of glamour and warmth, openness and kin-based insularity, cosmopolitanism and distinctive 'local' character. These nostalgic musings, however, contrast sharply with the Beirut that millions of Lebanese were forced to endure for almost fifteen years of civil war. Once celebrated as the 'Paris of the Mediterranean' and a playground for the elite of the Arab world, Beirut in the 1970s and 1980s became notable primarily as a haven for terrorists, assassins, and kidnappers. By the end of the civil war2, 'Lebanon' had become almost synonymous with senseless destruction and 'tribal warfare,' and the neologism 'Beirutization' had joined 'Balkanization' in the lexicon of social disintegration.

More than a decade after the civil war, Beirut is in the final stages of a massive reconstruction effort that has radically transformed the city center. Scores of war-damaged structures have been demolished and the rubble cleared for new buildings, roads, parks, and housing and shopping complexes. In this brief paper, I want to suggest that the reconstruction process has represented not only rehabilitation of physical infrastructure, but, equally, an attempt to reinterpret Lebanon's tumultuous past-and indeed, to create a new collective memory for the Lebanese 'nation.' The city, in this respect, is a text in an ongoing discourse about the shape and meaning of Lebanese nationhood and identity. And like many texts, the built environment is significant not only for what it says, but for what it neglects to say about the past and the present (Till, 1999; see also Johnson, 1994).


Beirut as a Cosmopolitan City

Despite an illustrious ancient past, Beirut was a relatively minor entrepot city until the mid-19th century, when new patterns of production and trade transformed it into a major hub of commercial activity in the Eastern Mediterranean. Beirut's changing economic fortunes were part of much deeper transformation of the region rooted in the expansion of the European-centered capitalist economy and the concomitant decline of the Ottoman Empire. Specifically, Beirut's mountainous hinterland (or Mt. Lebanon, then a separate Ottoman administrative unit) became a key site of silk production and an important supplier to the French textile industry. With the growth of the silk trade and associated enterprises, a sizable class of merchants and financiers-both European and native-born-emerged in Beirut. As Ottoman power waned, the relative importance of the European sector in the regional political economy increased, and Beirut became a center not only of European commercial ventures, but also consular offices, educational institutions, and missionary organizations (Owen, 1993).

Beirut in the 19th and early 20th centuries gained the reputation as a prosperous, cosmopolitan city by virtue of both the European presence and the Beiruti merchant class's extensive links with West Africa, Latin America, and other Mediterranean cities. Beirut, moreover, became the home of numerous migrants and refugees, including Armenians Circassians, and Greeks, who added to the city's diversity and enhanced its commercial base. The presence of a strong merchant class which perceived itself as a community bound by common economic interests ensured a degree of social tolerance among the city's innumerable ethnic and sectarian groups (among them Shiites, Sunnis, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Maronite Catholics, Druzes, and Jews). Khalaf (1987, p. 266, following Fawaz, 1983) contends that 'intercommunal mixing, at least in the center of the town, was greater than is usually assumed. Merchants of various communities were partners in private business ventures...In the old souks and bazaars, artisans and traders worked side by side.Christians and Muslims continued to meet together at official functions and served on the same committees, courts, and mixed tribunals'.

Beirut retained a reputation for openness and tolerance up until the civil war. The western district of Ras Beirut was an especially vibrant area, owing in large part to the presence of the American University of Beirut (AUB). Since its establishment in 1866, AUB had served as a focal point for an intelligentsia whose members were at the forefront of Arab nationalism and other political-ideological movements in the region. The district also was an important hub for the literary and publishing activities that made Beirut the center of the Arabic-language free press. Finally, the concentration of students, writers, journalists, academics, and radicals in Ras Beirut meant that the area enjoyed an atmosphere of social permissiveness (marked in part by the mixing of sexes) not seen in most Arab cities.

Lebanon's Collapse

Raging under Beirut's lively, cosmopolitan surface, however, were decades of intercommunal hostilities and political conflicts relating to the role of an independent Lebanese state in the Arab world. These problems would come to the fore in the early 1970s, but would remain largely unresolved after years of warfare. In this respect, the re-building of Beirut must be understood as another 'battlefield' in the long-running struggle over national identity and sectarian inequality in Lebanon.

At least some of Lebanon's instabilities in the 1970s can be traced to the 19th century, when European powers cultivated relationships with individual sectarian groups as a means of gaining a foothold in the region. The French-the dominant power in the regional economy-granted their patronage primarily to the Maronite Catholics, who soon became the most advantaged sectarian group in Mt. Lebanon and in Beirut. To be sure, Sunni Muslims and other groups were not excluded from commercial activities, but the disparities among groups increased over time owing to the special relationship between the Maronites and the French. When France became the mandatory ruler of 'Greater Syria' after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Maronite ideologues pressed France to create a sovereign state of Lebanon-independent of Syria-as a homeland for Western-leaning Christians. The French, wary of the pan-Arabism which was sweeping Greater Syria, were generally sympathetic to their pleas, and created an independent Lebanon in 19433 to the dismay of many of the country's inhabitants (Salibi, 1988). The question of Lebanon's identity-and indeed of the very nature of its existence-has loomed ever since.

The system of governance that emerged in post-colonial Lebanon did little to ease tensions. Top government posts were allotted to the three major sects (Maronite, Sunni, and Shiite) in an unwritten 'National Pact,' with the top position of President reserved for a Maronite. But as their share of the population dwindled, the Maronites found it difficult to justify their domination of the state. Prior to the civil war, the rift between the Muslim population and the governing elites widened. While many Muslims supported Arab nationalism, the Maronite elite greeted it with much trepidation and tried to distance itself from Nasser's belligerent stance toward Israel. Prior to the outbreak of civil war, the conflict between pro- and anti- Arab nationalist interests in Lebanon periodically reached crisis level before subsiding (Salibi, 1976).

Events evolving in Israel and Palestine brought this uneasy peace to a definitive end. The Lebanese government and citizenry were deeply divided over how to treat the PLO, which in the early 1970s was using Beirut's Palestinian refugee camps as a base of operations. While many Muslims openly supported the PLO, many Christians feared Israeli retaliation and further embroilment in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Right-wing Christian militias armed themselves in order to drive the PLO from Lebanon, incurring the hostility of many Muslims. Intersectarian violence borne of longstanding resentment between Muslims, Christians, and Druzes flared up throughout the country (see, for instance, Harik, 1999). Shortly thereafter, foreign powers (Israel, Iran, Syria) with their own geopolitical agendas stepped into the fray, arming various factions and, in the case of Israel and Syria, deploying occupying forces.

Beirut Disintegrates

By the 1980s, Beirut was splintered by rival warlords, who siphoned off what remained of the central government's resources. The warlords developed extensive networks of illicit commerce, and along with them, a 'vested interest in sustaining the trouble that became their lifeline and influence and power' (Kubursi, 1999, 78; see also Corm, 1994). In this context, the battle lines between factions became less clear, as militias splintered and former allies turned against each other in the contest for power and control. This internecine warfare, Abul-Husn (1998) notes, was some of the most destructive and deadly of the entire war.

The everyday existence of Beirutis during this chaos was marked by fear, mistrust, and violence. For 15 years, there was growing divisiveness among people who had once been neighbors. The most potent symbol of social polarization during the war was the infamous Green Line-a no-man's land of war-damaged and gutted buildings dividing East and West Beirut. The population became increasingly segregated by sect within these two halves of the city. For instance, following the assassination of a key Druze leader, Christian villagers in the Shuf region, fearing retaliation, fled to East Beirut's suburbs, virtually abandoning many Christian areas of the Shuf (Harik, 1999). At the same time, the Muslim population of East Beirut poured into West Beirut; the Muslim population of East Beirut declined from 40 percent to 5 percent by the end of the war (Nasr, 1993). Also notable was the movement of many Christians away from the city center altogether. These Christian households moved north of the city and hastily constructed scores of concrete apartment blocks in the steep coastal valleys. Shifts in the sectarian composition of the population were repeated throughout the country, radically transforming Lebanon's social landscape.

The constant warfare, deterioration of living conditions, and virtual collapse of the Lebanese state meant increasing isolation for many Lebanese. For instance, Yahyah (1994) describes how incessant violence and the deterioration of already inadequate services prompted Beirutis to create self-sufficient neighborhoods and apartment blocks. These localized units assumed responsibility for generating electric power, providing housing, and safety for their inhabitants. While such self-sufficiency was indicative of the tremendous resilience of Beirutis against great hardship, it was also emblematic of the polarization, distrust, and callousness which pervaded the city's neighborhoods (see also Khalaf, 1994).


In the early 1990s, Lebanon's civil war ended, more from exhaustion than from the clear victory of any one group. The peace agreement in many ways reinforced the status quo. The new Lebanon, for instance, has maintained the division of political offices by sect and, according to some commentators, has 'perpetuated the political power of the "warlords" who divided the running of the country between themselves for the better part of fourteen years' (Asmar et al, 1999, p. 36).

But in other ways, the political landscape of Lebanon has been significantly altered. The Sunni prime minister now holds greater power than the Christian president, and the Shiites, once the most deprived and disadvantaged group, have been politically empowered (though remain disproportionately poor). The nature of nationalist discourse in Lebanon has also changed. Lebanese nationalism was once the preserve of militant Christians; this is no longer entirely true. During the civil war, Arab socialism and pan-Arab nationalism lost some of their appeal as a political identity for many non-Christian Lebanese. At the same time, the diminution in Christian power meant that Lebanon at last could be understood as something other than a Maronite entity4.

The new political establishment has seized upon this emergent and fragile sense of sovereign nationhood among Lebanese. Since the end of the civil war, a nation-building agenda has infused the country's reconstruction. Reconstruction efforts have centered on Beirut-the center of Lebanon's financial services industries and the engine of its economic growth since independence. The concentration of redevelopment in Beirut also has an important symbolic dimension. Beirut was for years a virtual power vacuum, fragmented into militarized fiefdoms and subject to constant outside intervention. The city was essentially the capital of a state that had ceased to exist, and of a 'nation' which had never inspired the allegiance of its inhabitants. In focusing development on the capital, the new political elite has attempted to establish its legitimacy-and the legitimacy of Lebanon itself-to a battle-hardened polity and to the skeptical outside world.

Since the Ta'if Accord of 1989, the city has attracted billions of dollars of investment and loans from the World Bank, the European Union, commercial banks, private investors. The centerpiece of the redevelopment efforts has been the rebuilding of the 180 ha core of Beirut.5 The redevelopment has been undertaken by a partnership between the Lebanese state and a publicly-traded corporation called Solidere, whose initial public offering raised $2 billion in private capital.6 In contrast to pre-war laissez-faire development, the new city center development has been planned in great detail and centrally controlled. It is primarily in the spaces of Solidere's city center that Lebanon's governing elite (both public and private sector) has made tangible its new image of a united and civic-minded Lebanon.

Creating Civic Spaces

A highly touted feature of the new city center is the development of public spaces, which had been few prior to the war. The redevelopment plan boasts a wide tree-lined promenade along the seashore and public squares and parks. Most impressive is the reclamation of 60 ha of land (partly from an old garbage dump) for use as a public park. The company enthusiastically describes these as places where people can mingle as they once did. Significantly, in this sense, Solidere conceives of public spaces not as a new feature of Beirut's landscape, but as a return to an authentic, pre-war Beirut. The public spaces of Beirut, along with the re-created souks and refurbished commercial and residential districts, are understood as the revival of a genuine Beirut, where Muslims and Christians intermingled as friends and neighbors. These spaces, Solidere suggests, capture a uniquely Lebanese ethos of openness and diversity, and are a material representation of Lebanese identity.

Significantly, some of these new public spaces are organized around archaeological sites uncovered during the demolition of war-torn buildings. The priority given to archaeological preservation reflects a purposeful effort not only to draw tourists to the city center, but, quite literally, to excavate the heritage of the 'Lebanese people,' and in so doing to indicate the continuity between today's citizenry and Lebanon's ancient inhabitants. The Phoenician and 'Levantine' elements of that heritage have been given the most play, as they embody the images of the Lebanese nation favored by Beirut's central authority-naturally entrepreneurial, commercially-oriented, and cosmopolitan. The appropriation of Phoenician history is ironic, as claims of Phoenician lineage formed the basis of Maronite exceptionalism in the late 19th century.7

In creating public spaces and in preserving Lebanon's archaeological heritage, the public-private partnership controlling the city center has attempted to generate-or from their perspective, revive-a civic consciousness and unified national identity. The new Beirut is designed to represent a national space where a decade earlier there had been only rubble and gutted-out structures. At the same time, the city is meant to signal the beginning of legitimate, centralized authority where there had been political chaos and fragmentation.


More cynically, Solidere's the recovery and preservation of Lebanon's ancient monuments signifies a concerted effort to bury and to deny the country's more recent past. A striking feature of the rebuilt downtown is the lack of a substantial public memorial to the civil war or to its victims. Neither the state nor its private sector partner seems willing to address openly the memories that undoubtedly loom largest in the minds of Beirut's citizens.

This glaring forgetfulness of the landscape is at least partly explainable by the corporate motivations of Solidere. While tightly linked with the state, Solidere is primarily a private company acting for its shareholders to make profits. Its main aspiration has been to make Beirut a global city. To do this, Solidere needs to market a place-based identity for Beirut and to incorporate urban amenities and unique features that will draw investors and companies (cf Harvey, 1989; Crilley, 1993). Ancient heritage, in this context, is a very profitable issue for 'remembrance.' The civil war clearly is not.

There are certainly people other than Solidere's shareholders and planners who wish to exorcise totally the civil war from the urban landscape. For some, the new Beirut should serve as a symbol of Lebanon's civic-minded future rather than as reminder of its dismal recent past. But there are many who are not content with the official, corporate version of Beirut. Some commentators have heavily criticized Solidere and the state for draining state resources to transform the city center into a sanitized Middle Eastern theme park while the country remains rife with class, sectarian, and regional divisions and inequalities (Makdisi, 1997; Kubursi, 1999)8. They contend that the redevelopment zone caters to the wealthy, not to the vast majority of Beirutis who struggle for jobs and housing. This exacerbates rather than heals the country's divisions.

In response to the selective amnesia of the rebuilt city center, several alternative versions of Beirut's past and present have emerged to generate dialogue about the civil war, notably through the medium of film. Lebanon's film directors have attracted international attention for their self-critical portrayals of the civil war and their biting commentary on the country's rampant sectarianism and inter-communal violence. The recent film West Beirut, for instance, is an account of two Beiruti teenagers and their efforts to survive the day-to-day tensions of the civil war. Through their eyes, the war appears as an absurd venture, whose self-serving partisans speak in contradictions and half-truths. Another film, Pink Palace, tells the story of a family of squatters in post-war Beirut occupying a once grand home. A new owner who plans to demolish the home to make way for a new impressive commercial building confronts the family. The story is a metaphor for the relentless erosion of social cohesion in Lebanon-no longer from civil war, but from unbridled capitalism. Such films have encouraged the sort of public reflection on the nature of sectarian conflict in Beirut and the legacies of this conflict-reflection that has been otherwise stifled in the city's built environment.

Despite Solidere's efforts to recast Beirut as a stable, unified, and peaceful place, the city remains a site of struggle over the meanings of Lebanese identity and nationhood. The physical remains of war may be shifted or expertly hidden behind and underneath gleaming buildings, public squares, nightclubs and luxury apartment buildings. But the capital city, despite its forgetfulness, is a politicized space of competing meanings rooted in the region's turbulent history. In the depressed Shiite neighborhoods of south Beirut, larger-than-life portraits of radical clerics and Iranian notables dominate the landscape. Other segregated neighborhoods outside the reconstruction zone display equally different 'Lebanons' from that inscribed in Solidere's Beirut. The forgetfulness of the new Beirut thus should not be viewed in absolute terms as an erasure of the civil war, but rather, as one component of the politics of memory in Lebanon. The city's silences can only raise questions about what Lebanon signifies for those who inhabit it.


Abul-Husn, L. (1998). The Lebanese Conflict: Looking Inward, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Asmar, C., Kisirwani, M., and Springborg, R. (1999). 'Clash of politics or civilizations? Sectarianism among youth in Lebanon,' Arab Studies Quarterly, 21(4) 35-64.

Corm, G. (1994). 'The war system: military hegemony and reestablishment of the state,' in D. Collings (ed.), Peace for Lebanon? From War to Reconstruction, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 215-230.

Crilley, D. (1993). 'Megastructures and urban change: Aesthetics, ideology, and design,' in P. Knox (ed.), The Restless Urban Landscape, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 127-164.

Fawaz, L.T. (1983). Merchants and Migrants in Nineteenth Century Beirut, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Financial Times (1994). 'Glimmer of confidence: the hopes of Lebanon's Prime Minister to re-build the 'Paris of the Orient,' 25 January.

Harik, J. (1999). 'The return of the displaced and Christian-Muslim integration in postwar Lebanon,' Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, 10(2) 159-175.

Harvey, D. (1989). 'From managerialism to entrepreneurialism: The transformation of urban governance,' Geografiska Annaler, 71B(9), 3-17.

Hourani, A. and Shehadi, N. (eds.) (1992). The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration, London: IB Tauris.

Johnson, N. (1994). 'Sculpting heroic histories: celebrating the centenary of the 1789 rebellion in Ireland,' Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 19, 78-93.

Khalaf, S. (1987). Lebanon's Predicament, New York: Columbia University Press.

_________(1994). 'Culture, collective memory, and the restoration of civility,' in D. Collings (ed.), Peace for Lebanon? From War to Reconstruction, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 273-285.

Kubursi, A. (1999). 'Reconstructing the economy of Lebanon,' Arab Studies Quarterly, 21(1), 69-95.

Makdisi, S. (1997). 'Laying claim to Beirut,' Critical Inquiry, Spring, 663-705.

Nasr, S. (1993). 'New social realities and post-war Lebanon: Issues for reconstruction,' in S. Khalaf and P. Khoury (eds.), Recovering Beirut: Urban Design and Post-War Reconstruction, Leiden; New York; Koln: A.J. Brill.

Owen, R. (1993). The Middle East in the World Economy: 1800-1914. London; New York: I.B. Tauris.

Salibi, K. (1976). Crossroads to Civil War: Lebanon, 1958-1976, Delmar, NY: Caravan Books.

________ (1988). The House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered, Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press.

Till, K. (1999). 'Staging the past: landscape designs, cultural identity, and Erinnerungspolitik at Berlin's Neue Wache,' Ecumene, 6(3) 251-280.



1. Lebanese communities have established themselves throughout the world since the mid-19th century. Many Lebanese merchants founded communities in Ottoman cities and further afield in Africa, Europe, and Latin America. The diaspora grew at the turn of the century, when perhaps 250,000 people, mainly Christians, emigrated primarily for economic reasons to the United States and other immigrant-receiving countries. Numbers of emigrants swelled again during the civil war, when hundreds of thousands fled to Australia, Europe, the United States, and Canada. In some of these contexts, Lebanese diasporic communities have remained socially insular over several generations, and have maintained social and economic links with Lebanon (for an overview, see Hourani and Shehadi, 1992). They are thought to hold tens of billions of dollars in foreign banks, and were courted a major potential source of investment in Lebanon after the civil war (Financial Times, 1994).

2. The civil war officially ended in 1989 with the Ta'if Accord, named after the Saudi city in which it was negotiated. Some sources state 1990 or 1991 as the actual end of hostilities.

3. In 1920, the French High Commissioner in Beirut declared the State of Greater Lebanon. The new entity received a constitution in 1926 under the auspices of French mandatory rulers, and became the Lebanese Republic. The country was released from mandatory rule in 1943, and this is generally regarded as its date of independence.

4. The nature of this nascent national sentiment and its fragility are suggested by a recent survey of university students in Lebanon (Asmar, et al. 1999). According to this survey, over 90 percent of Christian respondents referred to themselves as Lebanese nationalists. Over half the Muslim respondents (including Shiite, Sunni, and Druze) also call themselves Lebanese nationalists. Twenty-eight percent refer to themselves as Arab nationalists and a further 16 percent as Islamists. While Muslims do not adhere to Lebanese nationalism as strongly as Christians, they do express a high degree of confidence in the state's representativeness. The unfortunate flip side of this is that Christians report a strong sense of helplessness and estrangement vis-à-vis the state and the body politic. One important point of convergence between sects is the belief that confessionalism is detrimental to Lebanon's development.

5. Other major projects include the reconstruction of the airport at a cost of $450 million (financed largely by the European Bank for Investment), the expansion of road infrastructure, revamping the port, and upgrading the electrical grid.

6. The tightness of this partnership is indicated in the fact that Solidere's founder, Rafiq Hariri was prime minister for several years after the civil war-an arrangement that has fuelled charges of corruption and conflicts of interest. He returned to power in 2001.

7. Maronite nationalism has rested on the claim that Lebanon's Christians are not Arabs, but rather, are the descendants of ancient Phoenician populations. Such claims, of dubious scholarly merit, were fuelled by French archeologists at the turn of the century (Salibi, 1988).

8. Some, like Makdisi (1997), criticize the 'colonization' of the public sector by the private, and the 'dissolution of any real distinction between public and private interests' (Makdisi, 1997, p. 672). Others, like economist Atif Kubursi (1999) are alarmed by the $17 billion debt incurred by the country's reconstruction. Servicing this debt requires $2.1 billion annually, or 89 percent of government revenues. Kubursi's concern is that the country's economic capacity cannot absorb the reconstruction program, and that the rebuilding is unconnected to any coherent countrywide development plan. Ultimately, he claims, the poor will pay for this debt with the prevailing regressive tax structure in Lebanon.

Edited and posted on the web on 20th August 2001

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Political Geography, 21 (5) (June 2002), 717-725