Deen Sharp
Last updated: 3 May, 2012

The cities of the Middle East, Part Three: The Levant

The capital cities of the Levant both literately and in their urban form are located in-between Cairo’s urban gigantism and the Gulf city-states’ ostentatiousness: Beirut, Lebanon; Amman, Jordan; Damascus, Syria and Jerusalem, Palestine.

The cities of the Levant are characterized by: an historical core, low-density urban sprawl and a small center of Dubaiesque ‘regeneration’.

The planners and politicians of the Levant have been keen to replicate in their home cities the urban model of the Gulf city-states. In Beirut, for example, towers rise all over the city demolishing the city’s modern, colonial and vernacular urban heritage. Activists have developed campaigns to call for a stop to the ‘Dubaification’ of Beirut, but these calls have largely gone unheeded. Developers have continued to pull the city’s urban fabric apart and the city has suffered as a result.

Frustration among residents continues to grow at the mismanagement of their city but – unlike in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia – Beirut and the other cities of the Levant have not erupted in protest after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. The uprising in Syria occurred not in the country’s main urban centres Damascus and Aleppo but predominately in rural areas. Syria is a significant exception to the urban character and location of the Arab uprisings.

Jordanians have demonstrated in the streets and squares of Amman but have failed to gain a critical mass. Protestors demand reform – but unlike in the other uprisings that have united disparate groups to remove authoritarian regimes – they failed to articulate a united front in the demands to reform the Jordanian monarchy’s rule.

In the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) the complexities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have not, thus far, resulted in an uprising against Palestinian political elites or Israeli occupation. But many wait to see if Palestine is next and the cities of the OPT, including Jerusalem, are likely to be crucial sites of resistance. Indeed, the Israeli military incessantly regulates, violates and monitors Palestinian urban space.

In Lebanon, the urban scene in relation to the uprisings is complex. To a certain extent Beirut and Lebanon more broadly has remained at the side of the Arab uprisings. Indeed, it has acted as a place of refuge to many around the region, and particularly for Syrians. The streets and squares in Beirut are relatively quiet, for now. Many claim however, on both sides of the Lebanese political divide that Beirut represents not a haven from the uprising but its ground zero.

On March 8, 2005 and March 14, 2005, Beirut was the arena for competing protests. The former was a pro-Syrian protest and the latter anti-Syrian. The numbers of protesters at each of the protests is a highly charged political point of contention and underlines the importance of density and critical mass to political action. Critically, the March 14 protest resulted in the removal of the Syrian military and Syrian backed government from Lebanon. The contemporary precedent, it is argued, in the Arab world for protesters using urban public space to change the political status quo.

Again in December 2006, several thousand demonstrators following a demonstration erected tents in protest of the government and refused to leave until the Prime Minister resigned. The protests and sit-ins lasted until May 2008. The tent cities were the first in the region to be erected as a tool of political protest. The semi-permanent tent city of Tahrir Square was pivotal in the removal of the Mubarak regime.

Subsequently, while ostensibly the cities of the Levant are currently at the periphery of the Arab uprisings the reality is that they are tightly wound up in the Arab political space. The residents of the cities of the Levant are increasing caught in the interstitial space of rejecting the political status quo and the inability to produce an alternative to it. How long these cities remain in that space remains to be seen.