BEIRUT — "Strangers are coming and taking our land. This time it’s not a country, though, it’s businessmen,” said Ahmad, 60, a fisherman, sitting in his boat on the shore overlooking Dalieh’s traditional port. Although in Beirut, the area is quiet, with buildings in the distance. “In other countries, I would not have to work at this age. The government is forcing us to steal,” Ahmed said, referring to the lack of income-generating opportunities. “And for those of us that don't have it in us to steal, we have to commit suicide."
Only two natural sites on Beirut’s coastline remain accessible to the public — the Dalieh of Raouche and Ramlat al-Bayda. Dalieh is a headland of some 120,000 square meters, the last of its kind. Its untamed environment shelters marine terraces, caves that are home to bats and birds, archeological remains and 6% of Lebanon’s flora.
While public use of Dalieh has declined dramatically since 2012, the way it is used still differs dramatically from the strict policing of other public spaces in the city. Dalieh is a shared, communal space that embraces plurality, spontaneity and a lively informal economy. Fishermen are sometimes also cafe owners or boat builders. There are boat tours through and around Beirut’s signature Pigeon Rocks, and hundreds of people visit the area on the weekends to swim, picnic and play.
“Everyone in Lebanon learned how to swim here,” said a local fisherman and former cafe owner raised in Dalieh. His nickname, Abu Adal, means "father of muscles."
Today, remnants of demolished homes, stalls and cafes punctuate the otherwise untamed landscape of Dalieh, and piles of rubble dot the fishermen’s traditional port. Small boats lie about, grounded on their sides, out of commission. “A lot of the people that used to come here, now think it’s dangerous. The place has been relatively dead,” said Abu Adal.
The Ministry of Public Works and Transport began renovating the port in 2012 with the supposed intention of making it easier for the fishermen to dock their boats. They got as far as demolishing the structures the fishermen had built themselves in the water and then halted the project midstream, in 2013, around the time real estate companies sent the fishermen eviction notices.
In April 2014, the real estate companies installed razor wire and a 377-meter-long fence to prohibit access to the land. Activists claimed that the fences were illegal, because they limited entry to public land along the coast. Disruptions to regular activities instigated rumors, now confirmed, that a private commercial project would occupy the expanse. In cooperation with the companies, Lebanese internal security forces installed a roadway barrier at the main entrance to the area in July last year.
“It [the port renovation] was probably never going to be done. Once an area is covered in rubble, or turned into a parking lot, it’s easier to present bigger projects to the public with the promise that these companies are going to fix a mess or an unusable space,” said Ghassan Maasri, an architect and one of the leaders of the Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh. Dozens of police forcefully evicted fishermen without warning on May 2, 2015.
“The entire space is private and has been private, including the small port that the fishermen use,” Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad told Al-Monitor. “All legal fishermen were paid to leave, and they were promised a new port. They were promised another port near the military beach, but that is not going to happen.”
The mayor claimed that allegations that the port renovation had been an empty promise from the start were unfounded. It cannot be denied, however, that there have long been plans to exploit the area commercially. Legal decrees, maps delineating private versus public land and real estate purchases demonstrate this.
A common ownership regime and strict zoning laws had kept Dalieh in effect public and free of development until 1989, when the law was changed to allow a Movenpick hotel to be built. In the mid-1990s, under Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, land ownership in the area became largely consolidated in the hands of real estate companies effectively owned by members of the Hariri family, Fahd and Hind Hariri.
At around the same time, in 1995, the Lebanese government issued a decree permitting further exploitation of the area surrounding Dalieh. A law passed that year granted exceptions to businesses that owned more than 20,000 square meters of property and sought to build tourism amenities, such as hotels. This law allowed businesses to exploit up to 40% of the owned seafront plots instead of 20%. In practice, this meant that only people with a relative abundance of wealth could make use of the land for profit. In 2014, the decree was extended for an additional 19 years. According to Mona Hallak, an architect, preservation activist and Dalieh campaign leader, the timing of the extension was not a coincidence.
“The politicians make decrees that suit their landholdings. They made the law specifically for the Movenpick, and now we think they are renewing it for this project on the Dalieh,” she said. “A major aim of the campaign, at this point, is to prevent the law that allows for exceptions to the rule from being applied here.”
Campaign leaders say that the process of privatization in the area has been nefarious, charging that public lands were privatized through forgery. The farthest point inland that the waves reach in winter legally delineates the public space on the coast.
Hallak remarked, “Curiously, Dalieh seems to be the one place in Lebanon where the waves don’t even touch the farthest rocks in the sea. It’s almost all private. I mean we can see the water touching the rocks. We believe this to be an instance of forgery. We can’t find figures or the right maps before Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s time. They’re gone.”
Abu Adal, noting that the majority of the people who lived in Dalieh were Sunni, said, “If this entire area were Shiite or Christian, Hariri wouldn't have been able to remove the people who come here. The Shiite or Christian parties would be up in arms. But it's not the case here, because he is the patron of the people that live off of the land here, and they have no one else to defend their rights.” Hariri founded the predominantly Sunni Future Movement, which is now led by his son Saad.
The municipality is responsible for issuing the permit for construction on the Dalieh. “I have a good idea about the master plan. It’s going to beautify the seaside and preserve the natural terrain, and I will make sure of it,” Hamad told Al-Monitor. “It will give the public access to the seaside, and there will be this nice big terrace for the public.”
Dalieh campaign organizers worry that even if citizens are granted access to the shore after the completion of construction, however unlikely that is, it will not be an adequate substitute for the way Dalieh has been used in the past. Although seaside resorts have often been granted legal exemptions to space along the shore, they are obliged to open the shoreline to the public. Nevertheless, nearly all such resorts refuse entry to non-paying customers.
“The Lebanese don’t know they can go down to the Movenpick and put down a towel and sit there for free, said Hallak.”
The majority of the space deemed public in Beirut is privately controlled, if not privately owned. “They are patrolled by private security guards. The first thing you see when you walk in is a list of do not’s, rules about how people should behave. People are either excluded or they exclude themselves,” said Hallak.