The Second Time as Farce

Stories of Another Lebanese Reconstruction

by Jim Quilty , Lysandra Ohrstrom
published in MER243

Following Israel’s intense bombardment in the summer of 2006, Lebanon had to undertake a new reconstruction effort before it had made a dent in paying for rebuilding damage done by the 1975-1990 civil war. The government swore to pursue reconstruction policies that would strengthen the state—an open swipe at the “state within a state” led by Hizballah. Yet Hizballah is carrying out its own rebuilding, and consolidating its political strength as a result.

On August 14, 2006, Francoise Basil told the press he intended to rebuild the Fidar Bridge in Jubayl, historic Byblos, on Lebanon’s northern coast. The bridge was destroyed by Israeli bombing during the summer’s 34-day war, and Basil’s announcement came directly after the cessation of hostilities. Chairman of Byblos Bank and head of the Lebanese Bankers Association, Basil quickly received the blessing of Lebanon’s Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), and commissioned Dar al-Handasa, a high-profile engineering firm that cut its teeth on Lebanon’s post-civil war reconstruction drive, for the project. Work was set to begin on September 9 and expected to cost $4 million.

Then, on August 31, at a conference of donors to Lebanese reconstruction assembled in Stockholm, the US government also pledged to repair the Fidar Bridge. During a well-orchestrated press tour of the site, officials reiterated Washington’s unconditional support for Lebanon, as evinced by its pledge of $230 million in early recovery assistance. Some $150 million had been earmarked for reconstruction, part of which would be used to fix the Fidar. Informed that Byblos Bank had already been cleared to do this, a US diplomat replied that the bank was only paying for a $2 million feasibility study and that Washington would sink $10-$15 million into reconstruction, “which is, like, ten times the amount they are [investing].” Yes, he insisted, the embassy was coordinating with both the Lebanese government and Byblos Bank. Told later that Byblos had no knowledge of US involvement in the Fidar project, the diplomat later remarked, “Listen, we appreciate the involvement of the Lebanese private sector, but they just don’t have the capabilities of an American military construction convoy.” No one at any state body could clarify matters.

Byblos Bank commenced work on the Fidar on September 11. The US Embassy quickly declared that the Mudayrij Bridge, linking Mount Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley, would be the recipient of its beneficence. With its cast of characters—a prominent Lebanese capitalist, an aggressively uninformed, but big-spending foreign donor and ineffectual Lebanese state institutions—the Fidar episode is a microcosm of the chaos that has characterized efforts to rebuild Lebanon after the summer war. Regrettably, few other reconstruction stories are as comical.

A Lost Wager on Peace

Lebanon’s present reconstruction effort is its second in 17 years. The architect of the first, launched after the 1975-1990 civil war, was former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Hariri hoped to return Lebanon, and particularly downtown Beirut, to its mythic glory. After a full-scale Israeli invasion sandwiched between 15 years of sporadic civil war, the challenge was considerable. Hariri borrowed heavily, capitalizing on his close ties in the Arab Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, and in the West, particularly France—and gambled that a regional peace settlement would come soon.

In strictly infrastructural terms, Hariri’s reconstruction was a remarkable success. Boasting state-of-the-art amenities, downtown Beirut—recast as “the ancient city of the future”—compared favorably to many cities of its size on the northern shore of the Mediterranean. The summer of 2006 promised to be a busy tourist season. Beneath the graceful façade, though, the country was not reconstructed. By persisting in the pre-war practice of concentrating investment in Greater Beirut at the expense of outlying regions, the Hariri regime reproduced the social disparities that were a component of the sectarian tensions unleashed during the civil war. Social tensions were alleviated by voluntary emigration and regulated by profligate corruption, while the attendant sectarian animosities were repressed by the Lebanese and Syrian intelligence services.

The assassinated former premier lost his wager on peace. Though Israel’s summer battle plan was careful to leave downtown Beirut unbruised, other Hariri-era landmarks—particularly roads and bridges—were bombed with abandon. Hariri’s heirs had to undertake a new reconstruction before they had even made a dent in paying for the first one. In the ten months since the cessation of hostilities, many Lebanese have wondered at this rebuilding effort, simply because it is so unlike what has gone before. After staring at its disparate, diffuse, confused components—made worse by the lack of verifiable, concrete information from state and parastatal actors—the pertinent questions become who is rebuilding and what exactly is being rebuilt.

At the Stockholm donors’ conference, the Lebanese government swore to pursue policies that would strengthen the state. The era of states within the state, a reference to the Shi‘i Islamist party Hizballah, was over. Many in Lebanon greeted this pledge with enthusiasm. But there is a contradiction at its heart: The government’s backers in the international community want to marginalize Hizballah for its ties to Iran. Yet, Tehran’s ideological and financial support aside, the party’s local strength stems from the fact that it is a product of the post-civil war Lebanese confessional system, one pillar of which is the practice of muhasasa (allotment). Weak by design, the muhasasa state cedes many of its responsibilities—paving roads, social services and the like—to interested politicians, who dole out contracts to developers and services to constituents as patronage. [1]  Unable and unwilling to dismantle the muhasasa state, the government does not have the means to undermine Hizballah’s influence with its Shi‘i constituency.

This contradiction is reflected in government policy, arguably since the 34-day war started. On one hand, the government has attempted to freeze out Hizballah, spouting slogans about state building. On the other hand, the reconstruction strategy devised by the government and its international donors reproduces the muhasasa state. The rhetoric of helplessness—poor, indebted, battered Lebanon—has been central to the government’s policy since the war began, which has granted an unprecedented degree of responsibility for relief and rebuilding to international donors and agencies. By design or circumstance, “state reconstruction” has facilitated a wholesale dereliction of state duty to Lebanon’s citizenry. Though it is widely perceived to be apart from the Lebanese state, Hizballah’s strategy to shore up its centrality within a broad swath of the Shi‘i community suggests otherwise. Rather than challenging the muhasasa system, there are signs to suggest that Hizballah will take a leading place within it.

From One Reconstruction to Another

Today’s reconstruction differs radically from Hariri’s, but comparisons are informative. Hariri paid for his reconstruction largely through loans taken out from domestic banks. As a result, today Lebanon’s public debt sits at $40.4 billion , nearly twice the country’s gross domestic product. Once his most ambitious infrastructure schemes were completed, the late ex-premier spent much of his energy—and that of economic advisors like current Prime Minister Fuad Siniora—on devising ways to reschedule the debt and forestall economic crisis. The most high-profile weapons in his arsenal were the Paris donors’ conferences, held under the aegis of then-President and Hariri family friend Jacques Chirac, in which the government promised state-slashing administrative reforms in return for pledges of grants and soft loans.

Siniora decided to yoke the 2006-2007 rebuilding to Hariri’s debt relief strategy, and the international community was happy to oblige. Unwilling to stop the war before it became untenable for the Israelis to continue, Western and Arab donors rallied around the Siniora government to help pick up the pieces. The Stockholm conference drummed up pledges worth $940 million. Siniora’s government also got a sympathetic mention, if no explicit promises of aid, at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Summit in Singapore in September. On January 25, Paris III—Chirac’s parting gift to the Hariri family—netted pledges of $7.6 billion. All these monies, however, have been fiendishly difficult to track.

There has been some confusion, for instance, about whether the Stockholm and Paris pledges overlap or not. One government source, speaking off the record, remarked that as of March Finance Minister Jihad ‘Azour was unsure about what portion of the Stockholm pledges had been rolled into those from Paris III. An economic consultant with close ties to the CDR and contacts with the Ministries of Economy, Trade and Finance, said ‘Azour had formally assured him the monies pledged in the two conferences were separate. He admitted, though, that these funds were taking longer to be delivered than expected. He attributed the delay to both state and donor hesitancy amidst Lebanon’s severe political crisis. In November, six ministers aligned with Hizballah left the cabinet over Siniora’s refusal to form a ”national unity” government with more representation for Hizballah and friends, who are now styled Lebanon’s political opposition. Since December, the opposition has been calling for entirely new elections, a demand Siniora also resists on the grounds that his March 14 coalition—so named after the huge “Syria out!” demonstration on March 14, 2005—won a parliamentary majority in the 2005 elections.

“For most of the verbal commitments and unofficial commitments made in Paris, there should be direct negotiations on the conditions for the donations or the loans,” said the consultant. “I think most of this is frozen because of the political imbroglio.”He could offer no comprehensive accounting of funds already received and spent. Many international donors have been skittish about giving money directly to the state. As no alternative funding mechanism has been adopted, the Ministry of Finance allowed aid from international and private-sector donors to be channeled directly to recipients, meaning the state has little oversight over how funds are spent.

By and large, European and Asian donors prefer in-kind assistance, whereas Arab countries like to donate cash. State spokesmen say Saudi Arabia’s lump sum donation was deposited directly into the Central Bank in the kingdom’s name. These monies were to be shuffled to other accounts according to specific needs. The Ministry of Finance reported that at least eight countries are channeling funds through various UN agencies.

Saudi Arabia has directed most of its in-kind humanitarian donations through international NGOs, such as a $2 million agreement with UNICEF for education and health programs. Kuwait signed a memorandum of understanding with the CDR for the allotment of its $300 million in cash donations, some of which was meant to go to the Central Bank, and the rest of which was to be spent by the Kuwaitis directly. Oman plans to follow a similar regime. Qatar sidestepped the state altogether. Rather than opening an account at the Central Bank, the emirate says it has spent $67.1 million on the four southern villages it has “adopted”— much of it in housing indemnities and the rehabilitation, reconstruction and re-equipping of schools. Delivered through USAID, $86.5 million of Washington’s donation has been earmarked for “humanitarian” aid, highlighting school rehabilitation and oil spill clearance. Almost $30 million is going into repairing the Mudayrij Bridge. Of the World Bank’s $71 million grant, $30 million went to municipalities, and $15 million toward paying the interest on existing International Finance Corporation loans to the private sector. Like the United Arab Emirates, the Iranians have not set the exact size of their donation, though the sum is presumably substantial.

All these donations seem to spring from promises made in 2006. The finance minister was still negotiating with donors in March, and by mid-May no one was able to confirm the total sum of donations received.

Disbursement

Boutros Labaki, a senior vice president of Hariri’s Council for Development and Reconstruction for a decade before resigning in 2000, is baffled at the slow pace of state reconstruction since the summer war. “This government’s reconstruction strategy,” he says, “if you can call it a strategy, is far less interventionist than it was in the 1990s…. We had greater financial means then than we do now, but today I don’t think there’s a problem with financial means.” State spokesmen consistently blame Lebanon’s political paralysis for the sluggishness, the implication being that, since it was opposition ministers who resigned from the cabinet, it is the opposition’s fault that the country is not being rebuilt more quickly. Obviously, the standoff has played a role. Nevertheless, the Siniora government has made choices that favor delay over action.

The Higher Relief Council (HRC), the organ of the prime minister’s office entrusted with caring for the internally displaced during the summer war, is now administering the post-war reconstruction. At the time of the war, the HRC was headed by Nabil Jisr, a loyalist of the Future movement led by Hariri’s son Saad. Shortly after the cessation of hostilities, Jisr was moved over to the CDR, following the resignation of its long-time director Fadl Shalaq. Shalaq’s resignation, the first press scandal of the post-war period, was covered in the daily al-Akhbar, launched during war by the late Joseph Samaha. Al-Akhbar, whose editorial line tends to be sympathetic to the opposition and critical of US policy, reported that Siniora and his allies had been trying to replace Shalaq since the onset of the fighting. Shalaq accused Siniora of outsourcing the CDR’s mandate to other state and quasi-state entities, and said the prime minister refused to meet with him because CDR property damage estimates—$3.6 billion—were too low. Hariri-owned Future TV claimed the Israeli bombardment inflicted $9.6 billion in material damage, and this was the estimate preferred by Future’s prime minister.

Shalaq also claimed the prime minister spurned his proposals for rapid reconstruction of the dahiya&mdash-the heavily Shi‘i southern suburbs of Beirut that took the brunt of bombing in the capital. The engineer overseeing Hizballah’s dahiya reconstruction project corroborates this story, saying that he met with Shalaq during the war to discuss joint rebuilding plans only to find them later vetoed from the top. In the al-Akhbar narrative, Shalaq emerged as leader of a faction within the Future movement that criticized incitement of opposition to Hizballah as a betrayal of Hariri’s ideals. Along with a number of old Hariri allies, Shalaq argued that the late premier would have encouraged Future to take a vocal, united stance in support of the Islamic Resistance during the war. Members of Shalaq’s camp, al-Akhbar reported, were detained by Lebanese security forces while attempting to put up posters denouncing America, signed “friends of the Martyr Rafiq al-Hariri.” [2]

But the rift in Future need not be reduced to the partisan differences depicted by the media. Glancing at the reform paper the Siniora government presented at Paris III, it would be easy to conclude that the government does not want to channel international donations through the state—as it did in the 1990s—because it does not want to strengthen those institutions at a time when the conditions of debt relief call for stripping them down. The paper described the CDR, for example, as “overloaded.” [3]

Meanwhile, seasoned analysts question the capacity of the HRC to fulfil its designated role. Unlike the CDR, which has the professional expertise for reconstruction tasks, the HRC is basically an executive body, and observers profess innocence of how the operation actually runs. “The HRC,” one economist laughs, “It’s like God. It’s everywhere. I don’t know if they have the people or the skills.” According to a HRC spokesperson, rebuilding major bridges and roads lies in the purview of the CDR, while the Public Works and Transport Ministry is assigned secondary roads and bridges. If a cash donation is available for infrastructure work, the HRC turns the money over to these other agencies, which in turn tender the contracts. There is an accounting department consulted by the prime minister. There is no third party oversight.

Measures that might have been taken to ensure transparency include a comprehensive damage assessment, a reconstruction master plan and an accountable mechanism for channeling funding. Observers, both more and less sympathetic with the Siniora government, say Lebanon’s current reconstruction regime lacks all three.

Shalaq’s resignation ensured that the state’s damage assessments were immediately mired in political controversy. “The numbers [the government] presented at Stockholm were bullshit,” said Shalaq in an interview. “This kind of government only cares about servicing the debt and views infrastructure projects as a drain on the budget. [The reconstruction] will happen haphazardly because the private sector will eventually just go out and rebuild bridges themselves.” Shalaq contends the government pressured him to inflate preliminary damage estimates during the war, so that some of the reconstruction assistance could go toward paying Lebanon’s public debt. Labaki says Shalaq’s accusations are plausible, though the sums in question are “peanuts compared to the debt—six months interest, nothing more.”

In south Lebanon and the western Bekaa Valley, the state’s damage assessments were carried out by the Council of the South, a quasi-state institution established in the wake of the civil war and nominally dedicated to the development of south Lebanon, but widely recognised patronage vehicle for Amal boss and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. Elsewhere, the appraisals were done by the (equally corrupt) Fund for the Displaced and the Ministry of the Displaced. The government hired the engineering firm of Khatib and ‘Alami to make assessments of government retrofits to damaged (not destroyed) buildings in the dahiya and to audit the national assessments. Though the firm officially made no estimates of its own, people in the south tend to refer to the “Khatib and ‘Alami assessment” or else use the Council and Khatib and ‘Alami interchangeably.

As “consultant-auditors,” Khatib and ‘Alami are presented as third-party oversight in the state’s assessment process. Yet the firewall between the assessing state institution and the objective third party is hazy. In the late 1990s, for instance, concerned architects lobbied the Hariri government to legislate the preservation of Beirut’s historic architecture. The governmentcommissioned a survey, compiled throughout 1997 by the Directorate-General of Urban Planning and the lobbying architects. When influential developers complained that the survey restricted their opportunities, the government commissioned Khatib and ‘Alami to make another assessment. The firm conjured up a study in two months, one that drastically reduced the number of buildings of “historic value,” thereby opening up the field for developers. [4]  Such ambiguity in the division of public and private is not uncommon in Lebanon, but it generates recurrent distrust of the integrity of both.

“I was in the south for four months,” recalled Basim Chit, Beirut operations coordinator of the ad hoc civil refugee relief agency Samidoun during the war. After the war, he coordinated relief to 100 villages within the sub-district of the southern town of Sur. “I did not see [Khatib and ‘Alami] in a single village.” Chit regards the Council of the South/Khatib and ‘Alami assessments with great skepticism. “Khatib and ‘Alami’s was a superficial assessment that didn’t go into the individual specifications of each house… Some buildings have a crack and will be put in the total reconstruction category for compensation. Some have no roof and they get compensation for minor repairs.”

“All the estimates were too high, overestimated,” shrugged Labaki. “It’s classic, this inflation of figures,” under the terms of the muhasasa state. A spokesman for the Lebanese Order of Engineers and Architects praised Khatib and ‘Alami’s work, defending its indemnity payments as accurate, “plus or minus.” “You know the employees in the Council of the South do favors for their brother, neighbor, sister, cousin, whoever,” he continued. “It’s normal. A house has minor damage, but it’s an old house. So they put it down as completely destroyed so they can do renovations.” The Order’s spokesman said he had received complaints from people who thought their assessment was too low, proving Khatib and ‘Alami’s honesty, but of course recipients of Council of the South largesse are unlikely to complain about receiving too much compensation.

Chit reckoned that the most reliable damage assessments have been generated by Jihad al-Bina’, the development wing of Hizballah. According to its general manager, Jihad al-Bina’ made four separate assessments, three of which were completed before the government had finished its first. The 20-year old agency, which, like its parent party, is on Washington’s list of banned terrorist organisations, is Hizballah’s answer to the “NGO wings” of Lebanon’s other political parties. It has provided electricity and collected garbage, as well as building schools, hospitals, cultural associations, clubs and mosques. In peacetime, Jihad al-Bina’ employs 70-100 engineers, but nowadays it fields over 1,000 volunteer engineers to repair damage of Israeli attacks in south Lebanon and the western Bekaa Valley.

No one has questioned the accuracy of the Jihad al-Bina’ assessments because Hizballah represents itself as being above the graft of the muhasasa state. In any case, the agency has not made its assessments available to the public. One economist interviewed for this story, a consultant with close ties to CDR, produced a Jihad al-Bina’ report on direct damage to the dahiya, one that excluded real estate considerations. As he flipped through its pages, he expressed frank admiration at how thorough it was.

In lieu of an authoritative damage assessment or reconstruction master plan, sources said, foreign donors and international NGOs have made estimates of their own, a tremendous and wasteful duplication of effort. No wonder Shalaq’s prophecy of a haphazard reconstruction has come to surreal fruition.

Public Infrastructure

The most visible rebuilding has occurred in public infrastructure, particularly bridges, most via the generosity of foreign countries and the local private sector—not unlike Byblos Bank’s adoption of the Fidar. In its most recent report, the Lebanese government tallies 91 bridges felled and damaged by attacks during the 34-day war. An accompanying table spells out that 46 of these bridges fall within the Public Works and Transport Ministry’s jurisdiction, while the CDR oversees 45.

All 91 bridges have been “donated”—adopted by a donor. Of these, 74 are being rebuilt through HRC agency—37 by the Public Works and Transport Ministry, 43 by the CDR—and this is not the only government figure that does not add up. There is no accounting for the remaining 17 bridges. Looking through the donors’ list, it becomes clear that, between them, the HRC and Ministry are “donating” funds to rebuild 17 bridges (not 37), and they are cooperating on 13 projects, while two are labeled “ongoing Ministry projects” and two more are HRC solo efforts—presumably doled out to some developer with connections to the March 14 forces. The CDR is directly involved in only three projects (not 43). [5]

The capital of local politicians is also playing a prominent role. Sunni businessman-politician Najib Miqati—whose family has business interests in Syria and is usually labeled “pro-Syrian”—adopted the Madfoun Bridge in northern Lebanon. Based on the state’s figures, members of the Hariri family—brothers Saad and Baha’—have adopted 22 bridges in the south, north and Mount Lebanon. Most of these are listed as completed or nearing completion. All are apparently in-house jobs, done by Genco or other subsidiaries of Saudi Oger, the construction company founded by Rafiq al-Hariri.

Nine months after the end of the war, the completed projects are all the more notable for how many are yet to be undertaken. The government of Iran, for instance, is listed as having adopted 20 bridges, most in south Lebanon and Nabatiyya, but the government reports that most of the work was either in its early stages or had yet to commence by the end of February.

The most consistent obstacle to rebuilding has been simple inaction. In some cases, donor requirements are incompatible with state strategy and political realities—the want of a trustworthy damage assessment, master plan and transparent system for disbursement. In other cases, the state looks to be deliberately stalling. Under Lebanese law, the cabinet must issue a decree saying they have accepted aid and defining its implementation strategy. Critics of the 2006-2007 reconstruction say that donations have arrived, but that the cabinet has not taken these preliminary steps to activate them. Since the vast majority of the material damage was sustained in regions inhabited by poor and middle-class Shi‘a, Shalaq, among others, has charged the government with purposefully obstructing the distribution of aid in order to prove that Hizballah is incapable of rebuilding on its own, thereby alienating the party from its constituency.

State officials have defended their performance from a position of state incompetence. Minister of Economy and Trade Sami Haddad, for instance, has said the government was doing the best it could, given its “limited financial means and modest operational capacity.” They have also, of course, pointed the finger at the political deadlock. Labaki, for one, has his doubts. “Even before the [six ministers’] resignations there was inaction,” he said. “Even the legal steps to accept the grants haven’t been taken…. Perhaps they don’t want to rebuild because they’re expecting another war. But what is the political advantage?”

Private Property

South Lebanon withstood the heaviest of Israel’s summer bombardments by far. The numbing violence was also selective: Villages populated by Shi‘i Muslims were targeted, while Christian villages were relatively unscathed. According to early estimates from Jihad al-Bina’, 15,000 homes in southern villages and the dahiya were leveled. According to a second survey, some 70,000 additional housing units need restoration. Some 150 public organizations were destroyed. Hizballah’s Center for Consultative Studies had yet to complete the survey of damage to commercial enterprises when the interview was conducted.

The displaced began flooding south on August 14, the day the bombing stopped. There they were met by international humanitarian organizations and local NGOs, prominent among them Jihad al-Bina’, which was allotting compensation of $10,000 to anyone who had lost a home. Critics have noted shortcomings in the math. “Hizballah gave compensation to people to rent houses,” says Basim Chit. “Take a family in south Lebanon of, say, a farmer, his wife and three children. The eldest child is married and lives at home. The two daughters study at school or university. During the war they had to pay to stay in a place in Beirut. When they returned, they had to pay school fees and transportation from their village to a school in Saida, about $6 a day. The $10,000 soon disappears.”

Municipalities, many of them Hizballah-controlled, retained the lion’s share of discretion over the distribution of reconstruction aid, since many donors have channeled funds to them via the local muhafiz (district governor)—either directly, through the Council of the South and, to a lesser extent, the CDR, or through international NGOs and their local affiliates.

The most spectacular rebuilding interventions in south Lebanon have come from the Arab Gulf states—principally Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—who sidestepped the Lebanese state. Four days after the ceasefire, Qatar decided to rebuild civil and residential infrastructure independently. The emirate’s embassy made arrangements with Hizballah to “adopt” the southern villages of Bint Jubayl, ‘Ayn ‘Ata, Khiyam and Aita al-Sha‘b. The embassy distributed up to $12,000 in compensation to residents, and set about repairing reservoirs. The Qataris are also rebuilding churches, mosques and husseiniyyas—Shi‘i community centers that often double as prayer houses. The Emirati embassy is rebuilding all the south’s destroyed and damaged schools. Keen to highlight the Lebanese state presence on the ground, an HRC spokesperson remarked, “At one school the Emiratis rebuilt, they did not install toilets. We told them to add toilets and they did.” But the HRC freely admits that neither Qatar nor the UAE consulted the government’s reconstruction czars before selecting the targets of their munificence. Since the Siniora government wanted the school year to begin on schedule, they did not stand in the way.

Council of the South head Qabalan Qabalan says residents prefer that donors adopt the “traditional mechanism” and distribute reconstruction aid directly to recipients. “After Israel’s withdrawal in 2000,” he claimed, “Kuwaiti compensation was given directly to residents. This is the best way because donors know where their money is being spent, and if they give money directly to people they get to see how grateful they are.”

As far as the Siniora government is concerned, the most opaque foreign intervention in south Lebanon is that of Iran. Iran is donating an undefined sum that, like Siniora’s allies in the Arab Gulf, they have chosen not to deposit in Lebanon’s Central Bank. Some is dedicated to rebuilding bridges, though Lebanon’s most recent reconstruction report suggests the Iranians are also rehabilitating schools, hospitals and places of worship. At a May 7 press conference, Siniora called on Hizballah and Tehran to be transparent regarding what funds were coming into the country and the purposes to which they were being put.

The Siniora government is clearly anxious about southerners’ attitudes toward Hizballah. Have these attitudes changed since the reconstruction began? “Some people are frustrated with Hizballah,” acknowledged Chit, “but not at the political level. If you ask people, ‘Are you frustrated with Hizballah?’ they will say ‘Yes.’ If you ask them, ‘Do you support the government?’ they will say ‘No.’ People in the south live with the threat of Israel every day, and Hizballah protects them. A lot of them hate March 14 more than Israel, because they…feel like the government punished them during the war for resisting Israel.”

Mona Harb of the American University of Beirut, widely recognised for her intimate knowledge of the dahiya, said that some people in the south are very critical of the priority assigned to rebuilding Harat Hurayk, the dahiya quarter that is home to Hizballah’s political and administrative headquarters and, it is widely assumed, its military nerve center. The southerners, Harb related, resent that “Hizballah is not caring for the villages and town in the south because they’re investing everything in Harat Hurayk. It’s not voiced very publicly, but you feel it.” The notion that some southerners are alienated by Hizballah’s reconstruction plan is intriguing—not because it suggests the government’s strategy is working, but because Hizballah may be seen as reproducing an innate state bias that privileges Beirut over the rest of the country.

Breaking Ground

Siniora’s challenge to Hizballah and Iran came one day after Iranian TV aired an interview with Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah. Among the issues the secretary-general of Hizballah discussed was the party’s decision to rebuild the dahiya on its own, without state support. Nine months after the end of the war, with few indemnities disbursed to dahiya residents and no reconstruction on the horizon, Nasrallah accused the Siniora government of politically motivated delays in the rebuilding process. He further announced that the Solemn Promise Project (Mashru‘ al-Wa‘d al-Sadiq), founded in November by Jihad al-Bina’ to oversee dahiya reconstruction, had nearly completed its urban plan and would break ground on May 25.

Prior to Nasrallah’s announcement, the dahiya was the area where the state’s reconstruction efforts were most conspicuously absent. These are not polite subdivisions with white picket fences, but congested urban quarters where migrants from the Bekaa, south Lebanon (many refugees from decades of conflict with Israel) and points beyond settled during the civil war. The population of the dahiya is overwhelmingly Shi‘i and disproportionately poor, and it is they, along with the southerners, who suffered most during the solid month of punishment from Israeli bombers and gunboats.

The dahiya’s reconstruction languished for the same reason that its destruction was so massive—its close association with Hizballah. The southern suburbs of Beirut, and Harat Hurayk in particular, are the one area where the party must control the reconstruction. There were several reasons Hizballah wanted to rebuild the dahiya immediately. An integral part of its image is no-nonsense efficiency. After the pounding its constituents had sustained, it was vital for the party to represent itself as intact and fully operational. Thus, Jihad al-Bina’ matter-of-factly announced that at 9 pm on August 14, three hours after the ceasefire, it had dispatched teams of engineers to the dahiya and south Lebanon to begin damage assessments.

Jihad al-Bina’ began distributing sums of up to $12,000 in cash to Lebanese whose homes were destroyed in the war—Sunni and Christian families from around the country as well as Shi‘a. As of mid-November 2006, Hizballah reported it had disbursed some $300 million in emergency relief aid to those with razed or damaged homes. Disbursement was made directly by the party, not through state or government agencies, because, the party said, it wanted the process completed quickly in order to get people back into their homes before winter. Skeptics suggested the party just wanted dahiya residents to know who was in charge. Rubble was cleared, but the dahiya was not rebuilt.

The state’s response in the dahiya has been painfully measured, restricted to retrofitting partially destroyed buildings that would likely have collapsed otherwise—based on damage assessments audited, again, by Khatib and ‘Alami. Rather than rebuilding completely destroyed buildings, the state elected to pay indemnities to people so that they could rebuild on their own. [6]

Local real estate irregularities—connected with the dahiya being so long beyond the pale—compounded by Lebanese inheritance laws and the relative poverty of most residents make the indemnities a procedure rife with difficulty. Many residents rented. Others hold complicated titles to their property, a problem throughout Beirut, where many individuals (sometimes from different branches of the same extended family, sometimes not) can own shares of the same flat, and where flats may have been put up as collateral for loans. This complication is accentuated in the dahiya, where the population became denser during and immediately after the civil war, when forced population movement was commonplace and the influence of the minimalist Lebanese state was at a low ebb. Buildings in the dahiya were sometimes erected without permits on squatted property. Over time, unregulated development has seen some structures expand well beyond legal zoning regulations, with what were originally four-story buildings growing into towers of eight stories and more.

An HRC spokeswoman said the state was paying indemnities in the dahiya and south Lebanon, working through the Ministry of the Displaced and the National Fund for the Displaced in the dahiya, and the Council of the South in the south. Indemnities were negotiated on a case-by-case basis. “If you have papers you have to apply,” she said, “and complete file with Ministry of the Displaced. We have nothing to do with Hizballah.”

Until Nasrallah’s announcement, the party has carefully worked to ensure that this reconstruction be done according to the letter of Lebanese law. Since the end of the civil war, Hizballah has worked to distance itself from the lawlessness of war and the corruption associated with Lebanese politics generally. In fact, party rhetoric has intelligently instrumentalized the shortcomings of Lebanon’s sectarian state to protect its interests, which arguably derive from its status as the state of the art in Lebanese confessional politics. When, in the wake of the summer war, pro-government politicians called upon Hizballah to surrender its arms—in the interest of realizing the holy grail of Lebanese state building—Nasrallah replied that the Islamic Resistance would hand its weapons over to the state as soon as the state proved itself able to defend Lebanese soil against Israeli aggression.

The Promise project is the only plan put forward to rebuild the dahiya. Promise would rebuild the suburb precisely as it was before the war, with a few changes to improve the quality of life for residents: Buildings would be provided with matching façades, generators and wheelchair ramps, and green spaces would be introduced to common areas.

The legal framework for the project is elegantly simple and builds upon the broad consensus the party enjoys among its constituency, as well as their modest means. After organizing some town hall-style meetings to inform residents of its plans, it constituted committees to represent the residents of destroyed buildings. Promise asked residents to sign over their compensation payments for flats and common areas to the committee president via a power of attorney contract, which was then signed over to Promise. [7]  The residents retain title over their property, and if a family wishes to rebuild individually, they are told they are free to do so—though that is technically impossible in a block of flats. [8]  Jihad al-Bina’ defends the plan as the most efficient and speedy manner to get dahiya residents back in their homes. Politically speaking, Promise also has the virtue of maintaining, and legitimizing, the geographical integrity of Hizballah’s power base, while reinforcing Hizballah’s prestige—it being a Hizballah plan implemented by the party’s development wing. The power of attorney documents are perfectly legal under Lebanese law, and technically the government must honor them. The disbursement of compensations in the dahiya has been fitful since the Promise plan was floated, however, and eventually the state simply refused to fulfil them, telling residents they had to pick up their indemnity personally. Hence Nasrallah’s announcement that Promise would break ground whether the Siniora government likes it or not.

The state proposed no alternative strategy for rebuilding the dahiya. There were, however, two prominent civil interventions to influence the dahiya reconstruction—one from the Lebanese Order of Engineers and Architects (OEA), and the other from the Architecture and Design Department at the American University of Beirut. Soon after the war the OEA formed a committee—comprised of Order members and representatives of Hizballah and Amal—to hammer out a master plan for the region. The Order wanted a plan that would fix problems arising from the dahiya’s unregulated, often illegal, urban development. It would also transform the fabric of the suburb so that it was more integrated into greater Beirut, rather than looking in on itself as it did before the war.

The OEA says that for the reconstruction to be legal, the residents have to wait for Parliament to approve modifications to existing zoning regulations in the area. In the dahiya, apartment buildings average ten stories, though they are legally zoned to be no more than four. The Order’s requirement that all new buildings adhere to zoning regulations means existing laws must be amended by Parliament to change height restrictions, thereby legalizing some of these errant apartment complexes. “That’s why we need to modify this decree,” the OEA man said. “Who should modify this decree? Parliament. But Parliament is closed, because of the international tribunal.”

The OEA proposed its dahiya reconstruction strategy to Siniora in November. OEA President Pierre Doumit depicted its provisions as the minimum basic components of any urban planning scheme. The blueprint must ban rebuilding on streets or other public property and must all comply with zoning regulations. It must allow for the free circulation of traffic, incorporate basic utilities and public services, provide for schools, electricity infrastructure and irrigation networks, and incorporate measures to reduce traffic congestion by creating public green spaces with underground parking. Basically, said OEA Treasurer Muhammad Fatha in a later interview, the Order’s proposed master plan would conform to the guidelines laid down by the Elyssar Project. This offhand reference immediately grounded the standoff within an older debate over the development of the dahiya.

Elyssar was conceived in the early 1990s by then-premier Hariri as a real estate company on the model of Solidere, which knocked down many buildings, retooled some more and made downtown Beirut look the way it does today. Solidere provoked a groundswell of civil society opposition for several reasons—its odd position in the ether between public and private institution, its vast powers of land expropriation and the high-handed manner in which these were seen to be exercised. Given the patchwork of property ownership in the old central Beirut, Soldiere argued, it would be impossible to rebuild in a timely and uniform manner without expropriations. With Hariri’s backing, Solidere shrugged off civil opposition.

Elyssar could not be imposed upon the dahiya, though, because its residents were Amal and Hizballah constituents, and these parties could not be ignored. In response to this pressure, Elyssar was reinvented as a public institution—a model that allowed local residents to retain title over their properties. The project languished for years for lack of adequate funding. [9]  Fiscally neglected by a regime willing to spend lavishly on reconstruction projects more in line with its political leanings (and, it was argued, its business interests), Elyssar became a model of why Lebanon’s public administration doesn’t work. In 2004, Hariri made it known he wanted to retrofit Elyssar as a real estate company or companies. Then, in April 2006, rumors surfaced that Siniora was floating the same model. [10]

Mona Harb calculated that such public musings on the part of Hariri and Siniora would have been impossible without the participation of Amal and Hizballah. “Elyssar is a place where you strike certain deals in exchange for others,” she said. The dahiya, in addition to its residential areas, is also home to a district featuring a golf club and a Marriott Hotel, a district where Hizballah and wealthy Shi‘i businessmen in the diaspora are investing hefty sums. Harb speculated that Hizballah is interested in the Elyssar model as a way to ensure that “the seashore is liberated” for lucrative real estate development, which will benefit the class of bourgeois developers in its constituency. Promise, given the priorities driving it, is not Elyssar. It is one solution to the problem of how to mend a shredded urban fabric, but one that may be informed by Elyssar’s prerogatives and that eventually could look like a Hizballah version of Solidere. The week before Nasrallah’s May 6 announcement, Harb remarked that Hizballah had commissioned private firms to do the execution drawings of each building according to a master plan they had conceived with a group of commissioned consultants and private urban designers. Asked what companies the project would take bids from, Promise’s director confirmed, “All companies are invited to bid—local and international—as long as they meet the requirements drafted by a group of engineers at Promise.”

It is difficult to be more than speculative about either the 2006 OEA master plan or the Elyssar upgrade, since both have been overtaken by political considerations. The OEA committee’s work was curtailed in November-December 2006, just as the political differences between the March 14-dominated cabinet and its Hizballah-aligned ministers came to a head, leading to the resignations of the six ministers. The walkout was followed by the open-ended opposition sit-in in downtown Beirut, in its sixth month as of June. Siniora’s government began paying indemnities to dahiya residents, albeit haltingly and selectively, directly after the committee’s work ended.

Lebanon’s civil society activists are generally bewildered and angry that the state has not taken a more active role in reconstructing the dahiya and the country as a whole. Among the more vocal is Luqman Salim, co-director of the Harat Hurayk-based NGO Umam Documentation and Research, a secular activist and a strident critic of Hizballah. “Why are the CDR and HRC considering allowing reconstruction to be done by a non-governmental group? As far as March 14 and Jisr are concerned, they are not going to meddle in Hizballah’s playground.” “After the war,” said Bassem Chit, “the government said ‘We want to be one unified state. We want to build things. We don’t want any more states within states.’ If you’re going to make such claims, then you have responsibilities you must honor, work you must do. But they don’t want to do their job. Hizballah wants to be in charge of reconstruction for its own reasons: to gain political capital. The only people who are getting hurt are the people who lost their houses.”

Endnotes

 

[1] The best study of Lebanon’s muhasasa state is Reinoud Leenders, “The Politics of Corruption in Post-War Lebanon,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2004. 

[2] Al-Akhbar, August 25, 2006.

[3] Government of Lebanon, “Recovery, Reconstruction and Reform,” January 2, 2007. Leenders notes that under President Emile Lahoud, who reappointed Shalaq CDR president in 2000, and later Nabih Berri’s brother as CDR vice president, the CDR came to more closely resemble Lebanon’s corrupt state apparatus.

[4] See Association pour la Protection des Sites et Anciennes Demeures, “Summary of the Problem Concerning Historic Buildings in Beirut” (Beirut, 2000).

[5] Government of Lebanon, Presidency of the Council of Ministers, “Lebanon: On the Road to Reconstruction and Recovery,” May 4, 2007.

[6] According to figures from Lebanon’s Order of Engineers and Architects, most of the apartments in the dahiya are worth $32,000-45,000. The Order’s President Pierre Doumit said the Siniora government paid some residents up to $53,000 for repairs. He said the inflated figure was agreed upon after fraught negotiations between the Siniora administration and Hizballah members, who wanted a $100,000 ceiling on compensation payments. Doumit claims Siniora was willing to pay these inflated prices -- far exceeding the actual value of “90 percent of units in the damaged areas” -- so as to factor in the resident relocation necessary to implement a proper a reconstruction master plan for the region. 

[7] Hizballah critics are fond of portraying the party’s relationship with its constituents as being closer to coercion than consensus. There is no shortage of tales of dahiya residents being intimidated into signing over their power of attorney. “One friend of mine said he was forced,” said Muhammad Fatha, treasurer of the Order of Engineers and Architects. “They said, ‘Sign here so your apartment is reconstructed as it was, or it won’t get rebuilt at all.’” Others define the pressure differently. Said Mona Harb: “I’ve seen people sign over their rights without second thoughts. For them, it was only natural to do that. I have a student working on that who tells me people simply have no other option. They say this is the only way out.” 

[8] Not surprisingly, accounts differ as to how well-received Promise has been among dahiya residents. Fatha estimated that of 3,200 apartments that were totally destroyed, the residents of about 1,000 had authorized someone in the municipality or Jihad al-Bina’ to rebuild on their behalf. A lawyer close to Hizballah, on the other hand, estimated that in about 98 percent of destroyed buildings, people have signed power of attorney over to Promise.

[9] See Mona Harb, “Urban Governance in Post-War Beirut: Resources, Negotiations and Contestations in the Elyssar Project” in Seteney Shami, ed. Capital Cities: Ethnographies of Urban Governance in the Middle East (Toronto: Center for Urban and Community Studies, 2001), pp. 111-133.

[10] Nadine Khayat (for the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies), The Elyssar Reconstruction Project (London: Tiri, 2007).
 

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