Select Writings

Much of what was demolished were public facilities to keep Ramlet el-Bayda accessible to the public [Lara Bitar/Al Jazeera]

Beirut’s Last Public Beach Faces Creeping Privatisation

After losing a large chunk of seafront to a five-star resort, activists fear further encroachment at Ramlet el-Bayda.

Beirut, Lebanon – In mid-June, along the coast of Beirut’s last public beach, municipality workers destroyed all informal structures deemed illegal by the Lebanese authorities. This comes exactly one year after the inauguration of five-star resort Lancaster Eden Bay on that same public domain despite widespread opposition to its construction on Ramlet el-Bayda (White Sand) beach.

Urban activists now fear the destruction of service-providing shacks is but the first of upcoming assaults on this maritime land that will culminate in private capital’s complete seizure of Ramlet el-Bayda. If materialised, this would effectively turn Beirut into the only “Mediterranean city without a seafront”, Mona Fawaz, a professor in Urban Studies and Planning at the American University of Beirut, said.

Among the shacks destroyed are the de facto offices of Operation Big Blue (OBB), a non-profit environmental organisation and key player in maintaining and protecting this part of the seafront. Despite holding a permit from the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation, OBB’s structures were torn down alongside unlicensed semi-permanent constructions under the orders of Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib.

What was once a bustling network of shacks serving beachgoers food, coffee, nargileh and lounge chairs disappeared overnight, and turned into a pile of collapsed structures, garbage and debris. Not even the public bathrooms, the first-aid centre or the shaded reading area were spared.

Witnessing and live-streaming the demolition was OBB’s president, Iffat Edriss Chatila, who attempted to rescue shrubs native to Ramlet el-Bayda that her organisation has been preserving for years. Moments before a bulldozer indiscriminately ravaged everything on site, Chatila lamented the plants that “resisted the natural elements, the salt, the sea … could not resist this crawler”.

“We were told they were going to remove some dilapidated structures. They didn’t tell us they were going to destroy everything,” Ahmad, using a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera.

He used to sell snacks from a small wooden shack, but “they came in the morning and told us we’re in violation of some regulation and took everything down. We were never given a warning,” he explained.

Days later, several civil society organisations, including independent political movement Beirut Madinati, joined Chatila in a news conference, alleging that the demolition of structures serving primarily the working class is intended to pave the way for further private development in Ramlet el-Bayda.

The mayor of Beirut, Jamal Itani, referred to the campaign as a clean-up and beautification effort meant to remove obstructions to beach use. According to Chatila, however, “This was a systematic campaign aimed at ruining the reputation of the beach and the organisations maintaining it.” She claimed that allegations of illegality and improper conduct by some beachgoers were blatantly untrue and aimed to sway public opinion in support of the demolition, to ultimately facilitate the establishment of another exclusive touristic resort.

Dozens of municipal police now guard the beach and patrol the white sand throughout the day to prevent vendors from operating as they once did. The ramifications so far have been felt acutely by regulars who are complaining of the lack of access to chair and umbrella rentals and cold water on scorching summer days.

Seafront ownership

Nahida Khalil from Beirut Madinati echoed Chatila’s sentiments at the press conference, adding that lower-income communities in Beirut continue to endure the consequences of extremely limited access to open spaces across the city.

“The Beirut Municipality creates exemptions to the rule of law and uses it as a tool against the poor and those with limited incomes,” she said, alleging that the municipality continues to illegally allow establishments along the coast to expand on the public domain while cracking down on service providers that maintain Ramlet el-Bayda as a viable public beach.

For years, activists in Lebanon have waged successive campaigns to protect Ramlet el-Bayda, seen as the last frontier in a capital whose coast is nearly 95 percent privately owned by corporate interests.

Urban planner Abir Saksouk-Sasso found it incomprehensible that a non-profit that facilitated access to the beach, by providing wooden staircases and pallets, for example, would be viewed as hindering access and be shut down. “The Municipality of Beirut refuses to implement a holistic vision to make the seafront sustainable, self-sufficient and economically viable for the city while guaranteeing the right to access the sea,” Saksouk-Sasso told Al Jazeera. It is because this vision, she corroborated, “contradicts the interests of politicians who [unjustly] own land on the coast”.

In a conversation with a group of guards about the heavy police presence on the beach, they said they were needed to enforce the law and “to prevent violations from reoccurring”. One guard asserted to Al Jazeera their role was to “guarantee that Ramlet el-Bayda becomes once again a beach for all the people”.

Ownership of the city’s seafront, however, is highly contested and politically affiliated real estate developers have regularly had the final say at the expense of urban commons.

“The beach [belongs] to everyone … not just some” is one of several campaign slogans used to demand a halt to the construction of Lancaster Eden Bay, which stands a couple of hundred metres from the shacks despite its numerous violations of zoning and building regulations. Documented in a 2017 report by the Beirut Order of Engineers and Architects, the resort’s eight notable violations include encroaching on a public maritime domain and disregarding environmental regulations.

For years prior to and during its construction, neither a sustained civil campaign nor legal challenges were able to prevent Eden Bay’s establishment. Once inaugurated, urban activists feared it would be the first of imminent assaults on Ramlet el-Bayda’s integrity that would culminate in its complete or partial takeover by private capital.

After professor Fawaz warned in 2016 that this would turn Beirut into the only Mediterranean city without a seafront, the Lebanese Coast Coalition was formed to defend the coast from illegalities. A member of the coalition and director of environmental group Green Line, Ali Darwish, told Al Jazeera that “there is a clear and permanent danger of privatisation of the remainder of the publicly accessible seaside”.

To date, Eden Bay has faced no repercussions for its violations of local regulations while a multifaceted state-led attack has been launched against outspoken critics of the resort.

“I don’t think the government ever made it a priority to protect the remainder of public spaces,” 27-year-old architect and activist Whard Sleiman told Al Jazeera. In the summer of 2015, Sleiman became more committed to social and political causes in Beirut and “Ramlet el-Bayda was the last straw”, he said.

During the early days of the hotel’s construction, he and a few other activists tried to obstruct workers from draining water without a permit to lay the hotel’s foundation. “We were about seven activists or so, and we thought we’d try to stop them on that basis,” he said. During a heated conversation with construction workers, Sleiman was punched in the face and a photo of his injury and blood-stained shirt was widely circulated online. He tried to take legal action but said that his efforts were futile.

Others activists who attempted to stop the construction of Eden Bay were met by riot police and some with large social media followings woke up the day after a large protest to court summonses for trespassing and property damage.

As one of the few remaining avenues for the poor residents of the city, Ramlet el-Bayda provides brief moments of respite at no cost in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

“I take breaks on this side of the coast when I’m not driving my taxi,” a middle-aged man sitting under a straw shack roof, nargileh pipe in hand, told Al Jazeera before taking a puff. “I hear there were some violations on the other side of the coast, but they didn’t seem to be doing anything wrong. I think it’s just a matter of money over the public good,” he concluded.

Co-written with Kareem Chehayeb. Originally published by Al-Jazeera, on June 9, 2019.

Elderly woman walks past electoral campaign posters of Lebanese parliamentary candidates, in Beirut, Lebanon, 03 May 2018. Picture by Marwan Naamani/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Lebanon: Reflections on Acts of Refusal as Antidote to Post-Election Hangover

“Those who did not vote in the election have lost their right to object,” asserted Lebanon’s Interior Minister Nohad el-Mashnouk, who doubled as both candidate in and overseer of the recent parliamentary elections, and came out victorious on both counts — by his own account. Across the political spectrum, this sentiment is echoed amid frustration and anger at the low voter turnout in the long-awaited elections, which many hoped would create a break with the past.

In the five years since the Lebanese parliament’s mandate expired in 2013, members of parliament illegally voted themselves back in three times, despite sporadic contestation from the public and opposition from grassroots initiatives like “Take Back Parliament.” Some of the pretexts for these extensions include security considerations stemming from the war raging next door in Syria and parliamentarians’ own inability to agree on a new electoral law. When one was finally approved in June 2017, the process was rushed and disregarded procedure, leading experts at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) and the Lebanese Association Democratic Elections (LADE) to conclude that the electoral law “effectively qualifies … as a decree” that had been “imposed on voters.”

The law, based on a system of proportionality aimed at reducing sectarian division, lacked fundamental democratic safeguards, including an independent electoral body and a campaign spending ceiling, and facilitated de facto vote-buying. And while the odds were stacked against independent candidates running in the face of opponents with their own media outlets and vast financial resources, many believed the reformed law would give independent nonsectarian parties a chance to elevate a handful of candidates willing to meet people’s aspirations.

The results, however, prove that the traditional ruling class, entrenched in the political landscape for over three decades, made use of the elections to simply re-establish its legitimacy. The electoral spectacle allowed it to reassert its domination over everyday life, to then introduce new forms of control over the country’s resources and population.

The bizarre alliances that were formed between old rivals on lists across the 15 electoral districts foresaw the end of alignements along the March 14 and March 8 blocs. Far from signaling a change in conditions for the majority of the population whose needs are disregarded regardless of affiliation, this shift is a routine restructuring necessary to maintain the delicate power-sharing agreement establishment parties have maintained since the end of the civil war, which also perpetuates their hold on power.

For all the aforementioned reasons, we should not see those who withheld their participation in a deeply flawed process as apathetic and passive, but view their act of refusal as a vote in and of itself. Slightly over 50 percent of eligible voters refused to grant legitimacy to the next parliament and to the electoral process itself. In this instance, non-cooperation and the refusal to be complicit in the state’s self-preservation attempt is one of the few acts of resistance the working class could engage in without fear of vengeance by the state and its militias.

In the aftermath of the elections, LADE verified hundreds of documented violations as videos of irregularities spread across a number of online platforms and more than 7,000 complaints were filed with the Interior Ministry. Civil society activists even accused the interior minister of electoral fraud, after candidate Joumana Haddad’s seat was allegedly stolen. At the behest of Haddad’s Koulouna Watani, a national coalition of independent candidates, a few hundred people protested in front of the Ministry of Interior. Despite boisterous demands for the resignation of Mashnouk and threats to hold their ground until Haddad’s seat was reinstated, when the rally’s organizers gave the order to vacate the street with a pledge to refer the case to the proper legal channels, the protesters had no choice but to disperse.

“In acts of refusal, we can start locating power from below while creating networks capable both of permanent disruption and of solidarity necessary to sustain the movement.”

Independent anti-government demonstrators and civil society actors have long engaged in temporary, sporadic, and non-threatening action on the street. But what if they engaged in prolonged and sustained non-actions instead, to express dissatisfaction with the current social and economic realities and push for social transformation? Instead of shaming election abstainers and blaming them for maintaining the status quo, this act of non-compliance could be strengthened and extended to other realms. It is worthwhile exploring the potential of a collective “No” that builds strategic refusal to engage with an unjust system.

There is no doubt that there is genuine desire to overthrow the current establishment, but at the same time, there is also intentional avoidance and understandable fear of direct confrontation with the capitalist system and its political regime. Nowhere is this more visible than the disapproval of even symbolic disruptions to the flow of traffic, a frequent point of tension between non-violent and more militant protesters.

A strategy of tactical refusal, however, would require blocking circulation of all kind, namely that of capital. Organized political refusal to submit to oppressive conditions can be expressed through somewhat less visible but powerful collective work slowdowns, mass debt strikes, and the daily withholding of cooperation with institutions and systems built on coercion and exploitation.

In acts of refusal, we can start locating power from below while creating networks capable both of permanent disruption and of solidarity necessary to sustain the movement. At dissenters’ disposal are powerful and successful historical precedents and forgotten histories of boycotts, work stoppages, and economic shutdowns. In the 1920s, students, merchants, and activists boycotted the Beirut tramway system in protest against the fare price. Then again in the mid-1930s, they sustained a six-month boycott of both the tramway system and the power company, despite their reliance on both, to damage French economic interests.

Such memories can and should be deployed and mobilized to plant the seeds of a powerful act of non-compliance, the general strike, that would allow openings for material concessions by the political class and a disruption to the violent mode of governance currently in place. This is the only way I know of that could project us into a future of our own making.

Originally published by openDemocracy, on May 16, 2018.

From the Dark Caracal technical report, revealing the researchers’ observed locations of compromised devices.

Beirut-Based Global Cyber-Espionage Campaign a Threat to Local Freedoms

A major cyber-espionage campaign — targeting thousands of individuals across 21 countries — is operating out of a Lebanese intelligence agency building, according to a joint report published Thursday by digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and mobile security firm Lookout.

The campaign, dubbed Dark Caracal after a nocturnal and highly secretive wild cat native to the Middle East, has been operating since at least January 2012. Its victims live in Lebanon and in other Arab countries, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but also in the United States, Russia, Germany, and Nepal. Hundreds of gigabytes of data, including legal documents, browsing history, audio recordings, chat logs, and photos have been stolen from a broad range of victims. For security reasons, the researchers do not identify specific targets; they do, however, report that some of the breached data is associated with military personnel, government officials, activists, journalists, academics, and lawyers.

The research reveals that multiple platforms and systems were compromised in six simultaneously run global campaigns, which they traced to one of the General Directorate of General Security (GDGS) buildings in Beirut. At the time of the report’s publication, the servers discovered by the researchers were still operational, lead author Eva Galperin confirmed to SMEX.

During a Higher Defense Council meeting held yesterday, Interior Minister Nohad el-Machnouk did not deny the report’s allegations, but stated the claims were “wholly exaggerated.” The head of GDGS, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, echoed the minister by boasting during the same meeting that “we are strong, but we are not that strong.”

“Typical Attacks” on an Unprecedented Global Infrastructure

Lookout has referred to the mobile espionage campaign as one of the “most prolific” ever publicly documented, owing to the campaign’s global reach and prioritization of mobile devices — with Android devices acting as Dark Caracal’s primary vehicle for attack.

At the same time, the tools, tactics, and techniques observed by the researchers indicate that the campaign requires a low level of technical sophistication, relying mainly on social media and spear-phishing attacks. In such attacks, victims receive a malicious message from a fake social media profile or messaging app instructing them to click on a link that requests login information, which when entered, compromises their device or account.

A number of the Android apps acting as decoys replicate secure applications popular with both the privacy-minded political activist and the security-oriented government official.

In this case, users received phishing messages on WhatsApp and through Facebook groups. After receiving a WhatsApp message, the mobile user is directed to download fake Android apps that infect their device with malware. Through Facebook groups, internet users are led to a phishing server via fake Facebook, Twitter, and Google login pages that let the campaign operators steal the victim’s credentials and hijack their account.

From the report, “Dark Caracal: Cyber-Espionage at a Global Scale,” published on January 18, 2018, by EFF and Lookout, displaying some of the types of content exfiltrated from victims and include SMS messages, audio recordings, images, and contacts.

A number of the Android apps acting as decoys replicate secure applications popular with both the privacy-minded political activist and the security-oriented government official. They include secure messaging app Signal and circumvention tools Orbot (a Tor proxy) and Psiphon. According to Cooper Quintin, a staff technologist at EFF, “all Dark Caracal needed was application permissions that users themselves granted when they downloaded the apps, not realizing that they contained malware.” The malware is able to extract files from compromised devices, but can also upload files onto the mobile and intercept future text messages.

The cyber-spying campaign also targeted desktop operating systems, which similarly relied on spear-phishing. Links directed victims to download a semi-functional version of a drawing application, a fake but functional version of Psiphon, and Microsoft Word documents. Researchers identified two types of malware associated with these applications and documents: the Bandook RAT and CrossRAT. Bandook malware, discovered by researchers during a previous operation, infects Windows, whereas CrossRAT, a newly discovered desktop surveillance tool, can infect Linux, Windows, and OS X operating systems.

Although seemingly less prevalent, physical access to a device was another manner in which Android malware was installed. It is yet unclear how the harvested data was used and whether it has been sold on the dark web.

Security researchers were able to detect Dark Caracal after uncovering an espionage campaign, dubbed Operation Manul, carried out by the government of Kazakhstan against journalists and dissidents in 2016. The Lebanon-based campaign was identified because it shares a digital infrastructure with the Kazakh campaign.

The researchers believe that Dark Caracal exposes only a “small fraction of the cyber-espionage that has been conducted using this infrastructure,” suggesting that thousands of other victims have likely fallen prey to the malicious tools and tactics, which can be deployed globally easily and relatively cheaply.

“Deep Insight” Into Victims’ Lives

In some cases, the multi-platform operation would start on desktops and continue on Android devices, allowing the hackers to harvest sensitive and detailed information from their victims. Stolen data found by the researchers was simply left exposed on the open internet. The researchers intercepted WhatsApp, Skype, and Telegram databases, bookmarks, personal messages, regularly captured desktop screenshots, and much  The spying is so intrusive and can be so regular that researchers noted how “disturbingly simple” it is to monitor a targeted individual and capture a full image of how they spend their days.

The impact is not limited to the direct victim of spying, however; it also implicates and jeopardizes anyone they communicate with through a compromised Android device. Almost half a million SMS messages, 150,000 call records, and close to 265,000 files were exfiltrated by the hackers. Devices were infected with a custom Android surveillanceware implant. The implant, dubbed Pallas by Lookout, has the ability to send text messages to any other mobile designated by the attackers with the intent of further spreading the malware.

The spying is so intrusive and can be so regular that researchers noted how “disturbingly simple” it is to monitor a targeted individual and capture a full image of how they spend their days.

Even more troubling is the hackers’ ability to breach in-person conversations and private moments, spying on not only their intended target but also their social entourage. Pallas operators can activate the front and back cameras and the microphone of a device to take pictures and record audio with no risk of detection.

From the Dark Caracal report, published by EFF and Lookout, showing the distribution of data from trojanized Android campaigns.

Blatant Violation of the Right to Privacy

Lebanon’s Eavesdropping Law 140/1999 guarantees the right to secrecy of communications and protects against unwarranted forms of surveillance or interception, except in some cases as prescribed by law. Despite the lack of specific regulations for online activities, the right to privacy over the internet is protected and breaking the confidentiality of communications, including electronic communications, requires a judicial warrant or administrative authorization.

Lebanon, as a party to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is prohibited under international law from arbitrarily and unlawfully breaching its citizens’ privacy rights. Bassam Khawaja, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told SMEX that “any law allowing secret surveillance must be sufficiently clear in its terms to give citizens an adequate indication as to the circumstances in which the monitoring may take place.”

Under international human rights law, a government can only use its surveillance powers after establishing limits on the scope, nature, and duration of an operation. Lebanese law also sets limitations to spying and surveillance, limiting, for instance, access to telecommunications data to two months at a time. In practice, however, all internet log files and telecommunications data are collected and stored by the state-run internet service provider and telecom operators for up to two years or more.

Independent Inquiry Needed

SMEX’s recent reports on the landscape of digital surveillance and data protection in Lebanon document the lack of judicial authorization and oversight mechanisms for surveillance, the recurring use of the counter-terrorism narrative to avoid accountability, and the absence of a strong legal framework to protect personal data. Together, these factors allow internal security agencies to expand their powers and the government to build a mass surveillance state.

The discovery of Dark Caracal underscores the need to address growing threats to our right to privacy and other associated rights, including freedom of speech, press freedoms, and freedom of assembly. It is incumbent on the Lebanese authorities, namely Lebanon’s general prosecutor, to conduct an independent, impartial, and transparent investigation into the cyber-espionage campaign and publicly share their findings.

Originally published by SMEX, on January 20, 2018.

Fake Freedom,” by @Randomiyyat (Hala H.)

Against Assimilationist Projects: Towards Queering Our Political Imaginations

Pride incorporated made its debut in Lebanon this year – without its historical precursors of sustained confrontation of hegemonic culture, militant resistance, or anti-police agitation – as a registered trademark. Despite the country’s rich history of strategic and courageous organizing, the pride week that landed in Beirut in 2017 was unable to imagine, let alone create an opening for a localized queer futurity.[1] It did, however, actualize the partial vision of a future that merely reproduces the present of a corporatized Western gay mainstream. If this vision is materialized, upper middle class cisgender gays will be inching toward greater freedoms at the expense of the “unrespectable” poor, gender non-conforming, and paperless trans and gay communities.

While the articulation of queer political imaginations and potentialities is an urgent project, it must necessarily be the product of a collective labor.[2] My aim here is to simply highlight conceptions and associations that antagonize or threaten liberation premised on social and economic justice, situating myself as a proponent of the latter.

The adversaries of liberatory projects have spent years co-opting grassroots movements through their NGO-ization while selling the idea that the market provides solutions to all social ailments.[3] At the same time, as the commons narrow and the fetishization of late capitalist individualism prevails, with startup culture as its latest manifestation, the local market was ripe for Beirut Pride™ (BP). Promoting itself as a “collaborative platform that takes a positive stance against hate and discrimination,” BP is in reality the product of an individual effort that generated some events and aggregated others into a weeklong celebration of “humanity.”[4] The initiative was a ravishing success with the targeted gay and to a lesser extent lesbian communities that were already somewhat visible, but starving for wider acceptance and a defiant display of their existence.

The mindset for BP was instilled in these communities by another import problematized by queer activists in the region many years ago, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), first recognized in Lebanon as IDAHO in 2005.[5] To the liberal mind, “homophobia” and “transphobia” exist in some sort of vacuum and thus can be fractured or weakened in isolation from the material and social structures that uphold them. Similarly, the pride held in Beirut was stripped of a contextualized political discourse, advancing “positivity” and warm feelings in its stead – alongside a strong plea for visible incorporation into a specific segment of Lebanese society. The initiative, which centered economically privileged gay men and catered to their consumption habits, was intentionally depoliticized to ensure its materialization.[6] While BP claims to build on the decades-old work of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists, its refusal to take a symbolic stand on virtually any issue makes it a deviation from that work.[7] It was so politically neutralized that it even diverged from the dominant human rights discourse advanced by most NGOs, opting for vague liberal notions of transcending labels, rather than engaging with structural violence, most harshly experienced by transwomen in Lebanon.

More insidiously, its disregard for local queer feminist histories and the knowledge and frameworks produced by the feminist network Sawt Al Niswa and previous members of the LBTQ group Meem could be read as an attempt to negate that very work BP highlights for legitimacy. By insisting on presenting itself to the media as apolitical to appease the religious and political establishment, this initiative reveals itself as a reactionary assimilationist project more vested in minor privileges for a few, namely unmolested prideful visibility, than in dismantling the heteropatriarchy that queer and radical feminists have been scheming for, under different formulations, for decades.[8]

Through its collaboration with Beirut Design Week (BDW), BP focused on representation, appearance, and fashion, hosting some events in Jisr el-Wati, an industrial zone turned elitist contemporary art hub, and others in trendy bars and clubs. The aim was seemingly to exhibit the connection between middle-class gays on one hand and “innovators,” partygoers, and designers on the other, firmly placing gay men on the side of universal progress and its dehistoricized homophobe/gay-friendly binary. Many of these gay-friendly allies have set up their studios and galleries in the gentrifying neighborhood of Mar Mkhayel which, not coincidentally, was also the site of a spontaneous bar-hopping evening that concluded both IDAHOT and pride week.

Prominent organizations such as Helem and Marsa, who at one point or another distanced themselves from BP, saw their interests coalesce in Mar Mkhayel. The latter, a residential neighborhood engaged in a years-long battle with bar owners and the Municipality of Beirut, had just renewed a public campaign to demand “the right to sleep.”[9] Despite the neighborhood’s transformation into a contested space, with real estate developers seeking to exclude and displace longstanding residents from their homes, it became a marker of inclusivity for gays and lesbians that night. A colorful and exuberant rainbow-filled celebration – not without its merits – culminated a difficult week for LGBT organizations who had faced a series of threats by extremist groups.

Because of these threats, two IDAHOT events were canceled at the last minute, so the celebratory spirit of that night expressed both relief and joy at the public embrace by Mar Mkhayel establishments. At the same time, it displayed the potential contradictions of these communities’ incorporation into a mainstream that mostly ignores the presence and well-being of others. It also underscores how intention-lacking organizing, or in this instance a spectacle of public consumption, can score victories at the expense of other movements. The hashtag “Stain of Shame” (English for wasmat aar), created by a coalition of NGOs to denounce the repression it faced, was appropriated by a few who dared to dissent from the near-unanimous approval of these tactics. Such voices expressed disgust with the pursuit of narrow and fleeting self-interest at the expense of the large struggle.

Moreover, a cursory view of the visual material generated during various events reveals the production of an acceptable and respectable gay aesthetic: young, well-groomed, able-bodied, and cisgender individuals with a disposable income.[10] This ideal gay subject is worthy of visibility and hence inclusion as a model of diversity within capitalist culture. As a matter of fact, while a number of advertising agencies have flirted with implicit representations of gays and lesbians in their commercials, fast-food chain Crepaway made the leap this year by briefly depicting a young and attractive femme couple in an English-language advertisement. The web-only ad was enthusiastically received and widely shared by LGBT individuals because, as writer and troublemaker Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore aptly explains, “consumer gay culture [is] satisfied with glossy representations as a sign of progress.”[11] Contributors to the now-defunct Bekhsoos, an online Arab magazine published by queer and trans folks, had spent years envisioning, constructing, and actualizing local and contextual manifestations of progress for LGBT communities – all of which were displaced for a shallow Western signage.[12]

Alongside the anticipated exploitation of LGBT imagery by capital, the manufacturing of these normative citizen-subjects also requires their absorption into a nationalist discourse that regards refugees and migrants as a threat to national security. The self-proclaimed “first pride in the Arab world” requested and received the protection of the Internal Security Forces (ISF) on the basis of the right to equal protection under the law as citizens of this country – without informing its participants, or publically announcing the police’s presence. Understanding the detrimental impact of homoantagonism and transantagonism on the lives of LGBT people and being mindful of their safety when organizing an outing is commendable.[13] However, it is a grave mistake to disregard what is arguably the harshest form of violence against bodies perceived as deviant: state violence and persecution. This seemingly well-intentioned attempt to ensure the safety of the attendees erases the well-documented violence of successive Lebanese governments against LGBT-identified people, stateless and undocumented individuals, and migrant workers. More troublingly, it reasserts the power of the state to arbitrate social questions and produce a reality that, in this instance, universalizes tolerance or acceptance of a certain representation of gayness and a demonization of others.

Talk to Shadi about his experience with this same ISF that BP appealed to for support and he’ll describe in detail the torture he endured for being a gay Syrian refugee.[14] S., another Syrian refugee, will quote his tormentors: “Aren’t you ashamed to be a faggot on a Friday, you dishonorable lout! You’re Syrian and you’re doing this in our country!”[15] S.’ detention would later lead to the violent Hammam al-Agha raid and the mass arrest and humiliation of Lebanese and Syrian gay men by the Internal Security Forces (ISF).[16] A 2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report documented how Lebanese “police do little to hide their disdain of drug users, sex workers, and LGBT people,” explaining that “verbal abuse, degradation, and humiliation appear to be so common that many victims tended to gloss over them when telling their stories.”[17]

Countless testimonies of formerly detained individuals allow me to speculate that the ISF would never provide security at the cruising spots frequented by working-class and displaced gay men, but would gladly entrap then torture them. Revealing a longing to be rescued from individual acts of violence by a state apparatus that casually disposes of undesirables, this project creates then reinforces a binary between the good and proud gay-identified men, as represented by BP, and the men who sleep with other men, seen as sexually deviant and a threat to the social order because of their class or citizenship status. The normalization of the former inadvertently creates a duality that delegitimizes and further disenfranchises the new non-normative sexual and gendered “others,” who refuse to, or cannot conform to the homonormativity imposed by this universal gay.

In the face of harsh containment policies adopted by the Lebanese state against migrant and otherized bodies, queers have a duty to disrupt single-issue identity politics,by attaching ourselves not to sexual or gender identities, but by standing in solidarity with those living on the margins; by constructing alternatives instead of seeking the recognition and approval of oppressive structures; by carving and holding spaces with transformative potential; by subverting power rather than seeking integration into institutions of power. We can only do that by positioning ourselves not as an isolated oppressed population divorced from our context, but as part of a struggle that can only exist at the intersection of other struggles – with the dream of liberation for all.[18]


[1] Queer futurity is an attempt to break with the present in exchange for “concrete utopianism,” and includes a rejection of gay pragmatic organizing in favor of queer idealism. This understanding is drawn from queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz’ ideas in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity.

[2] In this piece, I use the term “queer” either for those who self-identify as such, or to seek distance and differentiation from “gay,” both terms used as gender neutral unless otherwise implied. While queer could reference a non-normative sexual or gender identity, it is its connection to radical politics (as in politics grasped at by the root), its rejection of the politics of recognition, and its practice of “queering” (as in deconstructing, subverting, and disrupting dominant discourses, structures, ways of seeing, etc., to ultimately create new worlds) that my use of the term underlines.

[3] Roy, Arundhati. “Public Power in the Age of Empire.” The End Of Imagination, 1998.

[4] Beirut Pride Statement, 2017, available at:

[5] One of these critiques, offered by Palestinian queer activists Haneen Maikey and Sami Shamali, argues that the anti-homophobia discourse is being used for other oppressive ends, available at:

[6] The manner in which NGO-organized talks and events became a part of the BP program is disputed (as informed by my interviews and informal conversations with various activists and organizers) and, for this reason, ignored for the purpose of this piece. In this critique, I refer to BP-produced events alone and/or in collaboration with Beirut Design Week, not the IDAHOT events organized by NGOs and allegedly appropriated by BP. The full program is available at:

[7] Qiblawi, Tamara. “Beirut gay pride event a first for Lebanon.” CNN, May 16, 2017, available at:

[8] Kaedbey, Deema. “Shadow Feminism in Lebanon, Part Two.” Sawt Al Niswa, January 2015, available at:

[9] Mar Mikhael residents’ open letter to the Municipal Council of Beirut and the Beirut Governor. May 12, 2017, available at:

[10] Some of the visual material aggregated from Instagram, available at:

[11] Bernstein Sycamore, Mattilda. “City of Brotherly Love.” The New Inquiry, 10 Feb. 2015, available at:

[12] Lynn. “Framing Visibility: Coming Out and the International LGBT Spectrum of Progress.” Bekhsoos, 12 Dec. 2010, retrieved from:

[13] The terms “homoantagonism” and “transantagonism” were introduced by writer Robert Jones, Jr. (known as the Son of Baldwin), used respectively instead of “homophobia” and “transphobia,” aptly regarded as an ableist obfuscation of this type of violence.

[14] “Lebanon: Syrian Refugee’s Account of Torture.” Human Rights Watch, 21 Dec. 2016, available at:

[15] Wansa, Sarah. “Torture at Every Stage: The Unofficial Narrative of the Hammam al-Agha Raid.” Legal Agenda, 12 Nov. 2014, available at:

[16] Frangieh, Ghida. “The Hammam al-Agha Raid: Collective Prosecution in Violation of Individual Rights.” Legal Agenda, 18 Sept. 2014, available at:

[17] “‘It’s Part of the Job:’ Ill-Treatment and Torture of Vulnerable Groups in Lebanese Police Stations.” Human Rights Watch, June 2013, available at:

[18] This piece was written with a love for the magical potential of dreaming in public; it is an invitation to collectively envision spaces for liberation.

This piece was published by Kohl Journal for Body & Gender Research as the editor’s pick in Vol. 3, no. 1, Summer 2017. It was translated to Arabic. 

Many New Yorkers took to online platforms to complain about the mobile phone alert [Getty]

Chelsea Bombing: Ideal Citizenry Amid State-Sounding Emergencies

Unsolicited emergency alerts such as those received by millions of New Yorkers following the explosion in Chelsea last week, have many far-reaching and disturbing implications, writes Lara Bitar.

Emergency alert systems in the United States predate mobile telecommunication and have been in use since the early years of the Cold War. Similarly, the wanted poster, once displayed in post offices and police stations, precedes the digital version now disseminated online, mainly on social media sites and law enforcement apps.

So why was  the New York City Office of Emergency Management’s deployment of a Wireless Emergency Alert (W.E.A) on Monday morning mired in controversy?

The first nationwide alert system, CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation), was established in 1951 to provide the public with vital information in case of an attack. Throughout the years, the system continued to evolve and adapt to new technology and needs, albeit slowly. Anyone who has watched television or listened to the radio in the past few decades has undoubtedly come across either testings of the system or legitimate messages during local and state emergencies.The latest iteration of the U.S. government’s alert system, the Wireless Emergency Alert (W.E.A), was launched in 2012. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an alert could be sent if there is an imminent threat to the safety or life of its recipients; an Amber alert for a missing child; or an urgent message from the president. Unlike the first two types of notices, it is impossible to block presidential alerts.

In the aftermath of the Chelsea bombing, the following message “WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9–1–1 if seen,” was broadcast to millions of New Yorkers.

Although there are precedents to the use of the service to notify community members of the presence of a suspicious individual, as reported in Wisconsin by Think Progress, this is the first time a W.E.A is used to appeal to the public for assistance during a rapidly evolving investigation.

In contrast, in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston marathon bombings, city residents were asked to seek shelter — not aid in the search for the suspect.

At a news conference held on Monday, Mayor of NY Bill de Blasio credited the emergency alert for creating “a lot of focus and urgency,” despite the fact that the suspect was caught in New Jersey — outside of the alert’s geographic reach. He went on to tout the “modern approach that really engaged the whole community.”

The recently appointed NY police commissioner, James O’Neill, echoed the mayor’s sentiment about the W.E.A system, praising it as “the future.”

“There’s 36,000 of us, a number of FBI agents, but if we can get everybody in this city engaged in helping us keep it safe, I think this is the way to go,” O’Neill offered.

It wasn’t the future, however, for the Tripathi family who went through a real-life experiment in the crowd-sourcing of a terror investigation after their missing son Sunil Tripathi was misidentified as one of the Boston bombers. The 2015-released documentary “Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi” chronicles some of the repercussions the family endured as digital vigilantism, abetted by mainstream media, took over their lives.

The implications of a case of mistaken identity or faulty intelligence can be especially terrifying for Muslims and Arabs in a climate of heightened xenophobia and racism. According to data published by California State University, San Bernardino researchers, hate crimes against Muslim-Americans increased by 78 percent over the course of 2015 whereas attacks on Arabs rose by a whopping 219 percent.

But aside from the obvious risk of increased violence targeting vulnerable communities, and despite the criticism leveled at the W.E.A. system’s many limitations (as detailed by Motherboard), the virtual wanted poster is but the natural evolution of the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign launched after the 9/11 attacks.

The move from informational alerts to actionable and participatory messaging is one way to allocate some policing duties to the general public. And it can be read as another chapter in the creation of a cohesive and controllable citizenry ready for deployment at a moment’s notice. It is reminiscent of the co-optation of The American Trucking  Association’s Highway Watch program by the Department of Homeland Security in 2004. Originally designed to teach truck drivers how to deal with roadside emergencies, it now enlists everyone from toll collectors to school bus drivers to keep a watchful eye for “suspicious” activity and to report it to the relevant authorities.

If we accept image theorist John Berger’s view that the act of seeing establishes our place in the world, then much can be inferred about training civilians to see the world through the lens of security. In the fifteen years since the most deadly attack on U.S. soil, architects of the so-called war on terror have crafted an identity of the model citizen as juxtaposed to a racialized threatening “other.” The repeated appeal to responsible citizenry — broadly defined as abiding by the state’s directives — has transformed every obedient individual into a willing and eager informant while fostering the illusion of agency and participation in the political process.

The hypervigilance demanded by the national security apparatus — normalized by relinquishing photographic evidence of criminalized activity to the police, neighborhood watches, the scrutinizing of people read as “alien,” etc., — not only delineates this “other,” but absorbs entire communities into the surveillance state. Rendering the latter, in effect, omnipresent in the lives of millions of people whose interactions with one another are mediated through security agencies.

Many New Yorkers took to online platforms to complain about the notice, some simply for being woken up before 8 am while others to express aggravation at the folly of causing mass panic without providing any clear guidance. But what makes this particular use of a W.E.A insidious is its forced — borderline violent — entry into the private sphere to alarm, then dispatch to the streets an army of civilian vigilantes in the age of terror.

An eerie tone blared repeatedly for a few seconds and was followed by an urgent message that vanished just as rapidly as it appeared. With the potential to leave its recipients suspended and possibly scared, they were forced to wait for the state to manifest itself again and, in turn, remain at its mercy to ensure their safety. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, “Disaster Warnings in Your Pocket: How Audiences Interpret Mobile Alerts for an Unfamiliar Hazard,” revealed that people found W.E.As “confusing” and “fear inducing.”

This infiltration of sounds and images into intimate private spaces without permission allows the state to mark an entire territory as sovereign while leaving its subjects subdued. By encroaching on diverse spaces across the five boroughs and asserting a form of control over them, even if temporarily, NY state managed to turn the city’s residents into docile subjects.

As evidence of the implications, look no further than the reported “adoration” of law enforcement and “nearly universal” support for it during the manhunt for the marathon bombing suspects, despite the many violations of the residents’ civil liberties.

In a time of relative peace, the next alert could be to warn of a serious hurricane. However, the militarized future envisioned by the U.S. ruling class looks likely to remain on the trajectory of perpetual war. On the “homefront,” that means sounding emergencies that demand a model citizenry.

Originally published by The New Arab as “Hypervigilance in a time of terror: Counting the cost,” on September 26, 2016

A large crowd gathered on Sunday to participate in the grand opening of the renovated Sanayeh Park in Beirut, Lebanon on June 1, 2014. (Marwan Tahtah/Al-Akhbar)

Sanayeh Garden: The Privatization of Public Spaces

After two years of hype and $US 2.5 million spent on renovation, Sanayeh Garden, one of the oldest and largest public spaces in Beirut, finally opened last weekend. Rather than offering a modest solution to the desperate desire for inclusive green spaces in the city, the result is a growing conflict over the essence of public spaces, as well as what constitutes acceptable behaviors within them.

As part of the “Beirut is Amazing” campaign launched by the mayor of Beirut, Bilal Hamad, in 2012, Sanayeh Park underwent a massive renovation project funded and led by the Azadea Foundation, a Beirut-based charitable arm of a major fashion retail company.

Two years later, on June 1, with much fanfare and spectacle, the park was finally unveiled to the public. On Sunday alone, 19,000 visitors descended on the stylishly designed space, covering about 22,000 square meters of land, facing the Ministry of Interior.

In a city starved for green spaces, or simply inclusive spaces of any kind, the large turnout is not surprising. According to a report by local youth-led organization Nahnoo (“We Are”) addressing the relationship between public spaces and municipalities, it noted, “Beirut is one of the most densely populated cities with an overly complex and massive road network (approximately 25 percent of the city’s mass, with a ratio of 1.11 km/sq. km), which is among the highest in the region.”

“Beirut has also one of the lowest public green space ratio in the world (0.8 sqm per inhabitant), which is below the international health standard,” the report added. Obviously, there is no contention that Beirut needs green public spaces for all its residents. The campaign launched by the mayor two years ago relies on partnerships with the private sector, wherein companies “adopt” such spaces, renovating and administrating them.

In the case of Sanayeh, Azadea already spent $US 2.5 million, and is estimated to incur $US 200,000 annually in maintenance expenses over the course of the next decade. Chairman of the Azadea Foundation, Marwan Moukarzel, believes that the progress of the cityscape primarily relies on the private sector.

“If we wait for the public sector, it simply won’t happen,” he said to Al-Akhbar.

“We would love to see the private sector taking similar if not grander steps” that would better our city, the chairman added. “Our message to others is to step up.”

Yet, once the park was open, disputes arose almost immediately over what is considered acceptable behavior within its grounds. At the single entrance to the gated Sanayeh Park, a large billboard pleas with the park-goers to “help us keep this garden alive” by following certain rules, such as no smoking, no firearms, and no BBQs.

There are many stories already reported by the local press, however, of individuals and families colliding with the private security guards due to an excessive amount of policing that extends beyond what is outlined at the entrance.

Complaints have ranged from the benign, such as restricting children from touching water in the circular fountain at the park’s center, to the more serious allegations of arbitrary restrictions of expected freedoms associated with parks, such as lying on the grass or bringing in certain types of food and beverages. In one case, during a visit to the park by Al-Akhbar, a group of incensed women were overheard expressing outrage at the fact that they could not enjoy a cup of coffee at the park’s grounds. When asked, one of the women said, “I can’t believe they would not let us bring in a thermos of coffee.”

The head of security at the park for Middle East Security, Ayman Ghazzawi, tasked with enforcing the regulations at the park in cooperation with Beirut municipality guards, told Al-Akhbar, “Had we not been here, the park would have been quickly trashed,” adding that at least half of the flowers had already been ripped out by children in the first few days of the park’s opening.

Moreover, Lebanon’s complicated political and security situation renders this public space within a “security zone,” which according to Ghazzawi requires searching visitors for firearms and other weapons. The proliferation of so-called security zones further restricts freedoms in such spaces, not to mention that it emboldens security men to be aggressive during the course of their work.

While the code of conduct is being reviewed as a result of citizens’ feedback, according to Makarzel who stressed that complaints are immediately being remedied, the question of the existence of such a code onto itself in a supposedly public space is disconcerting to many of the park-goers Al-Akhbar spoke to.

In terms of the recent changes that were implemented after public pressure, the park’s operating hours were extended to meet the needs of early morning joggers, and some restrictions have been eased in the face of vocal dissatisfaction. Nevertheless, public spaces in Lebanon, it seems, will only be permitted to exist if the activities within them are tightly controlled and managed by the private entity that runs them in cooperation with the municipality.

The growth of public-private partnerships in developing and maintaining green and public spaces will further exacerbate tensions that have emerged in Sanayeh, especially since these cooperations are part and parcel of the “Beirut is Amazing” greening project.

What is seen in Beirut is but the local manifestation of a global neo-liberal project that requests the assistance of corporations seeking to soften their image through the mantra of social responsibility. In contrast, the idea of giving back to the community is but a facade to the fact that this same community is coming under increased policing and surveillance for the sake of having access to spaces that supposedly already belong to them.

Before the struggle for cost-free and unrestricted access to public spaces continues,  however, in sites such as Horsh Beirut, and Daliyeh, there has to be a consensus to what a “public space” entails.

While on one hand some have complained about the restrictions in Sanayeh, others have applauded these measures and have even called for additional restrictions, including an entrance fee – in an attempt to exclude the poor, Syrian refugees, migrant workers, and other “riff-raff.”

Activists repeatedly argue that ownership over public spaces can only be asserted when these sites are regularly used by the public, wherein the norms and behaviors can organically develop through these interactions. Until residents of the city take ownership and responsibility for these spaces, it seems like they will continue to be dominated by Lebanon’s economic, security, and political circumstances.

Co-written with Yazan Al-Saadi. Originally published by Al-Akhbar English, on June 6, 2014.

A caricature showing a computer upside down with “the truth” on the screen and “deceptive media” next to it. (Mohammed Sabra)

A Call for Autonomous Media

What happens when the media becomes intricately linked to one of the warring sides of a conflict, so much so that it becomes indistinguishable from one political party or its opposition?

When its practitioners become so skilled in the art of deception and manipulation that the public starts to view them as another arm of the struggle, and some as a legitimate target of insurrectionists? When the exploitation of violent imagery becomes so crude, yet so mundane that its viewers are numbed to its consequences? When emotion-inducing stories of personal tragedy and devastation turn into a campaign to market aspirations of political domination? When photos of sorrow and destruction become just another means to sell a cheap talking point?

Through Syria, the Arab media landscape finally dropped what remained of its façade of engagement in ethical journalism. Whether they’re privately-owned or state-run, media outlets in the region are consistently failing in their duty to serve as the public’s watchdog, and completely neglecting their role as documentarians and record-keepers. Instead, everything from basic news reporting to social commentary reflects and aims to protect private, or state interests. In addition to government-imposed restrictions on free speech and self-censorship aimed at professional advancement, journalists are at times forced to cater to the political agendas of their respective media owners. It is this incestuous relationship that exists between the press and its funders that has created an army of skilled propagandists, who, on command, can make you loathe the victim of any story and worship their abuser.

Powerful advocacy journalism that is already weaponized, in addition to being irresponsible is not only dangerous but deadly as evidenced in Syria. As journalists engage in a battle with each other, and their respective enemies for control of the narrative, amplifying the voice of unverified information while silencing glaring truths has become the norm – when it should be the frowned upon exception.

Now this is not a call to disarm the press – far from it – but to empower the advocates of public interest. The latter allowed to be determined only by a people that are given opportunities to reflect rather than react, to critically analyze rather than lash out, and to think rather than cry out. All of this is made possible, in part, by responsible journalism that is committed to its obligation to be a front for a truthful – or at the very least trustworthy – depictions of events.

The advent of communication technologies has opened, previously sealed, spaces for progressive and conscientious citizen journalists to report on their communities without the permission, or approval of the old guard. Facing their own realities, removed from stubborn hierarchies, and a layer of editors tasked with policing their words and thoughts, free individuals have the potential to become free media-makers owning allegiance to no one. This rise of new media, and subsequent establishment of a cadre of new journalists, if nurtured, can significantly disrupt traditional media, which is visibly struggling to adapt as its hegemony rapidly shatters in front of our eyes. If old media and its few gatekeepers are continuously challenged by a network of rising independent journalists who aim to hold those in power, and themselves accountable then they will become the ones who can influence public opinion.

In a region erupting in mass dissent – amid the frenzied reaction of world powers seeking to appropriate the anger of the masses – the only media that can be relevant to people’s times and realities is one that practices adversarial journalism, an independent media – free from the constraints imposed by all power structures – that challenges, confronts, and frightens the authorities on one front, and speaks the truth to the people on the other.

If that media flourishes, instead of playing a role in subverting social movements for political and economic justice, the press can be part of the struggle for the establishment of the open and free societies demanded on the streets of the Arab world from Tunis to Damascus.  

Originally published by Al-Akhbar English, on April 20, 2014.