For the War Yet to Come
Planning Beirut's Frontiers
Hiba Bou Akar




ON APRIL 26, 2011, I tuned in online from Berkeley, California, to a popular Lebanese radio show. It was the morning of the next day in Beirut, and the show’s famous host, Rima, was asking her listeners to engage with her on what they thought were the most urgent problems facing Lebanon. People called in to express an array of concerns—among them health benefits, housing prices, and power outages. At one point, Rima paused and said, “I think we should all start thinking about urban planning. Look around you. I would say that in this city, urban planning lacks planning and order.”

This was not the first time I had heard such a statement. While I was conducting fieldwork for this book in Beirut, people frequently asked me what I was studying. I often responded with what I thought was a simple answer: “I am studying urban planning in Beirut.” But over and over, I would get the same reaction: “You came all the way back from the United States to study planning here?! Does planning even exist in this city?”

Once, three acquaintances and I were chatting on the balcony of a hillside apartment overlooking the city. “Look at how haphazard urbanization is in Beirut,” one exclaimed. “Now, you tell me, is this planning?”

We had a view of Beirut and its southeastern periphery where Sahra Choueifat’s remaining agricultural fields, striped with housing complexes and industries, merged with the international airport. On Beirut’s southern fringe, buildings gradually blended into each other until they folded into a solid concrete mass with the city. The Mediterranean Sea framed the view (Figure 2). During the Lebanese civil war, our location had been a military site. Bullet holes from that long gone war still lined the balcony’s walls. Pondering that, a second acquaintance asked: “See how buildings have different heights, different materials, and no street alignments? Where is planning?” His wife then added: “Tell me where are the sidewalks, the trees, the playgrounds? Many of these streets and highways remain unfinished.”

My fieldwork notebooks hold dozens of such stories and encounters. And I realized that with each such encounter, I had become more curious about how popular perceptions of planning are formed in a contested city like Beirut, mired in cycles of conflict. Why did people think there was “no planning” in Beirut? And how did urban planning become a subject of everyday discourse?

FIGURE 2. Sahra Choueifat with the airport and Beirut in the background. Source: Marwan Haidar, 2016. Reproduced with permission.

Beirut: A Contested City

For decades now, the name Beirut has been synonymous with war, chaos, and violence. Indeed, from 1975 to 1990, the city was the epicenter of the long Lebanese civil war. That conflict resulted in massive property destruction, while at least 120,000 people were killed and one million more were internally displaced.1 During the war, Beirut was divided between a Christian east and a Muslim west along what became known as the Green Line. However, this represented only one facet of a new geography of violence that was partitioning a city that had, just a decade earlier, been celebrated for its vibrant, cultural, and intellectual society, prosperous and open economy, Mediterranean landscapes, and “Westernized” lifestyle.

Before the war, Lebanon had been internationally viewed as a young, decolonizing nation with a bright future. The country had recently gained its independence from France—the country that had been granted a mandate to rule it and its nearby areas in 1923 (following the partition of the Ottoman Empire). Soon after gaining independence in 1946, the country enjoyed an economic boom bolstered by local and regional investments.2 Nonetheless, this narrative of economic development took little account of the socioeconomic disparities in Lebanon that resulted in the political upheavals and labor protests that were common throughout the 1950s and 1960s.3 This same period witnessed the initiation of regional conflict attending the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the resultant mass displacement of Palestinians to Lebanon, and the subsequent onset of armed Palestinian resistance across Lebanon’s southern border.

On the eve of the Lebanese civil war, tensions had escalated on a range of issues. These included Lebanese nationalism versus Pan-Arabism, the Palestinian armed presence, and uneven development and class inequality (as poverty in rural Lebanon forced many families to migrate to Beirut and its peripheral areas looking for jobs). There were thus many origin stories for the civil war; however, the nature of the war also changed over time to reflect the many regional and international interventions and shifting local alliances, eventually becoming, as it is most commonly understood today, a sectarian battle among Christian, Shiite, Sunni, and Druze militias.4

As is also well understood, the violence associated with the war at times took the form of sectarian cleansings that resulted in mass displacement, forcing people to flee their homes in “mixed” areas to seek refuge in areas under the control of militias corresponding to their sectarian affiliation. Thus, west Beirut became predominantly Muslim while east Beirut became predominantly Christian. Meanwhile, those Palestinians living in east Beirut who had survived the violence of Christian militias against their camps were forced to flee to west Beirut. Thousands of Shiite families, fleeing the violence on the Lebanese-Israeli border and the eventual Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982, also sought refuge there.

In 1989, the warring factions finally reached an agreement—the National Reconciliation Accord, also known as the Taif Agreement—to end the fighting. Signed in Saudi Arabia, the accord was brokered by Syria, other Arab countries, and the international community. Among other provisions, it ratified and institutionalized the sectarian-based power-sharing system originally set up informally in 1943 to create a system of national government.5 But after the fighting came to a halt in 1990, this same governing framework allowed the militias that had fought the war to organize themselves as religious-political organizations overnight, and so continue to rule postwar Lebanon.

In the wake of the Taif Agreement, there followed a more or less peaceful period during the 1990s that allowed the reconstruction of downtown Beirut to begin, along with attempts to resolve the mass displacement caused by the civil war. However, in 2005, violence returned to the city in the form of a series of assassinations and bombings, only to be followed by a new Israeli war on Lebanon in July 2006.6 Then, in May 2008, the ghost of the civil war returned, as what had appeared to be only sporadic episodes of sectarian violence unexpectedly erupted into full-scale battles in Beirut and its peripheries, as well as other areas of Lebanon. The violence lasted for five days and came to be known as the May 7 events.7

Ever since then, fear of sectarian tensions has risen, and the country has experienced one episode of political gridlock after another. Thus, in 2015, the Lebanese Parliament renewed itself without a vote, citing fear that elections would lead to sectarian violence. In addition, owing to gridlock, the country was without a president from May 2014 until October 2016. This tense political landscape was compounded by the ongoing war in Syria, which has seen the active participation of several Lebanese factions. By 2016, the Syrian war had also resulted in the flight of more than one million Syrian refugees to Lebanon.8

Planning without Progress

For many people, such as my acquaintances conversing on the balcony, who lived through the gruesome years of civil war and who continue to experience ongoing episodes of sectarian violence, a visualization of spatial order seems to hold great significance. Ordering the present with quality affordable housing, paved streets, playgrounds, and trees means improved living conditions. But it also signifies something more—the promise of a planned future that might finally dispel the specter of war that has loomed over the city and its peripheries for so long.

Although the task of organizing cities is an old one, it was the Western project of modernity that imbued it with a teleology of order and progress. Toward this end, the regulation of urbanization, redistribution of resources, and provision of public amenities are tasks that professional planners now pursue through tools like zoning ordinances, building and property laws, and investments in public infrastructure. Despite critiques, such as that by David Harvey, that the profession is a tool of the powerful (the state, capital, and dominant social groups)9 to shape urban spaces in their image, hopes remain high among planners that their expertise can create better cities for the great majority of residents.10 Among governments and the population at large, planning has likewise been celebrated as a way to mediate difference and provide a positive, coherent narrative of a shared urban future.

However, if the normative discourse within the planning profession is one of “progress,” the reality in Beirut is quite different. In Beirut, planning has become a central domain of contest between religious-political organizations, governments, and profit-seeking developers. Several scholars, including Oren Yiftachel, Bent Flyvbjerg, and Ananya Roy, have described how planning outcomes are not always aimed at general improvement and betterment. My hope here is to contribute to understanding this darker reality of planning practice.11 In Beirut, the ordinary tools of planners are commonly used by complex urban actors such as Lebanon’s religious-political organizations in an overtly partisan manner. Such spatial practices challenge the common conception of planning as a tool through which to order the present in the interest of an improved future. They debunk modern narratives of peace, order, and progress; and they collapse distinctions between peace and war, order and chaos, construction and destruction, progress and stagnation. A practice of continuously planning for war in times of peace thus explains the underlying logic of Rima’s assertion that “planning lacks planning” in Beirut.

With these conditions as a background, this book can be conceived as addressing a series of general questions. In cities in conflict, like Beirut—ones where the specter of war is always present; where state structures are not clear and public processes are frequently outsourced; and where fear, threats, rumors, and otherness provide as vital a ground for policy formation as statistics, censuses, and scientific findings—how are urban presents and futures configured and contested? What roles do spatial practitioners, including planners, engineers, and real estate brokers, occupy in such settings? And how are territories arranged, by whom, and for what purposes?

The specific territory in which I have chosen to investigate these issues is Beirut’s southern and southeastern suburbs, particularly those peripheral areas known as Hayy Madi/Mar Mikhail, Sahra Choueifat, and Doha Aramoun (see Figure 1, preceding the Prologue). Beirut is a coastal city, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to its west. Its downtown occupies a settlement site that is more than five thousand years old. But its contemporary development only began in the nineteenth century, when its port became a major transshipment point for regional produce. During the twentieth century, development began to sprawl both up and down the coastal plain from this downtown area and the rocky peninsula to its south that originally sheltered the port. Today this development has also spread part way up the hills that overlook the city, and that gradually morph into the Lebanese mountains.12

Originally, much of Beirut’s population was concentrated near the city’s historic core and its main roads.13 However, the onset of civil war in 1975 caused a mass displacement from these central areas, resulting in the urbanization of outlying suburbs that grew exponentially after the end of the war.14 While there are no authoritative numbers, a 2000 estimate put Lebanon’s population at 3.2 million.15 At the end of the 1990s, it was estimated that about 32 percent of these people lived in the greater Beirut area, and that Beirut’s suburbs were home to 22 percent of Lebanon’s entire population.16 To further illustrate this urbanization pattern, another source estimated that in 1996 at least 80 percent of all buildings in Beirut’s south and southeastern suburbs had been built since 1975.17

Since the end of the civil war, formal urban planning and development discussions in the city have been dominated by two topics: the progress of large-scale postwar reconstruction and redevelopment projects (such as Solidere, Elyssar, Linord, and more recently, Waad)18 and the condition of Beirut’s informal peripheries (such as Ouzaii and Hayy el-Selloum).19 By contrast, the three neighborhoods I discuss here are peripheral yet formal, planned yet contested.20 Located at the edge of the city, in 2008 these densely populated, understudied, overlooked areas suddenly found themselves at the frontier of renewed sectarian conflict.

Implicit in this analysis is a specific understanding of the notions of periphery and frontier. Peripheries are areas excluded by design, neglect, or circumstance from the formal ordering of a metropolitan center. For this reason, they are typically theorized as being governed by informal social, economic, and political arrangements. However, rather than understanding Beirut’s peripheries as a geography of the unplanned, this book will attempt to show how they are in fact becoming ever more intricately planned within a logic of sectarian order. As such, they are increasingly taking on the spatial character of frontiers—areas often theorized as dystopic, where regimes of power and capital are actively involved in reconfiguring space in their own image. The principal agents in conflict in Beirut are religious-political organizations involved in post–civil war battles over land and access to housing. Among these, the four most prominent are Hezbollah (the main Shiite party in the region),21 the Future Movement (the main Sunni party), the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP, the main Druze party), and the Maronite Christian Church22 (as outlined in Figure 3).

Given these conditions, urban planning in Beirut must be viewed as embedded within a continuum of other social and spatial practices. This means it must frequently rely on innovative techniques to balance a spatiality of political differences to keep war at bay when possible, while simultaneously allowing for urban growth and development profit. Given such conditions, planning discourse and practice must continuously straddle tensions between the political, the technical, and the violent. However, by being simultaneously a tool of pacification, conflict, and development, it has actively transformed Beirut’s peripheries into contested frontiers characterized by environmental degradation and ongoing cycles of violence. On the one hand, it has encouraged a patchwork of planned spaces that provide low-cost housing. On the other, it has created overlapping industrial and residential zones, towns where highways are never finished, and playgrounds and other amenities are planned but never built.

FIGURE 3. The main religious-political organizations in Beirut’s south and southeastern peripheries, and their sectarian affiliations. The Lebanese Constitution recognizes a total of 18 religious sects. Political offices are distributed among the largest of them. The National Pact of 1943 stipulates that the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament must be Maronite Christian, Sunni, and Shiite, respectively. Distribution of political power among sects occurs at both national and local levels of government.


1. Some estimates put the number of people killed close to 200,000. The population of the country in 1980 was estimated to be 2.6 million (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Population Prospects). Also see Global IDP, Profile of Internal Displacement: Lebanon.

2. Kassir and Fisk, Beirut.

3. Ibid. These protests climaxed in 1958 when Lebanon witnessed civil unrest.

4. Shiites and Sunnis are the two main Muslim sects. Druze are a minority religious group in Lebanon and the Middle East. Officially, in Lebanon, they are considered a Muslim sect. However, many Druze differentiate themselves from Muslims.

5. Krayem, “The Lebanese Civil War and the Taif Agreement.”

6. In 1982, Israel waged a war on Lebanon, named Operation Peace for Galilee, during which Israel invaded Lebanon from the south; its army reached Beirut. This invasion resulted in Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon for eighteen years. In 2000, Israel withdrew from the area while keeping hold of the contested Shebaa farms. In addition to occupying southern Lebanon, Israel has waged several wars against Lebanon, including Operation Accountability in 1993 and Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, that resulted in hundreds of deaths and massive displacement among the Lebanese population.

7. The May 7 fighting officially ended on May 21, 2008, after the factions signed the Doha Agreement in Qatar, an accord that also ended a seven-month vacuum in the presidency that had started in November 2007.

8. This estimate is based on the number of refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR Syria Regional Refugee Response). The World Bank estimates the number to be more than 1.5 million, indicating that refugees who arrived in Lebanon between 2011 and 2016 account for 25 percent of Lebanon’s 2016 estimated population of 5.8 million (World Bank, World Bank’s Response to the Syrian Conflict). In addition, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), in 2014, some 450,000 Palestinian refugees were registered with this agency, accounting for about 8 percent of Lebanon’s population (UNRWA, Where We Work).

9. Harvey, “On Planning the Ideology of Planning.”

10. Friedmann, “Planning in the Public Domain”; Beauregard, “The Multiplicities of Planning.”

11. Yiftachel, “Planning and Social Control”; Flyvbjerg and Richardson, “Planning and Foucault”; Roy, City Requiem, Calcutta.

12. Faour and Mhawej, “Mapping Urban Transitions in the Greater Beirut Area.”

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Based on estimates by the United Nations (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Population Prospects).

16. Central Administration of Statistics, “Household Living Conditions in Lebanon 1997.”

17. Verdeil, Faour, and Velut, Atlas du Liban: Territoires et Société.

18. The highest profile project of these is Beirut’s Central District, which has been undergoing reconstruction by the real estate company Solidere. Elyssar and Linord, two grand but unrealized planning projects for Beirut’s southern and northern coastal suburbs, respectively, have also been discussed at length. More recently, Project Waad, Hezbollah’s large-scale effort to reconstruct Beirut’s southern suburbs destroyed during Israel’s July 2006 war on Lebanon has been the subject of several studies. For more on Solidere, see Rowe and Sarkis, Projecting Beirut; Makdisi, “Laying Claim to Beirut”; and Sawalha, Reconstructing Beirut. On Linord and Elyssar, see Rowe and Sarkis, Projecting Beirut; The Consultative Center for Studies and Documentation, Alīssār; and Harb, “Urban Governance in Post-War Beirut.” On Waad, see Fawaz and Ghandour, The Reconstruction of Haret Hreik; Harb, “Faith-Based Organizations as Effective Development Partners?”; Fawaz, “Hezbollah as Urban Planner?”; and Al-Harithy, Lessons in Post-War Reconstruction.

19. For more on these areas, see Hamadeh, “A Housing Proposal against All Odds”; Charafeddine, “L’Habitat Illégal de la Banlieue-Sud de Beyrouth”; Harb, “Urban Governance in Post-War Beirut”; Fawaz, “Strategizing for Housing”; and Clerc, Les Quartiers Irréguliers de Beyrouth.

20. By “formal” I mean that most buildings received permits from their municipality before their construction. This contrasts, for example, with the neighboring “informal” settlement of Hayy el-Selloum. However, as I discuss in Chapter 3, a number of buildings in Sahra Choueifat did eventually grow to violate their initial permits, rendering them informal. For a detailed discussion of the development of Hayy el-Selloum, refer to Fawaz, “Strategizing for Housing.”

21. I will at times also refer to Haraket Amal, which is, after Hezbollah, the second most important Shiite religious-political organization in Lebanon. Haraket Amal, formed in 1974, was initially called arakat al-Marūmīn (The Movement of the Dispossessed People). Hezbollah was created in 1982, when its leaders broke from the older group. The two entities, however, remain political allies.

22. Maronites, affiliated with the Catholic Church, are an important ethno-religious group in the Middle East and the dominant and most influential Christian sect in Lebanon. The 1943 pact that led to the country’s independence in 1946 mandated that the President of the Lebanese Republic always be a Maronite. Religious-political organizations that identify as Maronites include the Free Patriotic Movement, the Phalange Party (Kata’ib), and the Lebanese Forces.