Friday, May 13, 2011

Note to Washington: Listen to the People

This morning there was a lively debate at the American University of Beirut (AUB), an exchange that raised some interesting ideas as well as personal concerns. The event in question was the “City Debates 2011: Contemporary Urbanism in the Arab World” conference, and the discussion occurred after a panel on “Approaches to Planning and Reconstruction” in Lebanon by Mr. Hassan Jishi of Waad and Ms. Amira Solh of Solidere. Of course it was quite singular to have these two individuals sharing a forum at all. Waad is affiliated with Hizbullah and Solidere is more associated with the Hariri clan, and thus each presentation represented not only diverging political interests but also competing social projects. In my view (which was also shared by the audience) Waad is generally concerned with social justice and Solidere with capital accumulation by a selected few. Unfortunately my Arabic is still not quite good enough to have understood the entirety of Mr. Jishi’s presentation, although his accompanying power point showing the models and photographs of recently reconstructed buildings in southern Beirut that were destroyed during the devastating 2006 attack by Israel provided a pretty good clue as to the complexity of the task at hand and the job well done. However since I could not fully understand his talk, I will also limit my comments on Ms. Solh’s presentation of Solidere's work, and only mention that she began her talk with references to the great urban planners of the past, describing how cities such as Paris, New York and Rio were able to achieve modernity and yet failed to address the continuing poverty and homelessness of residents. She then proceeded to show photographs of the newly constructed elite landscapes in downtown Beirut to highlight the upscale development that Solidere has achieved, but without mentioning anything about the poverty or homelessness of Beirut's residents.

Well, the audience raised these and similar critical issues, eloquently but also with great frustration. They asked pointed questions about the lack of public participation and access to Solidere’s decision-making, as well as criticized the gentrification and exclusion that has resulted. None in the audience seemed to have benefitted from the Solidere reconstruction. Many burst into applause after the first critical question was posed, signaling that there was almost a consensus on the critique. As one gentleman succinctly summed up, “One project (Waad) brought the people back and the other (Solidere) sent them away.” It seemed odd that Ms. Solh so beautifully set herself up for this critique by introducing the idea of urban poverty and then utterly ignoring the question in practice, but perhaps this is symbolic of the greater injustices Lebanon has suffered under Solidere and the governments ruled by the Hariris. Although perhaps well meaning, Rafiq Hariri and his cronies conceived of the initial postwar reconstruction, which to Ms. Solh’s credit was much more complicated as a result of civil as well as international war, along a neoliberal logic that benefitted shareholder’s bank accounts before the Lebanese public interest. Indeed the federal deficit has skyrocketed as a consequence, totaling around $55 billion, while the Hariri family owns a majority stake in the profit making Solidere. The material urban result has delivered luxury office spaces, designer shops, hotels and restaurants that only businessmen and tourists from the Gulf can afford, a site of exclusion for ordinary Lebanese.

Listening to this lively exchange raised two key concerns for me. The first is related to the role of the academy. This is not the first time that I have observed how the AUB community is home to brilliant critical thinkers who openly question the destructive capacity of neoliberal capitalism. These days most of the public and private universities in America are so consumed with the bottom line that it is more efficient to teach liberal economics than social critique. After all one ideology allows students to be competitive on the job market and the other merely helps marginalized communities in particular and the environment and society as a whole. To fully appreciate how dire the situation in American universities is we need to look no further than recent reports about how the billionaire Koch brothers have donated $1.5 million to Florida State University with the unique condition that it must be used to hire professors who espouse liberal economic principles. While money still cannot buy happiness, these days in America it can at least buy an economics department.

The second concern is more relevant to this blog as it regards American foreign policy in the Middle East. Sitting among audience members—including students, educators and professionals—who rapturously applauded Mr. Jishi’s presentation on Waad and then gave him another round of applause after he responded to questions, as an American I am deeply ashamed of my government’s 2009 listing of Waad as a designated terrorist group. What disgraceful impudence towards not only Mr. Jishi and the dedicated workers who so rapidly reconstructed a civilian neighborhood unjustly razed by an American ally, but also to the thousands of residents who lost their homes, my Arabic teacher among them, in addition to the appreciative audience in attendance of the City Debates conference. How out of touch this disdainful policy is with the realities in Lebanon. If the recent revolutions have demonstrated that Arab publics are demanding a voice in their governments, it would behoove American policy makers to listen to popular Arab voices as well. Otherwise Washington’s ill thought policies towards Hizbullah and other popular movements will not only end up making America completely irrelevant in Lebanon, but also throughout the Middle East region as a whole.

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