As you read this piece, trucks shuttle sand from and deform the natural landscape of the last popular sandy beach in our city. Indeed, Beirut is on its way to becoming the first Mediterranean city without a seafront. We will finally enter the Guinness Book of World Records by earning the dubious distinction of developing every square meter of our sandy beaches and rocky coasts. Little time is left for those of us who hold a different vision for the future of the city’s coast to act.
Public agents shrug their shoulders at this prospect and express the same fatalistic attitude as one facing the aftermath of an earthquake. They want to convince us that the dispossessions incurred by their interpretations of property rights and building regulations are as inevitable as a natural catastrophe. But this public display of helplessness has lost all credibility. The deals have become so flagrant in their flaunting of Lebanon’s laws that nobody believes public agents anymore. Thus, most city dwellers are disgusted by the powerful real estate sector that has taken state institutions hostage. A courageous minority among them still struggles, using all possible means at their disposal including petitions, campaigns, protests, strategic litigation, and any other means available to fight for the remaining pieces of the coast. Indeed, it is well-known that developments such as those being approved now on the city’s coast are only made possible because these same public agents seal deals and ratify permits behind the closed doors of ministries, planning offices, and the municipality; permits that usher in the sequence of actions that have turned one after another of our city’s seafront communal spaces into private enclosures.
Why is the last public beach in the city being developed privately and why is it that the Ministries of Tourism, Environment, and Public Works, as well local and planning authorities, argue that this development is unavoidable? As a researcher focusing on city planning, I set out to collect over the past three months any legal or historic documents that could assist in uncovering what really
happened in Ramlet el Bayda.
The main conclusion I reached concerns the lack of transparency in public records and their numerous contradictions. Thus, I found a 1925 law [144/S] which clearly states that all sandy beaches are public and inalienable. Then I found a property record that supposedly inscribes in 1933, Beirut’s large sandy beaches as the private property of a handful of individuals. I found a 1954 regulatory framework that states as one of its basic principles that all zones between the seafront corniche and the sea are unbuildable, then numerous changes, revisions, exceptions, exemptions, incentives, and modifications of this regulation that reverse protections, intensify exploitation, and encourage privatization. These changes took numerous forms such as legal texts and decrees, ratified plans, formal decisions, and/or informal arrangements. Sometimes they were reversed, sometimes re-adopted. They were not necessarily consistent, and every time I thought I had nailed my story, I found more “secret documents”. These included decrees buried under different titles, others never published in official records, property exchanges unrecorded in public registries, public records that have no documentation of contested histories of their lots, lot pooling measures initiated deliberately to skirt previously decreed building restrictions, roads that appear on aerial photographs but not on maps, and more and more missing pieces.
I concluded that these records were simply a reflection of the asymmetry of my relation to public officials, an asymmetry cemented in the deliberate work of blurring records to preemptively circumvent the ability of city dwellers to formulate legally buttressed claims.
Therefore, I concluded that it is time we change the terms of the debate. It is time that we bring back to the fore the basic principles through which our social contract has been set: The right to the city and the moral duty of every elected representative to advocate the rights of urban majorities. It is time we buttress this basic principle with the core decisions that form the backbone of our legal systems: The early texts defining what public property is [Arrêté N. 144/S, 1925].
It is time we give precedence to the shared practices of city dwellers along the city’s coast, from Ayn el Jnah to Ayn el Mreisseh, going through Ramlet el Bayda and al-Dalieh, and refuse to sacrifice the views and dreams of these 99% on account of the property claims of the 1%.
It is time we recognize, as has long been established through the scholarly writings of the Law & Society
movement, that it is, after all, human beings who make the law, and that law will thus necessarily reflect their principles, values, and often also their interests.
So, if decrees are issued by greedy, self-interested, and manipulative investors who ignore the evident principle that Lebanon’s coast is for its people, then these laws can only be used to justify dispossession. Only when we have conscientious and accountable lawmakers can our laws reflect the principles of spatial and urban planning that we know are best for our city and its people, those that dictated since the Ottoman era, throughout the French Mandate, and well into our independence, that the city’s coast remain an inalienable shared domain, open to all and clearly closed to development.
It is time that public decision makers remember that above and beyond any other role they may wish to play, they are the custodians of the common good. If these public officials feel that they indeed represent the 99% and that they have no room to act, then there are a number of simple legal and planning tools for them to use:
1. The Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the custodian of the maritime public domain in Lebanon, should initiate a survey to redefine the property boundaries of the maritime domain along the guidelines of the 1925 law, which clearly identifies as public and inalienable the entire city coast with its sandy and rocky beaches. The ministry should furthermore revoke all exploitation permits it has granted over the years to private investors and launch a strategy to eradicate all forty violations on the city’s coast. Additionally, it should pledge to not issue new permits for projects that would close off the coast.
2. The Municipality of Beirut, with its council and its governor, should refuse to grant any permit along the city’s coast in line with the Building Law [Article 13] that entitles this local authority to reject a permit if a building will disfigure the natural environment. The municipal council should also convene and agree to send an official request to the Directorate General of Urbanism (DGU) to change the current zoning of the city’s coast, reverting to the original 1954 zoning regulations that prohibited all developments along the coast.
The municipality can also ask the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities (MOIM) to order the police to force the implementation of the building law, whose provisions require them to demolish illegal buildings, removing all current violations blocking the sea view in the city.
3. The DGU should issue a decision—as it is entitled to do according to the 2004 Building Law—to immediately freeze development along the city’s coast and suspend it for up to three years, until a new regulation is approved. Additionally, it should re-adopt the 1954 zoning regulation, as it protects the entire coast from construction and annul all revisions, exceptions, and incentives that may be used to build along the coast since then.
4. The Ministry of Environment should articulate a strategy to protect the city’s coast and rehabilitate all forms of life along it, draft the legal texts to implement it, and build the institutional strength to enforce it. In the meantime, the ministry should refrain from approving any environmental impact assessment study that may advance the false claim that building on the city’s coast does not incur major negative environmental repercussions.
5. The MOIM should cancel all special exceptions granted by its offices and others, and initiate a comprehensive operation to remove all 40+ encroachments off Beirut’s coast.
6. The Order of Engineers and Architects should take the ethical position of its professions seriously and recall the permit to practice for every landscape architect, architect, civil engineer, urban planner, or urban designer who is willing to sign her/his name on a building permit that will jeopardize the integrity of the coast.
7. The Council for Development and Reconstruction should follow the recommendations of its national master plan to develop a thorough coastal land-use plan and pressure the DGU to develop this plan while it sets the tone of prioritizing nature and people over profit.
8. The parliament should exercise its oversight duties by pressing the Council of Ministers and all ministries to enforce legislation that protects the sanctity of the city’s coast and its public property and ensures that the 1925 law is respected. It should also work to produce new legislation that reflects today’s ecological imperatives and strengthen measures to protect the city’s seafront facade.
9. Finally, all public officials, be they deputies, ministers, or others, must declare openly their private interests on the coast, including where they and family members hold property titles and/or where they are shareholders in development projects. They furthermore need to recuse themselves from participating in any decision-making about the future of the coast when their private interests present a conflict of interest that will unduly influence the outcome of permitting processes.
In brief, there are several measures that state institutions and even non-governmental institutions can and must take to protect the city’s coast for its residents. Until then, until each and every one of these institutions takes a position to stand by the 99%, these officials, elected or appointed, must know that history will judge them as guilty of assault against Beirut and its people, acting in concert to conceal the evidence of the crime and formulating the justifications to condone it.
I worked with a handful of researchers, students, colleagues, and other individuals equally interested in protecting the city’s coast. I take however the sole responsibility of the arguments and positions in this article.