Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Habib Battah

 

Pain in the ass to retrieve numbers and statistics in Lebanon. Worst when it is related to money

How hard is it to get information from the Lebanese government?

The answer may surprise you. I discuss my adventure with the finance ministry in my recent column for Bold Magazine

Habib Battah posted:

Lebanon By The Numbers

It seemed a straightforward question: How much money has the Lebanese government received in Syria-related aid donations?

When I asked the Prime Minister’s advisor at his lavish office in the Grand Serail, he lifted his hands. “It’s a very small number. It’s nothing. I don’t have it,” he said, looking at me as if the matter was inconsequential.

At the time, the Lebanese government had been on a world tour to lobby for funds to cope with the world’s largest refugee crisis, arguing that it had received a pittance in aid money.

I was writing a piece about it and thought, in order to make that argument effectively, wouldn’t it be helpful to specify exactly how much has been given, to underscore the wide gap between that tiny figure and the amount that was actually needed?

I emailed the advisor twice after our interview and he could still not produce an answer, referring me instead to the Finance Ministry.

So days later, I put in a call there – well, several calls – until I was told I would need to make an information request. Naturally, the bureaucrat told me requests could only be made in writing, and by this she meant typed and delivered in person, not signed and scanned, not emailed, not faxed, not any means convenient or rational.

So half an hour of walking later – thank God I live in Beirut – I arrived at the Finance Ministry with a typed up piece of paper stating my simple one line question, who I was writing for and why I wanted to know.

I approached the office of the “responsible person,” a middle-aged man, who was flanked by two similarly aged women. He smiled wryly at my request. “You were living abroad?” I affirmed, but asked how that was relevant to obtaining the information. “If you can, go back there. Lebanon is like Angola,” he exclaimed with a chuckle. I smiled and asked one of his female co-workers if they had dealt with journalists often. “You are the first one I have seen here,” she said soberly.

Later I visited the office of the bureaucrat I had dealt with over the phone to see if I could hurry matters along as I was on a deadline. She told me the request would take “some time” as it, like all press inquiries, had to be approved by the minister.

Surprisingly, she said I could have a look at the figure in the meantime, though I could not quote her. She pulled out a spartan spreadsheet of what seemed to be accounts receivable, with only a few entries. She did a few quick calculations, and figured total donations to the state amounted to around $2.8 million, an astoundingly tiny sum, which would amount to less than 0.1% of Lebanon’s total aid appeal. Why was this figure so hard to obtain?

I called and emailed the same bureaucrat several times over the following two weeks, but my request was never answered. Eventually I was forced to use the unofficial figure, labeling it as a “government estimate.” A couple of weeks after the piece was published -nearly a month after my initial request was made – I received a phone call from a ministry employee.

The figure I had requested was ready, she said nonchalantly. It was close to $2 million or $1 million less than the previous figure. But who was counting.

Clearly accuracy or transparency were not a priority among the myriad of officials I had dealt with. This meant I would miss my deadline and that the public would not have access to relevant national data illustrating the daunting challenge the country and its institutions faced.

Yet I was also surprised by the lack of reporters that had requested documents from the Ministry of Finance (perhaps the most important of all ministries), according to the staff I met.

The bureaucracy may be stifling but negotiating it is part of what journalism is there for. Who else is going to have time to pace government hallways, make phone calls relentlessly, and ultimately put pressure on authorities?

Sadly, many reporters and activists often assume that if the information is not forthcoming it simply does not exist or, worse still, is not worth pursuing. It is almost as if we are conditioned not to ask, not to bother, to accept evasive answers, sigh and call it a day, so to speak.

But what many may not realize is that non-answers are also a type of answer; that they are also responses worthy of being recorded and disseminated to the public.

I have written entire articles based on non-answers, from pollution on Lebanese beaches, to a lack of budget or website for Municipality of Beirut, to top internet officials who refused to discuss their roles in one of the world’s worst connections.

In many of these cases, the desire to remain evasive produced flustered, if not comical answers that cast even more doubt on the competency of those in power. “No comment” should send up a red flag for any dedicated journalist: keep digging.

Increasingly, concerned citizens are not waiting for journalists to do their jobs. Every year, new activist groups are born, composed of both young and older individuals willing to sacrifice time and effort to dig through archives, take screenshots from Google Earth, conceal hidden cameras, pore through archaic legal codes to document illegal seizure of public properties, racism at beach resorts, grounds for civil marriage, among many other issues.

One group is even now looking into resurrecting a 1920s era law that allows citizens to launch complaints with Parliament, though it has rarely ever been used before.

The internet and social media have helped create momentum like never before, even in a place that seems as feudalistic or complacent as Lebanon’s public sector.

As a result, today it is easier for anyone to get involved and to pressure both news outlets and officials to work harder to come up with the answers that citizens deserve.

This column originally appeared in the July issue of Bold Magazine

 

Get in touch with your MPs

One of the best ways to hold government accountable is to get in touch with your representatives and let them know how you feel.

Let them know what concerns you. Most of all, let them know you are listening and watching what they are doing.

In many “democratic” and developed countries, representatives coordinates and emails are officially available to contact.

In Lebanon, you have to do your due diligence in order to investigate “how to contact your representative“.

Even if you manage to link up with your representative, it is hardly likely that you will get any response.

Actually, your deputies don’t give a hoot about your opinion or your inkling to vote for him: They automatically vote to extend their tenure in the Parliament “two more years“. In due time, it is the leaders of the “political” parties and warlords who round up the chattel to vote for the representative.

Four years is not enough to amass millions and to trample your rights and dignity.

 posted this May 30, 2014:

Screen Shot of Nouweb site
 
 
 
 
Now thanks to a great new tool developed by local groups SMEX and Lamba Labs, you can actually contact your members of Parliament.
As I reported last year most MPs don’t even have email–which goes a long way toward explaining why our internet is among the world’s slowest.
But fortunately most, if not all of them, still have phone numbers, office numbers and secretaries and they are now available on Nouweb (deputies).
This is a really great tool, which could help spark something we desperately lack in Lebanon and much of the world: representative government. Remember, no matter where you live in the world, government will rarely work for you unless you let them know you are listening.
As my mom always says, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
So if you see something wrong, if the police are not enforcing laws–if people are dumping garbage in the valley, if you want 24 hour electricity, if you want traffic laws, if you are sick of being almost run over by reckless drivers, call your MP. Be civil. Be polite. Be clear and concise.
If they don’t answer, call again, leave a message. Make your voice heard, because no one is going to make it heard for you. No one is going to give you rights unless you demand them. And everyone has a right to speak to their MPs.
Don’t forget, we are paying their salaries!
Finally if the good folks that developed Nouweb can make this list possible, then it is also definitely possible that you can do something with it!

For non-Arabic speakers the site’s name is a clever play on words combining Nuweb– the Arabic term for parliamentarians–and web)  

One of the last open spaces in Verdun, which is already crowded with shopping centers, will be cleared for yet another ABC mall.
 in his The Beirut Report posted this February 7, 2014

Rare Verdun greenery cleared for another mall

Photo: Qaph blog
Have a good look at those trees– they’ll be gone soon, if not already dumped somewhere.  Construction has already started according to fellow blogger Gino, who posted this picture today:
Photo: Gino’s Blog
For years the site had been gated, but the gate seemed rather old.
Here is a picture posted by blogger Qaph, who was the first to break the story earlier this month:
In his post, Qaph wrote that the site was formerly the grounds of a St. Joseph school, and judging by the sandstone, it was probably quite old. So why was it demolished? And who sold it to developers?
I had driven by the lot for years but paid little attention to it until I heard Abir Saksouk-Sasso‘s talk about the lack of public space in Beirut at the DiverseCities conference earlier this year.
Saksouk-Sasso, who is part of the amazing performance activism group Dictaphone, argued that despite state efforts to control and limit public spaces, the public has appropriated “left over spaces” and one of these was the Verdun plot.
So why couldn’t the state or the municipality of Beirut (which has an estimated wealth of near $1 billion) save one plot for its citizens?
Photo: Skyscraper City
Plans to build a park were once announced by late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri–at least according to Qaph’s post.
But ironically those leading the mall project are Hariri-owned companies. Did the late prime minister change his mind?
First announced in 2005, the mall complex was to be built by Hariri son Bahaa’s firm, Horizon and Kipco, which is largely owned by the Kuwaiti royal family. Here is the initial press in early 2005:
Photo: Skyscraper city

But those plans, which included a hotel/residential tower and cineplex, have changed markedly over the years. From 2005:

Photo: Skyscraper city

To 2008, where the tower seems to have been reduced significantly, according to this picture posted on Skyscraper city, which still exists on the Horizon website: To no towers at all in 2013, according to this rendering published by Beirut.com early last year:

According to a piece in business magazine Lebanon Opportunities, the Kuwaitis are apparently out, and are now replaced it seems by Lebanon’s ABC group at a 40% share.
Meanwhile Hariri’s son Bahaa has switched from Horizon to his other construction company, Verdun 1544 Holding. The project is reportedly worth $200 million.
Do all the changes indicate a decrease or renegotiation in capital or relationships?
One thing is for sure, no company in this eco-system represented Beirut residents’ rights to green spaces or the fate of these trees, which are all probably firewood by now.

Policeman in Beirut: Photography is “illegal” in Hamra?

Are the latest car explosions and threats to “leaders” launching the security forces into a period of tight control over whatever might be considered as intelligence gathering by the various factions (internally and externally:?

posted in The Beirut Report this January 30, 2014

A few minutes ago I was taking this picture when a policeman shouted at me.Cop: “Hey, stop, stop! What are you doing? Don’t you know photography is forbidden?”Me: [Pointing to intersection] “Photography is forbidden here?”

Cop: [Looking exasperated] “Of course. It is illegal to take photos, not just here, anywhere in Hamra! Even anywhere in Beirut!”

Me: Are you serious? What does it matter if I take a picture?Cop: Yes of course I am serious! Don’t you know about the terrorism? I can call this in and they will come here and pick you up and take you away. There is a jail sentence!Me: Is this a new law, what law is it?

Cop: Yes. It’s a law, I don’t know what it is called! I didn’t say anything after the first or second photo, but then you took two or three! But you seemed like a nice guy so I will let it slide. Just don’t take any more, okay?

Me: Do you know what you are saying? Do you know how many people you need to arrest to enforce this law? Do you know how many buses you need to arrest everyone taking photos today in Hamra or the rest of Beirut?”

Suddenly our conversation is interrupted by a loud police siren.

A big black suburban with black tinted windows comes careening into the intersection in front of us and hangs a left onto Hamra street. Inside are two college-aged boys. The license plate has only three numbers.Me: Why don’t you arrest those people? They are not police, they are kids and they have a police siren?Cop: [wry smile] Oh no, I can’t touch them. Every number in 600 (i.e. 600-699) belongs to Berri. (Chairman of the Parliament for over 3 decades.)

(The plate actually began with number 1)

I then point to a car with no tail lights, a motorcyclist without a helmet, the traffic lights around us, each one illegally festooned with a flag of a certain Lebanese political party that has claimed this intersection as its territory. See red circles:

Interrupted panorama shot. I couldn’t get a better one because of the new “law” against photography

Me: So all this illegal stuff is going on right in front of you, every minute, and you want to stop me for taking a picture of it?

Cop: Listen. [Pulls out tiny folded up piece of paper from his pocket] You see this? It says here my duty today is “traffic management.” I can’t issue tickets until after this shift is over tonight.

(I didn’t think of it at the time, but why then was he trying to arrest me if technically he had no right?)

Cop: Let me tell you a story. Once I stopped this guy who was harassing a woman. He was Syrian, he had no ID papers. I got a phone call from headquarters. They said release him immediately. You see people have “waasta” (connections), there are people you can’t touch.”

I bid the cop farewell, wishing him more success at his job in the future.

Postscript:

Of course, I have been harassed for taking photos before, but ironically the police once actually tried but failed to help.

I’ve also been physical assaulted for taking photos, not by authorities, but by private developers and political hooligans.
Flags are also routinely hung by all parties in Lebanon as I documented in ZalkaAin El MreiseAin El Remmaneh and elsewhere. But this is the first time I am told there is an actual “law” prohibiting photos on public streets.  

Brown spills, sewage dump…: Beirut, Na3meh, Khaldeh…

For over 15 years, Sukleen (one of the Hariri clan company) has been renewing its contract with the government without bidding procedures and used open air dumps for its garbage collection enterprise.

Sukleen has been charging the municipalities $140 a ton of garbage and paid directly from the municipality fund (like taxes on payrolls), while the few private providers allowed to work and independent municipalities with their own system are paying $40 a ton.

Saida had amassed a hill of garbage and the municipality is fooling us that this hill will become a green garden for the citizens, eventually.  With potential perspectives and architectural plans… to back it up.

In Na3meh, the people have been suffering from increased cancer problems, living in an environment of constant stench. They endeavored to sit-in and prevent any more trucks to empty garbage.  The government has again promised to resolve this problem within two years...

Brown spills of Khalde

It’s a nasty sewage dump- mainly flowing from southern Beirut, Khaldeh and the suburbs like Aramoun/Bchamoun/Choueifat…

Noticed most of your recent posts have to do with that short trip you took to Jordan- best way to learn about Lebanon is to leave it for a few days every couple of weeks- refreshes your perspective

In addition to the landfill crisis on Beirut’s streets–covered on this blog yesterday— there appears to be a heavy dose of brown stuff spewing into the Mediterranean near Beirut Airport, as seen in these pictures I took a couple of days ago.
You can see the runway at the top right. And the output point appears to be near a sea resort near Khalde, a few hundred meters before the Ouzai tunnel running underneath the tarmac.
Zooming in on the same area in Google Maps, the brown substance appears to come from very close to this resort, near a green area, before being flushed out to sea via a short canal:
Zoom out and you can see the extent of the damage across the coastline:

But these satellite images could be quite dated– in some parts of Beirut I have noticed Google earth images to be 2-3 years old.

Judging by my current airplane window shots, could this mean that the slime has been pumped out constantly for 3 years or even much longer?
No wonder Sidon and Khalde are not safe places to swim.

En reponse a M Nehmat Frem ce soir sur telelumiere qui a specule qu'uniquement 15% des libanais seraient capables de trier leurs dechets, j'aimerais preciser qu'entre les annees 1996 et 1998 les habitants de Bsharri furent les habitants du premier village au Liban a trier leurs dechets a la source (c.a.d chacun dans sa maison). En effet environ 80 % des habitants avaient participe au tri des dechets organise par le Comite de Sauvergarde de l'Environnement de Bsharri, projet que la municipalite de Bsharri avait malheureusement refuse de reprendre lors de sa reprise de pouvoir en 1998. Avec de la bonne volonte, de la patience et du courage, rien n'est impossible M. Frem.
In response to Ne3mat Frem who speculated that only 15% of Lebanese (meaning municipalities, baladiyat?) are able to sort out their garbage… I would like to remind M Frem that between 1996-98 the citizens of the town of Bsharreh were the first to sort out their garbage at the source, their homes.
Indeed, 80% of the inhabitants participated in the project Safeguarding the Environment Committee. Unfortunately, the next municipality refused to take up that project.
With will, patience and courage, nothing is impossible.
The French text posted by Habib Rahmet:
En reponse a M Nehmat Frem ce soir sur telelumiere qui a specule qu’uniquement 15% des libanais seraient capables de trier leurs dechets, j’aimerais preciser qu’entre les annees 1996 et 1998 les habitants de Bsharri furent les habitants du premier village au Liban a trier leurs dechets a la source (c.a.d chacun dans sa maison). En effet environ 80 % des habitants avaient participe au tri des dechets organise par le Comite de Sauvergarde de l’Environnement de Bsharri, projet que la municipalite de Bsharri avait malheureusement refuse de reprendre lors de sa reprise de pouvoir en 1998. Avec de la bonne volonte, de la patience et du courage, rien n’est impossible M. Frem.

Downtown Beirut: Memory erased…

A waiter surveys a row of empty tables beneath the Place D’Etoile clock tower seen on so many postcards of Beirut.
Once a gritty, bustling hub of the city, the square was sandblasted and transformed into a posh cafe district in the early 1990s after the ravages of the Lebanese war. Tonight, hundreds of glasses and plates are laid on fine place mats, but there is barely a single customer in sight.

Habib Battah published in the January issue of Al Jazeera Digital Magazine, available on iTunes.

“You will be lucky if your restaurant gets two tables per night,” says 26-year-old Rami. “If you get three or four, you are king of the street.”
He is among a dozen wait staff dressed in starched shirts and vests standing around, waiting for things to pick up. They’ve watched some 13 restaurants shut down over the last year and more closings are scheduled, leaving only a handful of establishments still lit up on the once crowded strip.
Beyond the clock tower circle, the slowdown is more grim. Entire surrounding blocks are empty, with hundreds of vacant, dusty glass storefronts lining the pristine cobble stone streets.
Fifty-one-year-old Lina manages one of the few boutiques still open, but with an average of one sale per day, she spends much of her time drinking coffee on the curbside.And yet rents in the redeveloped old city, rebranded after the civil war as Beirut Central District, are among the highest in the country.
Some establishments reportedly pay up to $150,000 per year in rent alone.
Downtown Beirut was bustling with hooka cafes before the conflict in Syria, catering mainly to wealthy tourists from the Arab Gulf countries. Now waitstaff stand around, fearing the loss of their jobs.
Before the Syrian war began, Beirut Central District– which spans about two square kilometers–had become a tourist magnet, attracting hordes of wealthy visitors from neighboring states such as Saudi Arabia during summer. But many of those countries have since imposed stiff travel bans on Lebanon, where there is intense hostility toward Gulf states for funding the war next door, particularly among the many pro-regime parties in the bitterly divided country.
“They think Lebanon is a terrorist country,” says waiter Rami. So now he is looking for jobs in other parts of the capital that are still thriving despite the conflict and subsequent fall in tourism. And that, perhaps, underscores a deeper problem with the redevelopment of downtown Beirut: the commonly held belief among locals that the once vibrant old city was reconstructed, not to be used by the Lebanese residents, but as a spectacle to attract foreigners.
“This area was built for Khaleejiyi,” Rami says, using the colloquial term for Gulf Arabs. “It’s not me and you. It won’t come back. Everything that goes away, doesn’t come back.”
An island for the rich
Lebanese economist and former finance minister Georges Corm is not surprised by the disparity between the performance of the central district, which occupies a surface area of less than one percent of the capital, and the rest of Beirut.
“I said from the beginning this project is going to create an island instead of the reconstitution of the social and architectural fabric,” he explained from his office overlooking the cranes at work near downtown.
This was a place where all the social classes of would mix. It was the biggest symbol of coexistence in Lebanon. Now it’s a kind of no man’s land for rich people.”
How old Beirut evolved into a luxury district few Lebanese could afford is rooted in an enormous real estate privatization process that began in the early 1990s spearheaded by the late prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Hariri, a billionaire developer, took office in 1992 after a power-sharing agreement to end the Lebanese civil war was signed in Saudi Arabia, where he had amassed much of his wealth in the construction industry and enjoyed close ties to the royal family.
Hariri had eyed the Beirut reconstruction process as early as the 1980s and had commissioned a private firm to develop plans to rebuild the city center well before coming to office. It has even been suggested his construction firm, Saudi Oger, undertook demolition works in the 1980s to lay the groundwork for the planned reconstruction.
Over a dozen restaurants have closed on the main strip in the central district this year and dozens more store fronts on side streets remain unoccupied.
In fact in 1990, two years before Hariri came to power, the head of Hariri’s Saudi Oger was appointed to lead Lebanon’s state reconstruction agency, the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR).
Once in office, Hariri established Solidere as the lead developer, a private firm traded on the Beirut stock market, in which he would become the largest shareholder. Meanwhile, through a decree signed by his government, the rights of thousands of Beirut tenants and landowners were ceded to Solidere, in exchange for shares, valued by government committees. The decree was signed by then finance minister Fouad Siniora who had previously headed banks owned by Hariri.
(Mind you the Jews who immigrated from Lebanon to Israel, many decades ago, got the full worth of their properties, not in shares but in cash…)
Attorney Mohammed Mugraby, who has represented some 50 property rights owners in suits against Solidere, says his clients were denied the right to challenge the company’s actions and claims judges were paid by Solidere through the CDR to issue share appraisals, which were exponentially undervalued.
“Solidere is an unprecedented violation of the Lebanese constitution and rule of law,” Mugraby says. “Legally it does not exist. Solidere is nothing but an arm of the Hariri establishment.”
Despite multiple requests for comment, Solidere’s press office and representatives could not be reached for an interview. The company has often argued that an expedited private management structure was the most feasible approach to the reconstruction process at the end of the war.
An image of rebirth
Marked by rows of gutted, bullet-riddled buildings, open sewers and vegetation growing through the streets, the old city center had become an eyesore that interfered with the image of rebirth Hariri had hoped to sell investors during his post-war reign.
The Lebanese economy and  institutions had been crippled by 15 years of savage shelling and the lure of multi-million dollar contracts and the promise of renewed business flowing into the capital was undoubtedly a powerful motivator for widespread acceptance of the sweeping changes proposed by the prime minister.
In the 1990s, Solidere told its story in the form of ubiquitous television commercials with time lapse footage of individual buildings slowly restored to their former glory by workers on scaffolding. It published coffee table books featuring large glossy artist impressions of what the city would look like, with vignettes on the offices and marina designs Solidere would borrow from places like Barcelona, Monte Carlo and New York City.
Excluded from this narrative was the razing of entire historic neighborhoods such as Zeitouni, Wadi Abou Jamil, Safi, the Souks and the whole of Martyr’s Square, save for its namesake statue.
There are more pigeons than customers on an average day in the city center. Critics say the scheme to rebuild old Beirut created a Disneyland effect, replacing the once gritty streets that drew a mix of social class with an island for the wealthy, divorced from the rest of the city.
Among the hundreds of destroyed buildings were “the last Ottoman and medieval remains in Beirut” wrote American University of Beirut professor Nabil Beyhum in the Journal The Beirut Review in 1992. Much of the damage had been done through unapproved demolitions in the 1980s and early 1990s, bringing down  “some of the capital’s most significant buildings and structures,” wrote UCLA professor Saree Makdisi in the journal, Critical Inquiry, in 1997.
To increase Solidere’s surface area, relatively undamaged buildings were collapsed through the use of excess dynamite, according to Makdisi.
Seventy-five-year-old Mugraby is also a rights owner himself and says four shops owned by his late father in the vaunted Souks of Beirut were demolished in mid-1983– not by militias but by bulldozers belonging to Hairi’s Saudi Oger.
Mugraby and others say they have been punished for opposing Solidere. He claims the company launched an illegal attempt to disbar him and was even jailed for three weeks following his allegations of corrupt payments to Lebanese judges. Mugraby says it has taken a decade to clear his name: “I became so busy defending myself, I had little time left to fight these guys.”
Company or country?
Fadi Al Khoury, the owner of  Beirut’s oldest and most storied hotel, says Solidere has consistently denied him the right to rebuild. Opened in 1929, the St. Georges had been featured in countless films, books and postcards of the city, famed for its water skiing matches, yachting club and James Bond-like guest list. But today Solidere has landfilled the hotel’s beach access to build its own marina and the St. Georges is now better known for the giant “Stop Solidere” canvas that covers its still bullet riddled facade.
Al Khoury says his refusal to sell the property to Solidere has resulted in him being repeated denied work permits over the last 19 years through the company’s vast influence on city officials.
“They are more powerful than the government,” he says from his home in the hills above the capital, which he admits to now rarely visiting. “Having one company bigger than the country can disrupt the rights of the people.”
With rows of empty buildings, it is unclear how many shops remain vacant in Beirut’s central district. Unable to afford the high cost of maintenance imposed by Solidere, most original tenants have been forced to surrender their properties in exchange for shares in the company
Solidere is by far Lebanon’s largest company. According to its website, the firm’s current real estate and financial assets are close to $10 billion, which is nearly one quarter of the country’s entire GDP.
Even for the few whose properties were spared by the bulldozers, Solidere has made the price of holding on very high.
The Ahliah School, one of the city’s oldest, had managed to stay open during the worst days of the civil war, but was still forced to pay Solidere some $350,000 to continue operating once the fighting ended, the chairman of the school’s board, Nadim Cortas, explains. Solidere had claimed the fee would cover “infrastructure costs” such as road and plumbing work in the Central District, and was calculated as a percentage of a property value.
Solidere would also claim rights over the schools “sky” space.
Before the war, Cortas said he had been granted a right to build several additional floors to expand the campus, which has been hosting students since 1875. But now even if the school needs to build an extra room, Cortas says that space must be purchased at market value from Solidere.
And because the neighborhood has been transformed into one of luxury towers at the costs of millions of dollars per apartment, the value of land has risen exponentially to thousands of dollars per square meter.
Meanwhile Cortas says Solidere also demolished the Ahliah school’s annex elementary building— which remained intact during the war and was recently renovated– to make way for a parking lot (thought it had promised to transform the space into a garden.) In exchange, Ahliah received shares in the company, which he says are worth hardly a fifth of the property’s current value.
Still the chairman of the board says he has “mended bridges” with the developer. He touts Ahliah, a non-profit institution, as one of the few schools in the Beirut to have maintained a non-sectarian curriculum with a mixed student body, including some 30 percent of students supported by financial aid.
He said the school had recently achieved the coveted New England certification and is keen to move beyond the challenges of the past.
Indeed many property owners are reluctant to speak critically about Solidere. The company maintains a say over all approvals and sets very strict building standards, often forcing owners to purchase high cost imported materials.
“Everything we need to fix requires permission,” said one property owner on the condition of anonymity. “If I need a new door, they will choose the most expensive paint. If we need to replace a window, they make us buy cedarwood because they say the original windows were cedarwood. So we have to import the windows from the USA.
“If you make a fuss, next time you ask for permission to renovate, they will keep your request in their drawers for 6 months.”
When a property owner fails to comply with Solidere’s strict building codes, the owner is forced to vacate and accept shares in the company. And because central Beirut had not been a luxury district, it would be hard to imagine most residents and small business owners could afford lavish furnishings, particularly after 15 years of harrowing conflict.
But, in other cases, more coercive means may have allegedly been deployed. Mugraby produces a court indictment in the case of 11 persons killed during a demolition in February 1996 because, he says, a family refused to move.
Had Solidere offered comment, one assumes they would have denied responsibility for much of the above. Of course accidents happen on construction sites and the notion that change will always be difficult for some parties to accept is a mantra of developers everywhere.
A ‘manicured’ city
“Any big organization undertaking a task this large is really going to upset people along the way,” says Karim Makarem, managing director of Ramco, a Beirut-based real estate consultancy.
Each night the tables are set and the televisions are turned on in the hopes of luring customers. Staff say they would be lucky to fill two to three tables per night.
Makarem blames the current slowdown in the central district on the lack of tourism and says added security measures have made the area difficult to access, even for locals. With the country’s parliament and the prime minister’s offices close to the Etoile square, streets are often cordoned off due to protests.
“It’s extremely uninviting,” he says. “The BCD [Beirut Central District] has suffered more than any other area because of the political situation, yet in my opinion, it has the best future.”
Despite the high rents, Makarem is confident that there exists a market of wealthy Lebanese living abroad, particularly in newly built Gulf cities like the Abu Dhabi and Dubai, to fill the gap.
“A lot of these people want the benefits of living in a manicured part of town. Once you’ve been living in that type of sanitary environment, it is very difficult to live in the mess that is the rest of Beirut.”
Because Solidere leveled much of the old city, it was able to install new cabling, sewers, power sub stations and sidewalks. Whereas in the rest of the capital–which is roughly 20 times larger than Solidere– much of this infrastructure had collapsed during the years of war. Power lines are haphazardly strung, street flooding is common and sidewalks are broken or missing.
“There are a lot of positives,” says Makerm of Solidere’s urban planning. “It’s the only place you can walk downtown. I’m very optimistic,” he adds. “The minute you get these tourists and expats in the country, I think they will appreciate what the BCD has to offer.”
Changing history
Yet critics also question what the Central District has offered the local population. In a country with an average monthly income of around $1,000, most Lebanese struggle to find somewhere to eat or shop within their price range.
For years, Solidere has promised to build parks, museums and cultural spaces. Much touted projects include an archaeological exhibit, dubbed The Garden of Forgiveness, a city museum to be built beneath Martyr’s Square and a lush central park–all announced to much fanfare over a decade ago.
Yet today these sites remain vacant, with little indication about completion dates and barely a mention on Solidere’s sleek, recently revamped website.
Despite the lack of business, cafe owners are faced with some of the highest rental prices in Beirut. If the lack of tourism continues, the few remaining outlets are expected to close.
Meanwhile, well over a dozen hotel, office and residential towers have gone up over the same period. And in 2007, Solidere had announced plans to create Solidere International, which would help develop multi-billion dollar residential projects in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this year, Solidere’s general manager announced that the company had amassed over $700 million in cash, with an annual income of $50 million–this in addition to land and real estate assets worth over $8 billion.
“With all the profit that has been made, you don’t have one cultural project in a city that in the worst of times had theatres and performances,” says architect Mona Hallak.
Hallak is among several activists and academics who have long argued that any project to rebuild the city center should aim to bring original residents back in an effort to stimulate post-war reconciliation over a profit-making enterprise. But she has lowered expectations considerably.
“Just give me one building, that would have shut me up,” Hallak says, rolling off a list of promised cultural centers that never materialized.
Hallak has spearheaded the Beit Beirut museum, which will be housed in a shrapnel-pierced apartment block that had become the most-feared sniper’s nest on the line dividing East and West Beirut during the civil war. Hallak spent over a decade of her life fighting to save the arcaded 1930s-era building, which lies just outside of the Solidere area, and was four days away from demolition in the late 1990s, she says. But the slightly graying activist is exasperated by the battle for the BCD.
“I think we deserve Solidere. The people of Beirut don’t understand that it was the biggest rip-off–a real estate company taking over a downtown. I mean, it’s crazy. It changed the whole history and identity of the city. For me, Solidere is a question of erasing the memory of Beirut.”
Still visions of old Beirut live on.
At his wood-paneled law office in Hamra, a few miles from the city center, Attorney Mugraby leans back in his chair when asked about his final days in the old city. It was 1976.
The civil war had gone on for about a year but there was a lull in the fighting. The militias had withdrawn and the barricades were removed. Crowds of shopkeepers and residents had returned to check on their properties.
There was a large impromptu gathering at Martyrs square. Even strangers embraced, asking about friends and families. Mugraby pauses and turns away.
“It was touching, I tell you,” he says, voice cracking. A slight tremble runs over his lips and wrinkled face. For a brief moment, his eyes fog up.
“It’s difficult for me to discuss.”
Words and photos by Habib Battah

Reformist and former minister of Social Affairs: On Trial for reforming society?

It’s not every day that you get to see a Lebanese minister pleading his case in court.
But it probably should be everyday considering that Lebanon is among the world’s most corrupt countries, according to the 2012 report by Transparency International.
Posted Yesterday by  posted this Nov. 2, 2013 in The Beirut Report:

A minister on trial

The ranking is not surprising in a country where government bodies routinely fail to publish any records on how public money is spent or the fact that known militia leaders, murders, criminals and their business associates are running the government with zero accountability.

So what brought former labor minister Charbel Nahas to court this week?

Did he insulted the head of a major corporation (Spinneys supermarket chain) after it was accused of intimidating and attacking its own employees.

Nahas is barely visible in this rare photo leaning into the podium just right of attorney Nizar Saghieh. Court proceedings are not videotaped, photographed or recorded.

Nahhas is accused of defaming the British Michael Wright, CEO of the massive Spinneys supermarket chain by calling him a “terrorist“in a Facebook post, following reports that workers have been physically abused or fired for attempting to form a union to demand their rights.

The workers had accused Spinneys of failing to implement a government passed wage hike, denying social security benefits for hundreds of its employees and actually collecting daily fees of 5,000LL from its bag handlers for the opportunity to work for Spinneys.

The formation of the private union was considered a historic event in a country where labor rights are violated with impunity on a daily basis and the Spinneys workers received support from the International Labor Organization as well as Minister Nahas, who helped them create the union.

Activists are saying that the Spinneys worker’s union has largely been emptied owing to a vast intimidation campaign by Spinneys management.

Activists allege that Wright and his legal team have been sending threatening letters to anyone who likes, blogs or shares critical posts about Spinneys.

I have seen a couple of these emails and have also heard testimony from activists who work outside of Spinneys and say they have either lost jobs or been forced into silence after Spinneys lawyers reached out to their bosses and demanded that they cease any activities criticizing the supermarket or its treatment of workers. Much of that has been documented on the site “Spinneys CEO Against Freedoms” created by activists.

But all this did not stop dozens of supporters from attending Minister Nahas’s defamation trial on Wednesday and his defense by the prominent human right’s lawyer Nizar Saghieh. The large crowd of supporters seemed to annoy the Spinneys lawyer, who accused the minister of recruiting court attendees on Facebook.

The judge laughed and said: “Next time, why don’t you invite your supporters via Facebook?

Nahas addresses the media following the hearing.
Activists supporting Nahas gather outside the courthouse.

The audience had a laugh as well and the judge threw out the complaint noting that court attendance was free and open to the public. This last line was really interesting to me. I never knew court trials were open to the public. In fact, I’d never been to the main courthouse in Adlieh, which is quite a large and impressive building by Lebanese institution standards, though currently under renovation.

Even more interesting was the level of gender equality in the courts.

About half of the cloak-wearing attorneys I saw in the hallways were female as were two out of three judges sitting on the bench in the Nahas trial:

The only problem was that it was really hard to hear anything. The large vintage wooden-pane windows were all propped open and, with no speaker system, the voices of both litigants and judges were drowned out by the jackhammers at a nearby construction site.

But a microphone wasn’t the only type of electronics that were desperately lacking. There were no cameras and not even a sound recording of the proceedings. The only record was a handwritten one, penned by the woman in green sitting next to the judges.

Of course all this pales in comparison to the questionable nature in which cases are chosen to be heard. And why is it that we are prosecuting people for criticizing a company’s policies on Facebook instead of prosecuting the myriad of white collar crimes and kickbacks going on nationwide, not to mention the utter public sector corruption that produces a critical lack of basic services such as healthcare, electricity, water, traffic policing and internet access, just to name a few.

Part of the problem seems to be intimidation.

Few Lebanese believe in the courts or have the time to fight in them. But perhaps more of us need to start making time to attend trials at this great, seemingly gender progressive courthouse and launching complaints about the leadership that has failed us.

As for the Nahas trial, the next hearing is scheduled for the 11th of December. More updates to come.

Do you need to change anything in Lebanon? Are Lebanon’s youth in political parties waiving off reforms?

Who needs change?

Are Lebanon’s youth in political parties waiving off reforms within their parties?

For decades, Lebanese politics has been ruled by a small group of men.  The obvious question is “why not get some fresh faces in government”?

How can you bring fresh faces in government if the political parties have no incentives for bringing fresh faces within their ranks?

This seemed to be the underlying subtext of a United Nations report on youth in politics, released earlier this week to a small audience at Parliament’s third floor auditorium.
Though many youth are active in parties, few are given decison-making positions, the report found.

The political parties also lack transparency, with budgets and political platforms either secret or nonexistent.

Perhaps most interesting of all, the report found most Lebanese political parties do not even hold elections.

 posted:
The report, which was carried about on behalf of the UNDP by governance consultants Beyond Development and Reform, recommended term limits for party leaders as a possible way to see new faces in leadership positions–and to chart a path toward future growth.

“What will happen when the leader is gone,” posed BRD consultant Carmen Geha.
But many of those in attendance, including youth representatives from Lebanon’s dominant parities, balked at the suggestion of term limits for their leaders.

Tashnag’s Bakradonian

“Who are you to force a change in leadership,” asked Ashod Bakradonian, representative from the Armenian Tashnag party.

“This is an internal issue. We should be able to keep our leaders for as long as we want.”
“You are so right,” said the representative from Hezbollah. “We want the Sayyed,” he added, in a reference to Hezbollah Secretary General, Sayer Hassan Nasrallah. (Time to split the political leader from the spiritual leader?)

If someone has a problem with the leadership, they should change parties, he explained– a comment echoed by the others.

Youssef Bassam from Hezbollah’s youth delegation

It was one of the few moments of agreement among the partisan youth representatives, who frequently mocked one another throughout the two hour session.
Another recommendation called for a free access to information law. Following the civil war, television licensing had been restricted largely to groups associated with the parties in power, thus leaving a gap in objective reporting on government and party affairs.

When the question of transparency came up, some joked about seeing transparency in Hezbollah’s military wing. The Hezbollah member answered: “We are all the military wing.”
When the moderator explained some parties didn’t respect the rights of women–others suggested there were parties that didn’t respect rights of the army.

The report also revealed that some parties have not even been officially registered with the government.
“Raise your hand Youssef,” a delegate who did not identify himself sitting with the March 14 members shouted out, pointing at the Hezbollah representative.
“We were registered in 1992,” Youssef shot back.

Despite this penchant for rules, the accuser spent most of the time playing games on his phone, pausing for the occasional snicker.

Other representatives, such as those from the Kateab party, argued that Lebanon lacked political culture and identity– impediments to reform. But the same participants also rejected a recommendation to  mandate all Lebanese parties have a minimum 1% membership in every qada (district/county), which could force the factions to be more inclusive and less territorial.

“Look at him,” one pointed toward the Armenian delegate. “He’s not Arab, why should we force him to be Arab?”
“Are you guys joking or speaking seriously,” Gilbert Doumit a consultant with BRD asked the delegates, urging a return to the study recommendations.
“Power corrupts. There should be a ceiling for power,” he said.

Others in the room rejected dealing with Lebanese parties altogether.
“We cannot build a political future on a false foundations,” a representative from Min Ajel El Joumhouryia (For the Sake of the Republic) commented. The new political group was part of efforts to occupy downtown Beirut earlier this year, protesting the postponement of elections and the lack of accountability for MPs.

A delegate from Min Ajal El Joumouriya rejects the party system

But a Syrian Baath party representative countered, warning the new movements not to sideline official parties, “who had sacrificed many martyrs for this country.”
I guess we’ll need martyrs to get recognized,” the Joumhouriya member murmured quietly.

Of all the incumbent parties present only one conceded the need for change.
“I would like better youth representation in my party,” Marada representative Rebecca Hosary said, to applause from the audience.

But after we wrapped up, one of the UN delegates felt ill about the general atmosphere. “It makes you want to cry,” the representative said of the constant bickering and rude interruptions–the general lack of listening to the other side.

Moderator Carmen Geha had at one point noted that the room served as a microcosm of the political atmosphere at large. Rather than focus on local representation, the delegates argued fiercely over foreign policy issues.
Perhaps this hints at the heart of the matter.

The study had found that many youth join parties based on family or sectarian ties, rather than actual policies or positions on issues that affect the citizenry.
I would add existential fears to that.

How does one reconcile with a mindset perpetually at fear of the other–enough to support the same leader indefinitely (and cynically so), to avoid the perceived danger of appearing divided and weak before the enemy?
Is it even possible to work with an existing system that uses fear of your fellow citizens as political currency?

Note: From my experience, elections within political parties for leaders are done by consensus. Otherwise, the current leader is re-elected. It does not matter how fair and convoluted the election laws are, the end result is to bring back old faces, and in few instances “a la Poutine and his side kick”… I was amazed lately that one of the oldest and most historic political parties re-elected its 95 year-old leader…

Diesel generator of electricity? Compounding health risk

Lebanon is accustomed to a chronic energy problem. Public power outage is a daily occurrence across the entire tiny country. In urban centers, the hum of diesel generators is the background noise for residents who rely on them to sustain a precarious continuity in electricity.

In the 20’s, Lebanon exported electricity to Syria and Jordan. In the 21st century, Lebanon relies on private providers firing up Diesel generators to supply the need in electricity, at high added cost and high health risk.

We joke in Lebanon that this private system is meant as a war strategy so that Israel will be impotent to reduce Lebanon in total darkness, since the public power is on for about 4 hours a day.

Andrew Bossone published in Nature Middle East

Diesel generators are widespread across the country to cover periods of electricity downtime.© Andrew Bossone

“A study by researchers at the American University of Beirut (AUB) has found that the concentration of potent atmospheric pollutants spiked in urban areas of Lebanon at peak times for diesel generator use.

The pollutants, a class of gases called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) that result from burning fossil fuels, are known carcinogens and teratogens. Beirut’s air pollution is nearly twice the safe limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of 12 micrograms per cubic metre.

The study monitored 184 buildings and 109 generators in the Hamra area of Beirut minute by minute for about two weeks at each site over the course of a year.

The team used PAH monitors to record air quality and analyzed the data by constructing a 3D model simulating air flow and pollutant distribution. It determined that about 40% of the PAH in the atmosphere in Hamra came from generators.

Alan Shihadeh, lead author of the study, said: “I expect that in other areas with dense urban morphologies, we will see even higher PAH levels in the air resulting from diesel generators.” He warned that the country’s continued reliance on diesel generators would lead to higher rates of cancer and respiratory and heart diseases.

Expensive alternative

“The last thing we need is to place diesel generators outside our bedrooms and offices.”

Lebanon’s decrepit power generation, transmission and distribution system has failed to keep pace with a huge increase in electricity consumption over the last two decades. The country’s power insecurity is also a legacy of the 15-year civil war that decimated its infrastructure. The problem was exacerbated by Israeli attacks in 2006 that targeted power stations.

The state electricity company, Electricite du Liban, can only produce about half the power required. In Beirut, electricity is suspended on a daily schedule of three hours between 6am-6pm. Outside the capital the cuts may be for the entire 12 hours. Residents currently have no option but to fill the gap with generators.

Habib Battah, a journalist and the author of the blog beirutreport.com says a better solution would be the production of public power, rather than individuals finding ad-hoc solutions. Battah adds that the high prices charged for privately generated electricity is creating social divides where the poor cannot afford it.

A study published in 2011 by AUB chemist Najat Saliba, who co-authored the study, found that 93% of Beirut’s inhabitants were exposed to dangerous air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, at levels 50% higher than the limits recommended as safe by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The 2011 study – which also found airborne particulate matter was double that recommended by WHO – measured the impact of vehicle emissions. This study is the first to examine how diesel generators contribute to pollution.

“Beirut already suffers from high levels of air pollution,” says Shihadeh. “The last thing we need is to place diesel generators outside our bedrooms and offices.”

Beirut Blast and Branding a Revolution?

The consequences and ramification of the car explosion in Achrafieh that occurred on Friday at 2:30 pm are in progress.  More casualties (injured and killed civilians) are increasing: Infighting in Tripoli and in Beirut are still taking place, for no reasons but to vent out the anger of the jobless youth, galvanized by opportunistic political leaders, wanting to secure a ministry in a possible government shuffling…

I knew a friend living in the nearby of the blasted street and sent her a message: “Zeina, this street is familiar to me. Write something…” The apartment of Zeina and her family was blasted but they are all uninjured…

And the scores of dead victims from the blast had no anchor man or woman to cover the grieving of their families and the 110 injured civilians scattered in the hospitals of Beirut…

Habib Battah published this Oct.20, 2012 in “The Beirut Report” under “Branding a revolution”:

It’s been barely 24 hours since the assassination of the Lebanese internal intelligence chief Gen. Wissam Hassan, and the political wheels are already in full gear.

There have been speeches tonight in downtown Beirut calling for the resignation of prime minister and tents being set up for a sleep-in, which organizers promise will not end until their demands are met (see top right image above).

Politicians opposed to Prime Minister Najib Mikati are calling for a massive turnout for Hassan’s funeral tomorrow, and tonight, the media (allied to the Hariri clan) is playing its role in getting the word out.

The Future Television (Hariri or Moustakbal movement) has begun filming one of its talk shows in the tomb of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, seeking to draw his supporters in by creating a visual link between Hariri’s killing and that of Hassan:

Future TV has even created a Hassan graphic with the date of tomorrow’s funeral:

Meanwhile, other stations have been filming nightly talk shows from Martyr’s square where only a few hundred party loyalists have gathered. These crowds are relatively minuscule compared to the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese that have gathered in downtown Beirut in years past (particularly in March 14, 2005), but in filming live from the area, television stations are building momentum for tomorrow’s event by treating the small crowds as a major news story.

On MTV, the scene is carefully framed with the anchor standing in front of the two tents that have been erected earlier this afternoon (see first photo in this post), which pales in comparison to the hundreds of tents set up by Hezbollah and its allies during their occupation of downtown in 2006. Yet the tight shot does not allow viewers to actually count the tents.

Neither does the wide angle, which shows a relatively small crowd of a few dozen, mainly young men holding party flags:

Similarly, Al Jadeed also filmed its evening talk show tonight from Martyr’s Square, but again wide shots revealed almost no one gathered for an event that can barely justify– in terms of news worthiness– the cost of such an outdoor broadcast.

On the other hand, LBC has chosen to film its show in studio tonight. But like the other channels, the guests are familiar faces, with very partisan affiliations, making very familiar, heated arguments.

The same was true for OTV, which is supportive of the government and thus brought out pro-government figures that Lebanese have seen on televisions for years if not decades.

Clearly, all this advertisement about tomorrow’s rally from pro-government channels may have an impact on some viewers. But at the same time, many have grown tired of being spoon-fed polarizing and often sect-specific views from entrenched party figures.

If tomorrow’s rally does not draw the huge crowds it is promising, this could be a small but significant blow to the traditional Lebanese political order, which finds itself under increasing pressure amid the changes going on in the region.

Note: The bodies of Wissam and his bodyguard Sahyoun were being readied to be buried next to late Rafic Hariri PM when a nitwits, standing by ex-Siniora PM, took the micro and harangued the masses to storm the close-by government building (The Grand Serai).

The fanatic youth of the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb and the radical Islamist extremists surged and overturn the few policemen standing guard. The army commandos came in reinforcement and the “official” leader of March 14 coalition (Saad Hariri) spoke from Paris and ordered the masses to retreat. Why?

He claimed that the government building, constructed in the early 1910, was built by his late assassinated father Rafic Hariri PM.


adonis49

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