Before the Protest Movement in Lebanon – Revisiting Neoliberal Urbanism and Marginalization in Beirut


by Ismael Benkrama

written during Benkrama’s time at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Beirut

This paper examines the impact of neoliberal urbanism on Positive Peace through an in-depth analysis of the rebuilding process of Beirut Central District after 1990. I will demonstrate, how neoliberal urbanism creates a privatized, controlled, segregated and securitized city-center in Beirut Downtown. Furthermore I will show how it creates a certain discourse around the reshaping of the urban that veils the true nature of the city development and creates a public approval for policies that benefit just a small, privileged part of the society.

Following Galtung’s approach to Peace and Conflict Research I argue that peace cannot be achieved by simply exterminating direct physical violence. Structural violence, often veiled by cultural violence, like discrimination, marginalization and restricted access to public goods should be considered as a state of conflict as well.

In 1990 the large-scale violence of the Lebanese Civil War ended and allowed for a rebuilding of the devastated central district of Beirut. Pressured by international financial institutions and weakened by the civil war, the Lebanese parliament tasked the private company Solidere, owned by the Lebanese billionaire and later Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, with the reconstruction of the area. By setting the legal framework to expropriate the whole district and transferring major decision making authorities to Solidere, the parliament paved the way for a reconstruction process that prioritized investment and accumulation-possibilities for international capital over preserving the history of downtown and its former function as a social fabric.




In the 1960s Johan Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist, mathematician and political scientist, developed the theory of Positive Peace and laid the foundation of what would later become the academic discipline of Peace and Conflict Research. By extending the predominant conceptualization of war as a mere negative ‘absence of physical violence’ with the aspects of structural and cultural violence, he revolutionized our understanding of conflict and peace building. According to him, a society that is not in an armed conflict, still can suffer from hidden, structural violence like gender-based discrimination, racism or selective access to public goods.

Accordingly, the academic approach to study peace and conflict needs to include a wider range of disciplines to understand the manifold interlinks between various forms of structural violence, their veiling through cultural violence and the breaking out of direct, physical violence.

Galtung advocates for a multi-level and multi-disciplinary approach to Peace and Conflict Research that understands violence in its socio-economic and cultural context.

Traditionally, the city has always been an environment in which inequality and the subsequent structural violence show themselves most clearly. People from different classes and social backgrounds can live close to each other. Furthermore, cities are a sphere to negotiate conflicts and catalysts for social movements. Therefore, I argue that urban policies are a key factor to contextualize conflicts.

Neoliberalism has, more than anything, influenced the development and reshaping of cities since the 1970s and became the main approach to urban planning globally. By taking a wide understanding of ‘neoliberal urbanism’, including aspects from a sociologic, economic and political perspective, I will argue that neoliberal urbanism is an obstacle to Positive Peace in the sense that Galtung formulated it.

In his work on urban ideologies Theodore argues, that the manifestation of neoliberalism in the urban is always embedded in a socio-cultural and economic context[1]. This approach towards the required contextualization is similar to Galtung’s multi-level understanding of peace and conflict.

Theodore further points out, how the city has traditionally been a “laboratory for neoliberal policy experiments”[2]. The focus on urban politics therefore allows us to investigate Galtung’s Positive Peace concept and the manifestation of neoliberalism in the city itself.

Neoliberal urbanism is best summarized by Heeg as the creation of the ‘entrepreneurial city’[3]. It describes a nexus of policies that align the city, its architecture, its dwellers and the socio-cultural interaction it produces to a competitive market logic. The underlying principle is the deregulation of markets[4] and the capitalization of the urban to improve the structural framework for capital accumulation.

For my study I chose the example of Beirut’s downtown, a privatized, highly securitized and exclusive area for a high end clientele[5].

Destroyed in the Lebanese civil war, its rebuilding process since 1990 resembles the neoliberal policies that, in an attempt to be competitive as an international business location and attract foreign capital[6], represent the neoliberal creation of the ‘entrepreneurial city’.

By applying a broad understanding of neoliberal urbanism on Galtung’s theory of Positive Peace, this paper will try to show how the rebuilding of Beirut Central District is an obstacle to Positive Peace. To do so, I will first define both concepts in the way I intend to use them and suborder criteria for neoliberal urbanism to the three forms of violence (direct, structural and cultural violence) that Galtung identifies as part of conflict situations. Furthermore, I will give a brief historization on the rebuilding process and afterwards show how it prevents Positive Peace in the sense of Galtung.


Galtung’s concept of positive peace


Galtung’s theorization of Positive Peace is linked to his understanding of imperialism.

He identifies a global dichotomy between center-countries and periphery-countries as the underlying structure of international interaction. Center and periphery countries have a power gap between them. We speak of a conflict, once the interaction between center and periphery is utilized by the center to increase this power gap, be it economically, culturally or military[7]. This “disharmony”[8], is always accompanied by the creation of a “bridgehead” in the periphery-country. This bridgehead is a city whose interest align with the interests of the center to maintain a status quo in which the center profits from the economic exploitation of the periphery, while a small elite in the periphery profits from its role as a gatekeeper to their countries resources and labor capital[9].

This structure creates a second dichotomy inside of the periphery-countries between a marginalized, often rural and uneducated periphery and an isolated, wealthy and western educated, center[10]. Cities that want to benefit from the advantages, that the role of a bridgehead provides, are bound to engage in a competition with each other, that western center-countries set the criteria for. These criteria are usually the neoliberal policies, used to create an entrepreneurial city, providing optimized capital accumulation frameworks that I will list later on in this paper.

The analysis of this conflict structure leads Galtung to a new understanding of peace as well. Since a gaping dichotomy between a center and a periphery is not necessarily enforced through direct, physical violence, a widening of our understanding of violence is required. Galtung therefore distinguishes between three forms of violence that impede Positive Peace.

Direct violence is physical, verbal or psychological violence, intentionally directed at others. Victims of direct violence suffer from physical or psychological trauma. It is the predominant understanding of violence in the former understanding of war and conflict.

Structural violence can be political, repressive or economic. It is inherent to spaces and structures that prevent people from living as good as it would possible without the occurrence of structural violence and is being protected by structural fragmentation, segmentation and marginalization in a society.

Cultural Violence serves as the legitimization of structural and direct violence. It motivates actors to carry out direct violence and abstain from opposing structural violence. Discursive framing, religion, language, ideology and science can be utilized for cultural violence[11].

In conclusion, Galtung’s approach provides us with a new understanding of peace. The ‘negative’ understanding of peace as the mere absence of direct violence is replaced by the idea of peace as a state in which humans are free from discrimination and marginalization and are not being prevented from reaching their needs in society.

To understand the causation of this wide conflict-concept in a society Galtung proposes to take different spheres of social and political interaction into perspective[12].

In the following I will theorize and contextualize the neoliberalization of the urban and argue that it is crucial to understand conflicts.


Neoliberal Urbanism


Neoliberalism is a term that has been used by numerous authors to describe various phenomena and whose definition has not been agreed upon academically.  The usage of the term ranges from the description of a political system, a form of governance and type of social interaction and human subjectivization to an economic system. In my approach to contextualize Positive Peace in neoliberal urbanism I will apply a wide understanding of the term and integrate the most frequently used aspects from recent literature on the topic to my methodology.

The introduction of neoliberalism as a term is connected to the following of the economic world recession in the early 1970s and the following shifts in economic and political policy ideology, particularly consolidated by Thatcher and Reagan[13].

Harvey, who wrote extensively on the connection of neoliberalism and urban geography describes neoliberalism  as “a  theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best  be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. […] It must  also set up those military, defense, police and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets.  Furthermore, if markets do not exist […] then they must be create, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum[14]”.

According to Theodore the shift in international economic and political theory from Keynesianism to neoliberalism was mainly a tool to justify the deregulation of state control over major industries, assaults on organized labor, the reduction of corporate taxes, the shrinking or privatization of public services, the dismantling of welfare programs, the enhancement of international capital mobility, the intensification of inter-locality competition, and the criminalization of the urban poor[15].

In contrary to a classical liberal ideology, neoliberalism refrains from a laissez-faire approach. Instead actors actively engage in the market to create framework structures that enhance smooth capital accumulation[16]. That process can be seen as a transition from the states distributive and protective left hand to the individualizing and disciplining right hand[17]. The state’s role in neoliberalism therefore is not diminished, but rather transfers some authority to market actors while becoming more authoritarian in its function as a framework-provider[18].

The manifestation of neoliberal ideology into the urban is strongly interlinked with the process of globalization of capital. Cities around the world have to compete with each other for foreign investment and skilled labor which pressures them to constantly improve their efficiency in capital accumulation and profit maximization. The enhanced possibilities of communication, trade-digitalization and liberalized international trade-regimes allow capital to freely choose investment locations.

Cities that do not provide competitive frameworks for capital accumulation will just be neglected for other cities that do, leaving them with minimized influence on a financialized economy that easily transcends national borders[19]. Without the means to influence this neoliberal market logic, national and regional governments often opt to adjust themselves to it.

Additional pressure on cities to transition their urban policies comes from the rollback of the ‘distributive state’. Neoliberalism diminished state funding and investment through the aforementioned austerity measures. Investment recipients are chosen individually on the basis of their competiveness as opposed to the broader spreading of funding under the former Keynesian ideology.

By applying a neoliberalism market logic, cities shift from a hierarchically organized “government” to a more coordinating ‘governance’. Through privatization the market is able to take over areas that were formally controlled by governmental administration. But the neoliberal urban governance still actively influences the economy. By coordinating political, social and economic interaction without interfering directly into them it provides a framework for smooth capital accumulation [20].

In the following I will summarize the variety of policies that enable this coordination. Following Galtung’s approach towards Peace and Conflict science I will include different perspectives on neoliberal urbanism and sum them up in five categories. Thereupon, I will assign each of them to one of Galtung’s violence typologies. Thereby, I will show how neoliberal urbanism in Beirut Central District reproduces all three forms of violence, causing a constant state of conflict and therefore has to be seen as an obstacle to Positive Peace.

The categories are separated by the aspects of the city they are affecting:

The privatized city is the epitome of neoliberal urbanism. To enforce a market logic on a city, it has to be accessible for the market as much as possible. Former public sectors and services, as well as public or state property, are commodified and turned into profit.

The controlled city influences social interaction and behavior of its inhabitants. Urban spaces determine how city dwellers live, interact, consume and even desire. Through the reconfiguring of these spaces, the city reproduces subjects that align with a smooth capital accumulation process. Therefore, these policies focus on a structural transformation with the aim to control human behavior instead of physical interference.

The segregated city is divided into areas of uneven privileges. It creates a bubble of wealth, only accessible by people it considers ‘desirable’.  The marginalized dwellers of the city are prevented from entering the de-linked reality inside the bubble. This assures a ‘problem-free’ accumulation procedure without the interference of subjects that are unable to fit in. Furthermore, it allows the framing of the bubble as a clean, safe and homogenous area of consumption.

The securitized city is characterized by a strong presence of police, military and private security forces. They function as the physical safeguarding of the segregated city and the accumulation process. One the one hand, their presence prevents the interference (through protests, uprisings or crime) of the ‘undesired’ parts of society. On the other hand, the kind of security they provide is aimed towards the feeling of safety inside the ‘bubble of wealth’ to create an atmosphere that encourages consumption.

My fifth category will focus on the discourse that justifies neoliberal urbanism. Neoliberal transformation processes usually create strong opposition by groups that become disadvantaged by them. Therefore, a certain framing of the policies and projects is needed to guarantee a smooth transition process.

I will use examples for the privatized, segregated and controlled city to show the existence of structural violence in Beirut Central District. The securitized city will help me indicate physical violence while the discourse around neoliberal urbanism can be seen as a form of cultural violence.

Taking the example of Beirut’s downtown will help me to showcase the connections between Galtung’s violence-approach and neoliberal urbanism.


The History of Beirut Central District


The manifestation of neoliberal ideology in the urban cannot exist in a ‘pure’ form[21]. Aspects like segmentation and control are strongly interlinked with geography, architecture and infrastructure of cities and have to adapt to preexisting conditions to function smoothly. Furthermore, the privatization and the discourse around neoliberal urbanism depend on social and historical aspects. Therefore, a brief history of Beirut Central District is necessary for a more in-depth understanding.

The central district was among the first areas that got affected by the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 and was severely damaged in the first years. Plans to rebuild it therefore date back until 1977 but never got realized due to the frequent outbreak of new fighting periods. The strategic position between the predominantly Sunni-Muslim west of the city and the predominantly Christian east led to the positioning of snipers in the surrounding buildings and resulted in the withdrawal of public life for 25 years.  Without human interference, nature took over Beirut Central District. Trees and bushes started sprouting in the area, giving it the name ‘Green Line’.


   Figure 1 The verdant demarcation line, downtown Beirut, in 1990. Marc Deville, 2019, Getty Images, Accessed: 07.08.2019


In 1983 the first outlines of what would later become the new city center was commissioned by the private engineering firm Oger Liban[22]. The owner, businessman and later prime minister of Lebanon, Rafic Hariri would stay in charge of the rebuilding process until his assassination in 2005.

The Taif-Agreement in 1989 formally ended the civil war. Despite the sectarian political system and the people in power staying in place, the end of military violence allowed for a start of the rebuilding process in downtown.

In 1990 the central district was devastated. Most buildings were either damaged or destroyed. Civil war refugees squatted the houses, tenant-landlord relations were complicated due to years without investment into the houses and the ownership of many buildings was unclear, since many former owners died of fled the country. Additionally, the state was weakened due to the civil war and seemed unable to tackle the rebuilding process[23]. Hariri’s offer to carry out the reconstruction without any state-funding and his reputation as a businessman convinced the government to set up a legal framework to privatize the rebuilding and put Hariri in charge of it. In 1992 he founded the Société Libanaise pour le Développement et la Reconstruction du Centre-ville de Beyrouth (French for “The Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District), better known as ‘Solidere’.

The parliament set up an area that would officially become Beirut Central District and tasked the company with its reconstruction.