Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Subdividing Beirut… issues raised and matters forgotten

Posted by worriedlebanese on 05/02/2010

For Lebanese reformists, there are two ways to approach the coming municipal elections: either as an opportunity for electoral reforms, or a first step towards decentralisation. The Minister of the Interior, Ziyad Baroud, has obviously opted for the first perspective. He is using every occasion possible to present himself as Minister of electoral reforms (a role he has yet failed to live up to) and has up to now “solved” the paradox of his position, that of holding the position of “Minister of centralisation” (Minister of the Interior), and “Minister of decentralisation” (Minister of municipalities, the only elected decentralised authority in Lebanon), by sacrificing the second to the first.

Ziad Baroud has been ignoring the specific stakes of municipal elections, forgetting about their local and national significance, and using them as an opportunity to introduce the changes he wants to make for the parliamentary elections: applying proportional representation, quota for women and immigrant vote in elections with no (official) communal representation.

Sub-dividing Beirut into electoral districts or municipalities?

The Free Patriotic Movement, on the other hand, has opted for the second choice. It sees the coming elections as an opportunity to push forward decentralisation, but not a very liberal one. It has put forward two ideas:

  • Dividing the municipality into three separate municipalities, following the same division and joining together the same “neighbourhoods” as the 2009 parliamentary elections. And transforming the Beirut municipality into a federation of municipalities.
  • Dividing the municipality into three electoral districts, without subdividing the municipality into smaller units.

These proposals are actually two versions of the same. They answer the same concerns and both ignore extremely important issues. They both express specifically christian political concerns: democratic representation of christian voters, guarantees for a large christian representation within the municipal council (this concern had been addressed by Rafic Hariri, personally without any institutional guarantee), guarantee the interests of christian neighbourhoods (mostly ignored by the municipality up to now).
Both proposals do not address important issues such as the socio-economic coherence or relevance of the districts, the will of Beirut’s inhabitants and issues relating to democratic governance, and the international attractiveness and competitiveness of Beirut. We’ll look into these four points in more detail:

Coherence and Relevance of the districts or municipalities proposed. The districts are not really based on neighbourhoods. Beirut is so centralised that it hasn’t organised any subdivision. The only ones you find are the postal divisions and the cadastral divisions. What electoral pundits call neighbourhoods (the ones you see on the map) are actually the cadastral divisions of the capital that are equally used by the Ministry of the Interior in its civil registries and  its electoral rolls (that are based on the registries and not on the place of residence).
The problem with the proposal is that it doesn’t address the specific problems that an area such as Solidere poses to Beirut: the Downtown area is managed by a private company that assures many services, most of its inhabitants were displaced by the war and their return was prevented by the creation and the management of Solidere, the area Solidere manages falls in the three proposed districts.

It doesn’t address the problem of the disparities between the district it proposes. The first proposed district is absurd. Almost half of it is part of Solidere and is largely uninhabited by local voters (the Marfa’ cadastral zone). Medawar is a mix of port facilities, semi-industrial zones and wasteland and small residential pockets socio-economically linked to the second district (they form with “Remeil” cadastral zone, the neighbourhood known as Gemayzé and Mar Mikhael). The second proposed district is coherent (even if it is a slightly truncated), it represents an area that is known as “Ashrafieh” which is the politically correct term that replaced “East Beirut” where most of Beirut’s Christians relocated in the 1970s and 1980s. The third proposed district is extremely large, populous and socially fragmented and disparate. It roughly coincides with the former “West Beirut” that became almost exclusively Muslim but fragmented throughout the war and since. People usually subdivided into 4 parts: Ras Beirut (a region that includes Ain el Mreiseh), Solidere and two fragmented regions that include Jneh,Tariq el Jdide, Mar Elias, Sabra-Chatila, Basta, Mazra’a and Musaitbe.

The will of Beirut’s inhabitants. This is a notion that is completely foreign to the current Lebanese system. You do not vote according to where you live, but according to where you are registered at the Ministry of Interior! Following this principle, less than 50% of Beirut’s inhabitants vote, and most of its voters do not live in Beirut (they either reside abroad or in Beirut’s suburbs). I personally haven’t heard of such a system in any democratic country but in Lebanon it is considered to be normal, and no one seems to question it. I had brought this anomaly up on many occasions, at university, in academic circles, in conversations with Ziyad Baroud when he was still an activist, within LADE. I usually got a “yes, this is important” but it was never seriously discussed.

This division of Beirut into three electoral districts or municipalities is actually quite popular in “Ashrafieh”, but in the other proposed districts it is highly unpopular, and the FPM didn’t do anything to make it popular there because the orange party fails to take into consideration the concerns of  Lebanese Muslims.

Democratic governance. The executive power in Beirut is divided between the Mayor and the Governor. The former is elected, the second is appointed. The FPM’s proposal doesn’t see anything wrong with that. In its most ambitious proposal, it actually reinforced the Governor, a non elected civil servant that is administratively linked to the Ministry of the Interior, but that is always handed to a Greek-Orthodox, while Beirut’s Mayor is always taken by a Sunni (even though by law there are no communally reserved seats in municipalities or public administrations). The FPM’s proposal takes one step towards decentralisation and another towards increased centralisation. Odd, don’t you think?

So basically, not only this proposal doesn’t make Beirut’s governance more democratic, but it also upsets the intercommunal arrangement by reinforcing one side against the other.

International attractiveness and competitiveness of Beirut. Now this issue only seems to interest Solidere, but for Solidere, it’s more about marketing Beirut and advancing the attractiveness of Solidere (and Solidere International) than working on policies to enhance the role and capacities of the capital in the global economy. The rest of the country is completely unconcerned by this issue. This is the central point that I will be writing on in my next post… stay tuned.

3 Responses to “Subdividing Beirut… issues raised and matters forgotten”

  1. The greater is the mobility then the more urgent is the need to introduce a system of casting ones vote based on the place of residence. Lebanon needs this reform both for the municipal as well as the parliamentary elections. Beirut needs this reform the most since most of its residents do not have a say in running its municipal government.

    Cities are ultimately combinations of neighborhoods, each with its distinct personality and dynamics. That is why most cities are subdivided into a number of neighborhoods each electing its own representatives to the municipal council. The idea behind this scheme is simple and democratic, residents of a district have better knowledge of the needs and priorities of that area than non residents. Just as an example NYC has I believe, 28 different districts and so the representation is much effective and meaningful.

    To treat the whole city as only one district is usually frowned upon as the city crows . I do not have the time to double check on this at the moment but I believe that the justice department in the US has at times demanded that cities introduce more electoral districts in order to ensure diversity.

  2. Qifa Nabki said

    This is a super post, WL. I plan to link very soon.

    Keep up the great work.

  3. […] writing on the themes of administrative decentralization and the municipal elections, here, here, and […]

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