Recently, Dr. Bilal Hamad, the head of the Municipality of Beirut, or mayor, made statements defending his record. His comments revealed a profound sense of frustration at the mayor’s subordinate position to that of the mohafez, or governor, who can veto and delay the municipality’s initiatives.
Having heard this explanation for the deplorable performance of the city’s municipality for over a decade, and being involved in researching and teaching the institutional mechanisms that sustain public urban and regional planning, we wish to highlight the deeply problematic conception of the job of mayor implicit in Hamad’s statements.
As the mayor rightly complains, the mohafez indeed holds executive authority over the office of the mayor. Yet this statement omits the fact that the mayor is an elected authority, representing a constituency of hundreds of thousands of city dwellers. His job is to champion the inhabitants of Beirut and to use their voices, if needed, to expose and even shame public officials, including the mohafez, if they block initiatives that are in the interest of the ninety-nine percent.
This requires the mayor to step outside private discussions behind closed doors to work within the public realm, rallying stakeholders to protect the future of the city from the private interests of the few. We do not mean that the mayor should organize a yearly community meeting with activists. We are advocating for institutional arrangements that turn urban dwellers into active participants in their city’s future, as has happened since the early 1990s in cities all around the world.
Would the mohafez consider, or even be able to block, a project for greening Beirut, if public opinion was invited to support this objective? Would he have delayed the opening of the city’s only park, Horch Beirut, had the mayor supported publicly the multiple organizations that have advocated for its opening for over a decade? Would the Council for Development and Reconstruction have considered razing neighborhoods in Ashrafiyyeh to make way for the Fouad Boutros highway, adopting the outdated planning approach of the 1960s, had the mayor stood with inhabitants and activists who have been actively mobilizing to stop the project?
Since the 1960s mayors around the world have resisted highway development in their jurisdictions, by supporting the efforts of resident protestors. Their roles are documented in case studies taught to urban planning students as models to follow.
And how is it that, at a time when the paradigms of urban mobility have shifted globally to improving pedestrian walkways and shared transportation systems, the municipality of Beirut still invests in private car ownership, and strives to secure parking spaces for individual drivers?
Would parliament have continued to pass laws increasing land exploitation in prime sea-front areas had the municipality alerted city dwellers that Beirut would soon become a city without access to the sea? Would the municipality’s technical offices have considered providing permits to developers building in sea-front areas, decision entirely under the municipality’s jurisdiction, had the mayor signaled he would protect our beautiful corniche, and would not allow anyone to block our sea-view anymore?
Why does the mayor choose, instead, to endorse repeatedly the interests of private investors who continue to pour concrete along our coasts? And why does the municipality find it a priority to place a security booth behind the fence closing off the Dalieh area, the largest natural open-access space in the city, hence protecting the interests of a handful of property owners over those of hundreds of thousands of Beirutis?
And is it true that the municipality is looking to purchase the Ramlet al-Baida public beach that was sold illegally to a private investor in the early 2000s with an enormous margin of profit for the investor? Why has the mayor not considered taking legal action to reverse this illegal land sale in the name of the common good of the city with which he is entrusted? And why has the mayor never contested, as several municipalities have done over recent weeks, the decision of the central government to hijack his authority to manage Beirut’s waste by delegating it to a private company at exorbitant rates?
These are only some of the questions that need to be asked.
No one denies the subordinate position of municipalities in Lebanon nor the reluctance of the central government to devolve power to them. Yet, within these parameters, Jezzine has protected and expanded its public spaces, Baakline and Saida their waste management, Sour its public beaches, Zahleh its electricity, and Ghobeiri its cultural amenities, to name but a few. However, Beirut, with much greater financial means and political access, still lags behind.
Looking at the enormous number of civic organizations that have sought to improve the livability of Beirut over the past decades, frustration at the poor performance of the municipality only grows. During his tenure, Hamad has had more opportunity than any other mayor to work with civil groups and use their knowhow, but also their political bargaining power, to improve the livability of our city. His office has at its disposal the goodwill and heroic efforts of many creative groups advocating for environmentally sound and socially responsible futures.
However, the mayor has done little to marshal this for the benefit of Beirut’s inhabitants. Many of these groups have recently taken to the streets, frustrated with the absence of a public representative who can champion their claims and channel their energies to improve the livability of their city. In this, Hamad has failed to serve his constituency, opting instead to remain in favor with the one percent of the elite.
Let us ask bluntly, who is the mayor’s constituency? To whom does he feel accountable? To whom does he want to show his achievements when June 2016 comes and his term ends? While the mohafez may have blocked some of his technically sound proposals to improve Beirut, where Hamad has failed is in being a loud voice for the people of our city in the face of the private interests that seek to plunder it.
As we approach the next municipal elections, the call is for Beirut’s inhabitants to step away form confessional elite politics and elect a true champion of their city and its livability. Recent protests usher hopes in this direction.
[This piece was first published in The Daily Star. It was published earlier in Arabic in an-Nahar, and Mayor Hamad`s response is available here.]