Protest graffiti fills Beirut’s posh downtown

Lebanese artist and rights activist Selim Mawad hopes the wall paintings will be preserved. (AFP)
Updated 16 November 2019

Protest graffiti fills Beirut’s posh downtown

  • ‘The phoenix reminds us that the Lebanese shouldn’t lose hope’
  • ‘In theory it’s the place where everyone should meet, but the ruling class has taken possession of it’

BEIRUT: A majestic phoenix spreads its wings as Hayat Nazer adds a splash of color to a Beirut wall. As Lebanon’s uprising enters its second month, graffiti has enveloped the capital’s posh downtown.
Since October 17, the chanting of tens of thousands of Lebanese denouncing the political elite have shaken the normally staid district around two Beirut squares — Martyrs’ and Riad Al-Solh.
Nazer, a 32-year-old artist, is one of the protesters who would not normally frequent the area, famed for luxury boutiques and elegant buildings. But the unprecedented protests also offered her a first experience with street art.
“I decided to go out in the street to be inspired by the people,” she said during a cigarette break, standing next to pots of red, green and yellow paint.
Then she turned to place the final brushstroke on the mythical bird emerging from a burning forest — a reference to the fires that ravaged Lebanon’s mountains shortly before the protests began.
“The phoenix reminds us that the Lebanese shouldn’t lose hope. When we fall, we need to rise up and fly to freedom, to claim our rights,” she said.
The long concrete barrier Nazer was painting protects a United Nations building, but has been named the “wall of the revolution” for the graffiti adorning it.
A ballerina pirouettes under shells, accompanied by the slogan “Rise up.” Further down, a big purple hand flashes a V for victory.
On nearby buildings, various causes are championed with spray-painted and stenciled slogans: “Our revolution is feminist”; “LGBT rights, love is not a crime“; and “We will burn your palaces.”
Political leaders are lampooned in caricature, including outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, longstanding parliament speaker Nabih Berri, and central bank governor Riad Salameh.
The contrast is striking compared with the nearby opulence of a district that was controversially rebuilt after being ravaged during the 1975-1990 civil war.
Today a Rolex clock tower stands in front of a parliament cordoned off by security forces. Working-class souks have been replaced by a modern commercial center, home to banks and French luxury brands.
The reconstruction of the district, famed for its stone buildings in neo-Venetian and neo-Moorish style, was led by Solidere, the real estate company of billionaire former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Its detractors say the project killed the soul of a formerly vibrant neighborhood in order to attract Gulf investment and wealthy tourists.
“This city has become an icon of capitalism,” said artist and rights activist Selim Mawad.
He jumped onto a plastic barricade to retouch a mural of stylized bulls alongside the slogan: “What is the future of our revolution?”
Lebanon’s uprising — like protests elsewhere in the Middle East and Latin America — is both political and social.
“It’s also about personal liberation, which is the foundation of a revolution,” Mawad said.
He sees symbolism in graffiti.
“People say, ‘I can’t touch this building, I can’t live there, so I’ll leave my mark on it’,” the paint-spattered artist said.
One day, assailants attacked the protesters in the area where Mawad was painting his mural. He was beaten and his bicycle stolen.
“Give back the stolen money — and don’t forget the bike,” he later painted next to a picture of a bull brandishing a red bicycle.
He hopes the paintings will be preserved. “It’s the memory of an uprising. If they erase them, we will forget.”
Nearby, Rida Mawla left a meeting and decided to take a walk in the city center, something he said he never previously did.
“I’m starting to feel like downtown is a bit more like me,” the business consultant said.
“In theory it’s the place where everyone should meet, but the ruling class has taken possession of it,” he said.
He pointed out his favorite graffiti, a big black tag scrawled on a wall: “Beirut has spoken.”


‘Jury still out’ on new Lebanon government, says rights chief

Updated 24 January 2020

‘Jury still out’ on new Lebanon government, says rights chief

  • The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, said it was too early to say if the new government would be any better than its predecessor
  • Kenneth Roth: We’ve seen in Lebanon a government that can’t even clean up the garbage, they can’t deliver electricity, they can’t provide the most basic services

DAVOS: The “jury is still out” on whether the new government in Lebanon will be any different to the old one, the head of Human Rights Watch told Arab News on Friday.

Lebanon has been convulsed by demonstrations since October, when people took to the streets to protest against corruption, unemployment, a lack of basic services and economic problems. Political veteran Saad Hariri resigned as prime minister so that a new cabinet could be formed, but it took time to assemble a coalition.

The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, said it was too early to say if the new government would be any better than its predecessor. He warned, however, that the early signs were not promising.

“We’ve seen in Lebanon a government that can’t even clean up the garbage, they can’t deliver electricity, they can’t provide the most basic services,” Roth told Arab News on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos. “It’s not at all clear that the more technocratic government that has been put in place is going to be responsive to the needs of the people and able to deliver. The jury is still out on that. While the government has responded to the protesters’ demand on a political level by changing personnel, the security forces on the ground have often responded violently, and in repeated instances used excessive force rather than respect the rights of the protesters to petition their government to appeal for a government that is more respectful of their needs and accountable to their desires.”

According to Amnesty International, Lebanese security forces’ unlawful use of rubber bullets last weekend left at least 409 protesters injured, some seriously, in the most violent weekend since the protests began on Oct. 17.

“The protesters in Lebanon are upset by what they see as a dysfunctional and unaccountable government, I mean they are the most basic services that are not being provided,” Roth said, adding that the government was getting “increasingly intolerant.”

He also expressed concern about the plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The rights’ group says there are around 1.5 million of them in the country and that 74 percent lack legal status. “Authorities heightened calls for the return of refugees in 2018 and municipalities have forcibly evicted thousands of refugees,” the group said in a report.

“Syrian refugees obviously do impose a burden on Lebanon, but nonetheless there are legal obligations and the government really led by President (Michel) Aoun rather than former Prime Minister Hariri has been trying to make life more miserable for the refugees in the hope of forcing them back to Syria despite the fact that Syria remains completely unsafe,” Roth said.

Aoun and his son-in-law, former foreign minister Gebran Bassil, head the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) which has the biggest parliamentary bloc. Aoun and Bassil have repeatedly claimed that Syria is now a safe and peaceful country and that the refugees should go back.

“It is not safe to force anybody back, the Lebanese government knows this in the sense that they are not putting guns to people’s heads and forcing them back, but they’re doing the metaphorical equivalent by making life so miserable that many refugees feel that despite the risks to their lives, they have to go back to Syria because there’s nothing for them in Lebanon,” Roth added.