Urban Activism in Oligarchies and Opportunities for Political Change - by Mona Harb
Beirut as Case Study
Under what conditions can urban activism generate opportunities for emancipatory collective action in cities governed by oligarchic political systems? Based on an empirical investigation of urban activism in Beirut (Lebanon) since 2006, and inspired by urban social movements’, urban politics’ and municipalism analytical frames (Nicholls et al. 2013; Nicholls and Uistermark 2017; Ozdemir and Eraydin 2017; Domaradzka and Wijkstrom 2016; Dikeç and Swyngedouw 2017), this blog argues that three elements determine the organization of collective action for emancipatory politics in cities.
The first relates to the consolidation of a shared urban imaginary and the accumulation of knowledge about the city’s key urban issues. The second involves the availability of diverse, dense and embedded activist networks that have relational assets and place-based linkages grounded in trust and solidarity, able to coalesce in times of crisis. The third concerns shifts in power arrangements that may lead to antagonisms and intra-elite conflicts, which could provoke cracks in the oligarchic political system, engendering an urban crisis that enables the rewiring of activists’ networks.
The context of post-war urban governance in Beirut highlights how the oligarchic and sectarian political system generated severe socio-economic and urban inequalities that are benefitting the few at the expense of the city’s public spaces and seacoast, affordable housing provision, basic urban services, soft mobility, and environment. Urban activists have been mobilizing since the early 1990s against these exclusionary and unjust urban policies, assembling a shared urban imaginary that consolidated in the second half of 2000 in a series of initiatives and campaigns, fueled by the establishment of urban studies and planning programs in private and public universities. These activists, educated in critical urban studies, and informed by an ethnographic approach to urban research and by legal knowledge, generated a series of success stories that validated their efforts, strengthened their networks, and enhanced their modes of action and tools of intervention.
In August 2015, because of intra-elite power struggles that prevent the brokerage of the usual business deal, Beirut’s streets drown in garbage for long weeks. This urban crisis leads to the rewiring of activist networks that coalesce, and collectively protest the political system in an unprecedented large-scale issue-based mobilization, transcending sectarian lines. The “movement” (al-Hirak in Arabic) occupies downtown Beirut for several days. After forceful police repression, protests subside. But, the movement reveals cracks in the oligarchic system that are rapidly put to good use by activist networks, which regroup into a campaign eyeing the municipal elections of May 2016. They form Beirut Madinati (“Beirut, my city”)—a campaign that organizes to run for the capital’s municipal council, traditionally the site of power of one of the leading oligarchs. Although it earned one-third of the votes, Beirut Madinati lost the elections (which are not based on proportionality). Nonetheless, it won the hearts of many, and disrupted an apathetic political opinion, opening up spaces for political participation. Indeed, Beirut Madinati further galvanized activists’ networks that started mobilizing for the parliamentary elections of May 2018. Today, a few weeks away from d-day, and for the first time in the post-war political history of Lebanon, a coalition of 66 independent candidates (all civil society activists or concerned citizens) is running against the mainstream political elites, across the national territory. Their platform—Kulluna Watani (“My nation is all of us”)—has little chances of winning much of the 128 parliamentary seats, given the election law that widely constrains access to power, and privileges the oligarchy. However, notwithstanding complex challenges, this coalition represents an important milestone in the formation of a budding urban social movement in Lebanon, reaching out to fellow activists beyond the capital city, and engaging them in a shared urban politics. As such, the study of urban activism in Lebanon reveals that, even in oligarchic political orders, under certain conditions, urban activism may generate productive opportunities for emancipatory collective action.
Mona Harb is Professor of Urban Studies and Politics at the American University of Beirut. Her previous research examined Hizballah's social and urban service provision as well as the socio-spatial practices of urban leisure in south Beirut. She is now working on two projects: one on local and regional governments, planning policies and public goods provision, and the other on youth mobilization and exclusion in Lebanon.
Professor Mona Harb presented on Beirut as a case study during the Critical Comparative Urbanism Seminar on Urban Social Movements on April 17th 2018.