Last week, Downtown Beirut, witnessed a spectacular open-air street party on New Year’s Eve. The event, which was held under the patronage of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and organized by Beirut’s municipality, opened the closed area of Downtown for people to come and enjoy this night. Accordingly, thousands of Lebanese people from different regions came to “Nijmeh Square” to celebrate the night with many entertainers, singers and DJs and had the chance to eat from different food kiosks that were brought to them through “Souk El Akel.”
A few days later, and after the great success of the Dec. 31 event, a political decision to reopen Nijmeh Square for pedestrians was taken.
The decision put the Downtown area in recovery phase after its death for several years, caused by the barriers and obstacles at all its entrances.
But how was Downtown Beirut before its temporary death?
Although Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War (1975-90) and the Israeli invasion in 1982 inflicted billions of dollars of physical damage in Lebanon, an initiative by former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to reconstruct and remove all traces of the destruction in Lebanon took place.
He then moved forward to the phase of rebuilding Beirut Central District, which is considered to be the heart of the city.
He believed that this would bring Beirut to the front line as a financial and a touristic city that links the East and West.
Consequently, and after the reconstruction, the city began to take its first steps in the recovery phase, which encouraged the private sector to step in and start to invest in it. Restaurants, coffee shops and small stores opened there to bring the heart of Beirut back to life.
Sadly, following the assassination of Hariri in 2005, various security gaps and several street demonstrations, all the entrances to Nijmeh Square were closed due to different reasons.
So will the removal of the barriers and the opening of the roads that lead to Nijmeh Square bring the city back to life?
According to the 2016 World Bank’s report, “the rejuvenation of large, decaying areas in the fast-growing cities of the developing world cannot be achieved by governments alone and private sector participation is paramount.”
Thus, the government decision alone to revive the area will not be enough. The private sector needs to be part of it again and the people need to make it a target destination again.
But how can the government gain the trust of the private sector after its huge loss? And how can it engage with the people to get them to return to the area once more?
The first initiative that was taken by policymakers in holding a huge party on New Year’s there was definitely a step toward breaking the wall between the people and the area, but it is not enough to revive it and it will not encourage the private sector to come and open in the area again.
Downtown Beirut needs ongoing events for it to come back to life. For instance, why not let “Souk El Akel” do their weekly Souk in the square just like New Year’s Eve. Why not give the closed shops in the area to “Pop Up stores” with minimal cost? Why not organize concerts for youth in the area?
These small initiatives and many more will rebuild the trust between the place, the government, the people and the private sector, which will lead to the revival of city.
Nahla El-Zibawi is project coordinator for the Outreach and Leadership Academy at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 06, 2018, on page 3.