An Unlikely Guardian of Public Space

An article about the protection of maritime public spaces in Lebanon, published in Bold Magazine in March 2015.

In early February, the Lebanese State Council ruled in favor of cracking down on private properties illegally encroaching along the country’s coast, going so far as to advocate for the demolition of structures violating the law. While the Council’s decision seems significant at first glance in light of the large number of private real estate projects which have taken over the country’s shores, the consequences might not be as wide-reaching as it seems.

The State Council, the country’s supreme administrative court, issued its ruling based on a 1925 law, updated in 1964, which requires that Lebanese officials seek penalties against owners of private property built on public spaces without a proper temporary permit. The temporary licenses are considered to belong to individuals, and cannot be passed on to heirs, the ruling read. The Council notably highlighted that the “protection of public property is mandatory and has a constitutional nature,” and that breaches of the law should be destroyed without warning or negotiation with the owner of the contravening property.

The Lebanese coast has become increasingly privatized over the years, as many public beaches have been replaced with luxurious resorts in a bid to attract wealthy clientele. Varying reports estimate that there are more than 1,000 encroachments on public space along the country’s 225-kilometer long coast. A Byblos official quoted in a 2011 article by Now Lebanon stated that only 50 meters of the 650-meter coastline in the tourist friendly city were still public property.

This evolution has been fought by citizens who object to the disappearance of public spaces in Lebanon. Most notably in the past year, activists have tried to prevent the private takeover of Dalieh, a well-frequented rocky area near Beirut’s famous Pigeon Rock and one of Lebanese capital’s last remaining public shores.

For Abir Saksouk, an architect, urban planner and Dalieh activist, the State Council’s decision came as a surprise, but she doubted that it would effectively tackle the issue of violations of public space.

’I fear that this will only be implemented on small, poor businesses that have flourished informally along the coast, because the large enterprises have found legal ways to cover up for their encroachment on the public domain,’ she said.

In fact, while the 1925 law defines maritime public spaces as any area along the coast that is reached by the tide at any point during the year, a decree by the Ministry of Environment in 1966 paved the way for the privatization of the coast. According to Decree 4810, the owners of private property adjacent to the coast can “rent” out maritime public domain for 99 years, thereby financially benefitting the state.

The State Council decision comes several months after security forces began their latest crackdown on small shops along Tripoli’s al-Mina corniche, lending weight to Saksouk’s prediction. Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported in November that at least 50 kiosks on al-Mina had been removed in the space of a week, just as some investors expressed interest in building tourist facilities in the area.

“The main problem is that there is only one vision for development in Beirut, and this vision is being implemented by a combination of investors, and real estate developers who are also politicians,” Saksouk said. “They are the ones who are pushing for policies and projects in one specific direction at the expense of the public.”

The offices of Solidere and Waterfront Development, two companies which own several prominent luxury seafront venues including the 20,000 square meter Zaitunay Bay in Beirut, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

The fact that companies like Solidere are controlled by prominent politicians, like the Hariri family, further illustrates the hurdles in reforming the law to preserve public spaces. In a country where corruption is rampant-Lebanon ranked an abysmal 136 out of 175 in Transparency International’s 2014 ranking- and financial and political interests are often intertwined, the State Council’s decision appears a bold move, yet it is unlikely to have a notable effect in practice.

Nonetheless, while the ruling might mean little for Zaitunay Bay or other resorts at this time, the fact that the State Council has taken up the issue of the protection of public spaces should be a cause for concern for the businesspeople who seek to expand along the Lebanese coastline.

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