In downtown Beirut, since the beginning of the 20th century, Martyrs’ Square has been the site of countless political events—a public space that marked the country’s history and symbolized freedom and unity. During Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), Martyrs’ Square was the point of departure for a trenchant, physical line separating East from West. The demarcation line became a theater of sectarian war and bloodshed that eradicated all signs of life except for that of the green foliage invading the streets and buildings, and became known as the “Green Line.”
During the long civil war, Beirut’s center was torn apart—its civilians expelled, businesses and ministries sacked and buildings transformed into strategic military positions. With each military operation, the demarcation line widened, reaching the city’s suburbs and leading to further sectarian homogenization of previously mixed territories. Lebanon’s civil war both created and accentuated political, psychological, and physical divisions which today’s Lebanese society still struggles to overcome.
As the war progressed, populations moved into territories according to sectarian affiliations, making East Beirut largely home to Christians and West Beirut to Shia and Sunni Muslims. Some people remained in their neighborhood regardless of the sectarian militia that controlled it, but East and West Beirut became the centers of military, economic, and political power of each of the opposing militias. The population influx to the East and West led to an expansion of militia power—which, in turn, required further spatial control. This expansion led to the development of new infrastructure, increased control over key economic sectors, name changes for public places and streets, transformation of buildings into militia points, and the creation of a new taxation system. Public spaces became the product of political hegemony, and in turn, became catalysts for greater social segregation.
In 1990, the “Document of National Accord” known as the “Taif Agreement” was signed by the parliament; it was the foundation of the civil war’s end and sparked a transition to political normalcy. The agreement defined a power-sharing formula that assigned the offices of President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of the House to the Maronite, Sunni, and Shia sects respectively. The peace agreement reinforced the status quo. It continued to serve the interests of the political leadership in their efforts to safeguard their continuity in office, shattering rule of law, and leaving the interests of all communities to a dysfunctional governance system and ongoing turmoil.
The urban reconstruction of Beirut reflected wider political and interest-based economic and political agendas. While the city’s spaces were cleaned of barricades and obvious reminders of the war, the Green Line is still salient in Beirut’s economic, spatial, and psychological fabric. The war’s socio-political and physical networks (depending on the region) continue to function, and spatial-political hegemony continues.
Additionally, Law 117 passed by the government at the end of the war privatized, demined, and gentrified Beirut’s city center. What was historically a melting pot space where people of all socio-economic, cultural, and religious backgrounds interacted, became accessible only to a minority of society. The area of the city center that encompassed the main transport hub, major government institutions, hotels, cafes, souks, opera house and other locations, became a high-end commercial and business center accessible only to the wealthy. The center became sanitized of ethnic affiliation, cleansed of war memorials, and void of public spaces for national remembrance.
The gentrification of downtown Beirut was not only the end of access, but the destruction of the city’s core communal social value — a dimension that the pre-war generation praised and the post-war generation longed for. The urban center used to be a shared space where the commingling of diverse identities captured a national spirit—where walking was an intimate mode of negotiating with the space and with those who participated in it. Distancing oneself from the space meant distancing oneself from the “other.” In contrast, post-war downtown reinforced the communal segmentations and territorialization of the city and was one factor in stalling the process of reconciliation and reintegration.
Post-war political dialogue and mediation efforts continue to this day in Lebanon, but the spaces where those dialogues take place (public institutions, private or public spaces) are often used by the various political factions to reinforce sectarian power and maintain the status quo. Various civil society efforts where initiated to counterbalance this reality and create spaces for public debates across sectors and around issues of national concern.
Within this context, the Common Space Initiative (CSI) for shared knowledge and consensus building was created in 2010 in response to the need for a space for informal, yet structured, dialogue between Lebanon’s primary stakeholders (both civil and political). CSI involves an inclusive and disparate group encompassing political parties, policymakers, intellectuals, experts, and civil society actors. It created a physical space for its work, a stone’s throw away from Martyrs’ Square, in the city’s historical melting pot, where the concerned stakeholders can meet to reflect, debate ideas, and formulate proposals away from political calculations and external pressures.
Public spaces became the product of political hegemony, and in turn, became catalysts for greater social segregation.
CSI is in the heart of the city center, on “Place de l’Etoile,” facing parliament, and close to the Grand Serail (headquarters of the Prime Minister of Lebanon). CSI is comprised of four main areas: 1. dialogue rooms where dialogues take place on a permanent basis, 2. a library that offers stakeholders a working space and access to all necessary knowledge resources, 3. office spaces for the CSI support team to undertake research, facilitate communication, build relationships, and provide human resource, operational, and finance support for various dialogues, and 4. a reception area where stakeholders meet for informal discussions.
The main conference table is designed so that no one position at the table privileges another. The walls are filled with photographs detailing the history of Lebanon’s many efforts to build communal understanding, secure stability, and effect peace. The library offers resources on Lebanon’s political reforms, efforts, and needs and to the public. All of these elements create a sense of historical integrity and connection to the best efforts of Lebanon’s diverse factions at crafting a unified nation.
CSI’s neighbors are mosques and churches of nearly every Lebanese faith, and the call to prayer and church bells are regular reminders of Lebanon’s pluralism and religious traditions. Unlike typical offices, two-thirds of the CSI is common space. Shared spaces and facilities allow for all stakeholders to meet formally or informally, conduct research in the library, use confidential online spaces, and use networks and tools to facilitate exchanges of knowledge between stakeholders, experts, and others.
CSI supports the development of knowledge-based dialogue forums that: 1. include individuals from various levels of society, 2. tackle political, social, economic, and judicial aspects of society, and 3. respect core principles of inclusivity, ownership, dignity, sustainability and knowledge sharing.
CSI’s support team maximizes the interplay between analysis and action and is comprised of political analysts, social scientists, knowledge-sharing experts, process designers, facilitators, legal experts, psychologists, architects, and others. Together, they explore the multiplicity of frames through which one can analyze conflict and capitalize on resources and expertise to best respond to needs and challenges as they arise.
While CSI continues to support dialogues and peacebuilding processes in Lebanon, it has also extended its support to other countries including Cyprus, Burma, Nepal, Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan—where each process takes a unique social, political, and physical shape, based on the need of each context and stakeholders. All the outcomes of the processes supported by CSI are confidential and solely owned by the stakeholders in the dialogues, but the results of some of those dialogues have been publicly released and include: The Common Vision for Lebanese Palestinian Relations, Lebanon’s Decentralization Draft Law, and The Vision for the Reactivation of the Economic and Social Council in Lebanon.
Developing and proceeding through stages of mediation, and designing appropriate prevention initiatives and interventions based on the causes and stages of a conflict, is not a linear process. Creativity must be present at every level of every element of dialogue in order to address the various aspects of conflict. Society has to foster its collective creativity in order to expand its understanding of how spaces of trust can be created, partnerships across divided communities formed, and reconciliation achieved.
(Feature Photo Credit: Ghassan Tabet via Flickr)