by Hannes Baumann
Some analysts have tried to interpret the months-long protests in Lebanon as an uprising ‘against Iran’ and its local ally Hizballah. Such an account, based on the geopolitical enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or the ‘Axis of Resistance’ against the US, simply cannot explain the protestors’ rejection of all politicians. This rejection is epitomised by the protest chant that ‘all of them means all of them’ and the spatial dynamics of the protest – spread across all parts of the country and reclaiming public space in the luxury enclave that is Beirut’s glitzy ‘downtown’. Sara Fregonese’s book on ‘urban geopolitics’ in Beirut is therefore a timely contribution that can help us rethink space and politics in Lebanon.
Fregonese listens closely to oral histories of combatants of the initial phase of the country’s civil war from 1975 to 1976 and delves into the archives to uncover militia representations of these battles. This way, she unsettles the geopolitical common sense which is the first lesson given to students of Lebanese politics: the country is divided between sects, this ‘cleavage’ structures conflict, and the sect (as a corporate actor) allies itself with outside powers according to the flavour of nationalism – Lebanese or Arab – to which the confessional group subscribes. Fregonese does not aim to uncover a ‘truer’ version of geopolitics but to ‘expose other, alternative geopolitical imaginations alongside dominant ones’ (p. 5).
Lebanese sectarianism is no ‘ancient hatred’ but the product of the colonial encounter of the nineteenth century. Fregonese shows (in chapter 2) that cartography and the representation of ‘sectarian’ territory were part and parcel of this politicisation of sectarian identity.
Sectarian divisions produced competing political visions: the idea of Lebanon as an independent state with a separate identity was pitted against an Arab nationalist vision of belonging to a broader regional entity. In 1958 these differences led to a brief civil war as part of a wider regional upheaval, which included the fall of the monarchy in Iraq and the unification of Syria and Egypt into the United Arab Republic. US President Eisenhower sent marines to Beirut to salvage the sovereignty of Lebanon, which he saw as a small Western-friendly nation in danger of being engulfed by hostile neighbours.
By the time the civil war of 1975 broke out, the Western script had flipped (chapter 5). Lebanon was no longer a plucky nation in need of defending, it was a sectarian quagmire in which intervention would be futile. British and US policy-makers interpreted Lebanon’s descent into civil war as a tragedy, fate, or simply a descent into chaos which defied comprehension. This re-reading of Lebanese geopolitics justified American aloofness from the war.
Fregonese then shifts perspective away from London and Washington to the streets of Beirut (chapter 6). Urban geographers have long paid attention to ‘urbicide’, when combatants target ‘buildings, logistics networks and communication infrastructure’ (p. 22) to divide communities and destroy civic values that embody the urban experience.
At the heart of Fregonese’s analysis of urbicide in Beirut is the ‘battle of the hotels’, in which rival militias were fighting over Beirut’s landmark luxury hotels in 1975 and 1976. The left-wing and predominantly Muslim Murabitun militia conquered Beirut’s Holiday Inn from the right-wing Lebanese Forces in March 1976. Murabitun imbued the battle with multiple meanings: as an assault by the poor on a luxury enclave and as a victory of pan-Arabism over Lebanonist particularism. At the same time, the hotel had the important strategic function of providing visibility over a large area. The battles in central Beirut resulted in the division of the city into East and West, which was to persist until the end of the war in 1990.
Fregonese argues that this instance of urbicide was not only enacted on a passive built environment but through it. The spatial shift between Beirut street corners and the geopolitics of Arab nationalist identity was almost instantaneous. Urban infrastructure and built environment became ‘geopolitical machines’ (p. 142).
Apart from urban geopolitics, Fregonese’s second conceptual innovation is the notion of ‘hybrid sovereignty’ (chapter 4). She argues that the relationship between militia and state was not simply an assault of the former against the sovereignty of the latter, but included instances of cooperation. The sovereignty of the Lebanese state was not there one day and gone the next but remained ‘hybrid’ throughout the war, as the militias engaged in a complex dance with a skeleton state.
Fregonese expands on this notion when she looks at a brief violent conflagration between Hizballah militants and their political opponents in Beirut in May 2008 (chapter 7). The army variously melted away, mediated between combatants, and reappeared as a symbol of order once agreement had been reached. This hybridity was epitomised in the fighting and negotiation over urban infrastructure during May 2008, when the airport and the offices of rival TV stations were at the heart of contention.
There are weaknesses to the book. Fregonese was the first to identify Lebanon’s ‘hybrid sovereignty’ but it would have been useful to introduce readers to the way others have applied the concept or developed similar conceptualisations of state-society relations in Lebanon. Chapter 6 wonderfully brings the themes together in an exploration of Fregonese’s rich empirical data and I would have liked to read more of this material. Chapter 7, meanwhile, is poignant but the chronological jump to 2008 is abrupt and the whole period from the end of the civil war in 1990 until 2008 remains unexplored.
These are minor quibbles about an important book that expands our conceptual toolbox for understanding not only Lebanese politics but also other cities in conflict. Beirut’s current protests are re-imagining community beyond sect. Fregonese’s notion of ‘urban geopolitics’ can help us understand the spatial aspect of this re-imagining.