The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

The creation of polarised space: Martyrs' Square, Beirut

Martyrs' Square in Beirut was the focal point for the March 14, 2005 demonstrations that saw Syria relinquish control of Lebanon. How do its citizens now regard this polarising space, and how should placemakers respond to the new resentments and divisions created by this pivotal event? Tanya Gallo investigates.

Tanya Gallo

Tanya Gallo

Cities: Beirut

Topics: Social conflict, Architecture and urban design, Divided cities

In present-day Beirut, people tell stories about the civil war of 1975-1990 and its aftermath as narratives on space: how individuals traversed the city, the spatial boundaries that polarized their daily lives and still do, the emergence of no-go zones and no man's lands, and the novel spaces that rose up as a result. Basements, living rooms, stairwells and courtyards transformed into temporary shelters and de facto semi-public spaces for debate and discussion among friends and strangers, giving room for an extended network to develop within the enclosed neighbourhoods.

Since the civil war, the city's sectarianism and each sect's attachment to communal boundaries are reflected in the religious iconography and political propaganda adorning neighbourhoods throughout the metropolis. At the same time, the country prides itself on its long history of cosmopolitanism and pluralism, one of the many paradoxes of this city. There are eighteen major religious and ethnic sects in Beirut, with party affiliation aligned with confessional identity.

According to many Beirut citizens, whether they were participants at the event or not, March 2005 marked the last time Martyrs' Square, the city centre's most symbolic open space, was a true public space, the last time the space came alive. As a young female Beiruti told me, 'in 2005 we all came here. Martyrs' Square has importance for everyone.' Other residents echo this attitude: 'The meaning starts in 2005. It became a public space again.' 'It was a place for protests for the Lebanese. People went there to express their thoughts.' 'In March 2005 when they had the sit-ins and the demonstrations was the last time the area had a soul.'

As Beirutis tell it, the uprising could not have happened anywhere else; the political character of Martyrs' Square made it the natural setting.

The events of 2005

Upon the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, both Christians and Sunnis deeply frustrated with Syria's control of Lebanon and convinced it was responsible for Hariri's death took to the streets as the funeral procession made its way through Martyrs' Square.

They came again in even greater numbers on the 14th of March, following a pro-Syria demonstration by Shi'a and Hezbollah supporters, translating their grief, anger and desire for change into a 'spontaneous and impulsive' political uprising drawing 'people from everywhere', as depicted by Moukawimoun, a civil society group in Beirut borne out of the March 14 alliance. To everyone's astonishment, in April, a month after the protests had surfaced, Syria pulled out of Lebanon.

As Beirutis tell it, the uprising could not have happened anywhere else; the political character of Martyrs' Square made it the natural setting. The square was as essential in catalysing the event as the ideology and issues that people brought to the moment.

The square became a representation of what Michael Young, local columnist and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs' Square, calls Lebanon's 'paradoxical liberal impulses'. The monumental events of March 2005 represented a conflation of motivations, ideology and religious affiliation that united citizens of Beirut against a common enemy, if not aligning them with a common vision for the future.

As Young points out, without a blueprint for reform, oppositional forces were unable to grow a powerful movement that could exert pressure on their leaders for significant political and social change. Instead the movement fractured and many were left feeling betrayed by political leaders who quickly resumed their sectarian interests.

For residents who did not support the protests, or later found themselves disenchanted with the political leaders allied with them, Martyrs' Square came to be associated with the March 14 alliance. Like neighbourhoods throughout the city, this space was now marked by political party affiliation, rendering it an alienating place and off limits for some citizens. As journalist Habib Battah explains, Martyrs' Square became 'a politicised space, associated with the March 14 political movement.' For Young, the event presented itself as 'a struggle mirroring a larger struggle over the meaning of Beirut', and established the square, once again, as the contested site for the soul of the city.

A polarised space

This dramatic and consequential moment in Beirut's history reveals both the historical legacy of Martyrs' Square and the interdepence between the spatial and the political. Here people activated a physical and symbolic space, inventing the public realm as a process by which individuals and groups made themselves and their issues visible, what political theorist Hannah Arendt articulated as acts of spontaneity, participation and empowerment.

Like neighbourhoods throughout the city, this space was now marked by political party affiliation, rendering it an alienating place and off limits for some citizens.

The taking of Martyrs' Square in 2005 demonstrates how the claiming of public space is also an act of representation. In this case, representing one's group to the public translated into a form of oppositional politics that successfully challenged the status quo, but also created new resentments and divisions.

A complicated aspect of this action is the tendency for one group to define itself in relation to the 'other'. How does Beirut arrive at a place where pluralism can override the impulse for one sect to impose its will on another? How is a space created for a once cosmopolitan and heterogenous public to coexist in what sociologist IM Young called 'unassimilated openness'? A unified public realm is not the goal; rather an open and accessible space where people encounter other individuals, meanings, expressions and issues. With the deepening of borders and boundaries in Beirut and the overall lack of public space, there is an urgent need for flexible and permeable spaces.

The sociologist Richard Sennett identifies the conflicts over the rebuilding in Beirut as a problem in how to 'build an urban frame for difference'. We remain hidden from difference, he argues, by how we construct our cities and therefore it is imperative to ask the question: how can space accommodate difference through the ways in which citizens themselves forge it? Imagining the public realm as a 'process' and as an open system as Sennett encourages us to do is critical in the case of Beirut where seismic changes occur in the physical, political and social life of the city. This argument for the necessity of the incomplete, un-programmed built form stands as a powerful challenge to Solidere's rebuilding of Martyrs' Square.