September 28, 2012 01:33 AM
By Emma Gatten

BEIRUT: Development in Lebanon’s capital can appear unstoppable at times, given its speed and rampancy. But ever since reconstruction began in the wake of the Civil War there have been individuals trying to push it in a different direction. The latest of these is Masha3, a group of around 12 activists who will launch Friday a campaign for the protection of public spaces, a rare commodity in Beirut, a city where the main park is closed to all its young citizens.

“Public space is hugely important for society. It allows society’s different groups to interact. It allows debate to develop,” says Mona Harb, an associate professor of urban studies and politics at the American University of Beirut. “It allows a city to become appropriated by its inhabitants, to feel that it’s their space. It creates a sense of belonging, of ownership that is important, even, to state-building.”

Masha3 will hold its first event Friday evening at St. George beach club, a location chosen for its proximity to Solidere’s waterfront development, which Masha3 considers to be illegal.

“It’s illegal to build so close to the sea,” says journalist Bassam al-Kantar, one of the founding members of the group. “It prevents people having free access to the sea, and it’s very clear in our [penal] code that that’s a right, to have free and open access to the seashore.” Solidere declined to comment Thursday.

The Friday event, which will include music and discussions, will be a chance for the group to launch its manifesto, and to attract members to its movement.

“People are really angry about what’s happening, but they don’t know how to express that,” Kantar says. “It’s a matter of building public opinion.” Masha3 plans to lobby parliamentarians and decision-makers in the hopes of creating new laws to protect public spaces.

Harb says the reluctance on the part of decision-makers to open up public spaces “is very class-driven.”

“Because [they believe] people don’t know how to use public spaces well, and the state has no money, they claim that the solution is to sublet the public space to a company,” she says. She believes that the movement against this is one whose time might have come.

“I think mobilization is just starting. There are an increasing number of civil society groups seeking to protect public space,” she says.

“This is very new and very positive. The challenge will be to make these efforts coalesce.” She compared the movement to that of environmental activists in the early 1990s, whose lobbying eventually led to the creation of the Environment Ministry.

Masha3 hopes to be a point of common ground for different activists focusing on the topic.

“I think this is the first time that a campaign has a lot of common ground among the Lebanese. It’s something of a very national character,” Kantar says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 28, 2012, on page 2.

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