The Syrian conflict has divided and destroyed many of the country’s most important cities. Should the fighting cease, they will require massive reconstruction. Yet I spoke with urban development specialists at the National Agenda for the Future of Syria who fear that the war-torn cities of Homs and Aleppo will never be rebuilt. Instead, they will be razed to the ground and another Solidere will be rebuilt in their place.
Their references to Solidere are intriguing. Solidere is the name of the private company contracted to rebuild downtown Beirut after the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). However, Beirut’s reconstruction had wide-ranging political and economic repercussions that offer an object lesson in how not to rebuild a devastated city.
Solidere turned Beirut into a city of exclusion. Its iconic architecture and tax incentives attracted foreign investment, in turn helping the country’s economic recovery. But more buildings were torn down during reconstruction than were destroyed by the war, transforming Beirut’s war-scarred layers of history from the Roman, Mamluk, Ottoman and French periods into a city without memory.
During the civil war, Beirut was separated by checkpoints between Christian East and Muslim West. Daily movement today is disrupted by what Mona Fawaz, a scholar of urban planning, describes as architectures of security. Soldiers and blast barriers guard the entrances to Solidere’s downtown. The sidewalks outside public buildings are protected by concrete walls and barbed wire, forcing pedestrians onto the road. The areas surrounding politicians’ homes or political party headquarters are blocked by checkpoints. The only public park was, until recently, closed to the public for security reasons. The sentiment that those living here need to create a bubble and live inside the bubble for them not to lose their minds is one often expressed to me, and which I also feel after two years of living in Beirut. These frustrations mean that half of Lebanon’s young and educated emigrate at some point in their lives.
Solidere also symbolizes the extent to which reconstruction has blurred the boundaries between public interest and private profit. The process of postwar rebuilding was especially lucrative for members of government and their business associates, none more so than billionaire Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who upon purchasing $125 million of shares in Solidere became the largest shareholder in the very company to which his cabinet awarded the most lucrative reconstruction project. Hariri also owned Lebanon’s largest private construction company, whose director was appointed the head of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, meaning, in the words of architect Hashim Sarkis, that “the agency that the government used to control private development has now reversed its role.”
Lebanon went deeply into debt to finance reconstruction, and with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 149 percent, it is today the world’s third-most-indebted country. The interest payments total more than a third of the government’s annual spending. Yet because politicians and their families control one-third of all banking assets — and because Lebanese banks own around 85 percent of the debt — these payments profit the very political leaders sinking Lebanon deeper into debt.
Lebanon’s reconstruction has preserved the war economies once lining the pockets of militia leaders. During the civil war, the militias established civil administrations to service their sectarian constituencies. In return for taxing the population under their control, they collected garbage, provided water and electricity, managed traffic and maintained roads. Yet the militias also turned war into a strategic resource. From drug-trafficking to pillaging the port to speculating against the Lebanese pound, the militias procured about $1 billion annually, creating personal fortunes for their leaders and perpetuating the civil war.
Postwar reconstruction came without political reconciliation. The former warlords are today Lebanon’s politicians, ministers and heads of government. These include (but are not limited to) Walid Joumblatt, the Druze leader who despite displacing tens of thousands during the war was named minister of the displaced; Nabih Berri, who led Shiite forces and has been speaker of parliament since the civil war’s conclusion; as well as presidential candidates Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun, whose Christian militias battled each other throughout the war. Their inclusion may have persuaded them to lay down their arms, but according to Reinoud Leenders, these politicians are less willing to surrender the economic windfalls from violence and state collapse. Today, they sit in a paralyzed parliament — which has failed to elect a president in more than two years (or pass a budget in over a decade) — where they line their pockets through a system of sectarian patronage.
The pathologies of reconstructed Beirut are laid bare in the deterioration of basic services. Every summer when the faucets run dry, the streets are blocked by tanker trucks delivering water to the plastic cisterns atop apartment buildings. Compared with the average international broadband speed of 22.4 megabits per second, Beirut’s internet crawls along at 3.2 Mbit/s — and only when there is electricity. There are daily blackouts of three hours in Beirut and up to 18 hours in the rest of Lebanon. The government subsidizes the public electricity provider $2 billion annually, totaling 40 percent of the public debt; but with half the bills uncollected and politicians divided over privatization, the World Bank refers to Electricité du Liban as “the Poster Child of Confessionally-Induced Waste in Public Spending that Plagues Public Finances, Businesses, and Households since 1981.”
Everyone must purchase potable water, and those who can afford it pay for a generator, but there is no individual solution to garbage. A private company is responsible for both the collection and disposal of Beirut’s garbage. The council of ministers renewed its contract three times without an open tender and its payment per ton of garbage is one of the highest in the world. So when the landfill, which had long reached its absorptive capacity, was closed last summer and putrid garbage began piling on the streets, the Lebanese people participated in the largest protests since the assassination of Hariri in 2005 and the withdrawal of Syrian occupying troops. They were demanding not simply a solution to the trash crisis but an end to corruption disguised as sectarianism.
As the economic downturn and insecurity of the Syrian war bleed across the border, Lebanese policymakers point to the business opportunities of reconstruction. I spoke with real estate developers who hope to be called upon for rebuilding and commercial bankers who want to reopen their offices in Syria.
But as international donors and development specialists look towards reconstructing Syria, they should heed the lessons from Lebanon. Politically paralyzed, infrastructurally fragile and deeply indebted, Lebanon is a model for what postwar Syria should avoid. A cessation of the hostilities is essential in Syria. Yet reconstruction without dismantling the war economies and political patronage networks perpetuating them means that Syrian reconstruction will resemble Lebanon, in all its division and dysfunction. More than rebuilding, what is required is reorienting the political economy away from war. Lebanon reveals this is especially problematic when the same perpetrators and profiteers of the conflict hold political office in the postwar era.
Julia Tierney is a doctoral candidate at the University of California Berkeley in city and regional planning.