BEIRUT: To the uninitiated, Martyrs’ Square in Downtown Beirut might appear little more than a large soulless car park. But the central square, in the heart of the city, has a long history as a site of public political expression. Until the early 20th century the square was known as Place des Canons, possibly due to the stationing there in 1772 of a large piece of artillery by Russians at war with the Ottoman Empire.
But during a revolt against Turkish rule during World War I, many Lebanese nationalists were executed in the square, giving it the Martyrs’ name.
The current bullet-scarred statue, honoring their memory, which sits in the tiny space of the square which has not been given over to car parking, was constructed in 1960.
But when Civil War broke out in 1975, Martyrs’ Square, which according to architect Sandra Rishani, had always been “the center of the city, geographically, physically, socially and politically,” became a no man’s land between the warring sides, falling as it did on the Green Line.
With the end of the war, the early 1990s saw the buildings surrounding the square razed in order to make way for the reconstruction of Downtown Beirut by Solidere, the private-public company headed by former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
His assassination, on Feb. 14, 2005, led to the biggest protest in Lebanese history, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Martyrs’ Square to demand the withdrawal of the occupying Syrian Army, a move which came in April of that year, after nearly 30 years in the country.
This massive demonstration, held on March 14, and which gave name to the current political coalition in opposition, followed weeks of smaller anti-Syrian protests, and a counter protest, called for by Hezbollah on March 8, and held at nearby Riad al-Solh, and after which the current coalition in government is named.
Hariri himself is buried at the edge of the square, in a shrine lying next to the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque, which he had built but not lived to see completed. Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan, Internal Security Forces Information Branch chief, who was assassinated Friday in a car bomb attack, and his driver Ahmad Sahyouni, have now been buried alongside him.
After the 2006 War, Hezbollah, Amal, the Free Patriotic Movement and their allies in December constructed a huge tent city in the close-by Riad al-Solh Square, demanding a National Unity government to replace Fouad Siniora’s Cabinet.
The tent city eventually remained in the Riad al-Solh Square for 18 months, although it diminished greatly in size. It ended on May 21, 2008, with the Doha Accord, which was signed between rival factions in light of the clashes between pro- and anti-government groups, following the government’s decision to close Hezbollah’s private telecommunications network.
Rishani, who teaches architecture and design at the American University of Beirut, believes that Martyrs’ Square should now be redesigned as a genuinely public space, and not one simply utilized for political protests.
“The use of the square only in the aftermath of such events [Friday’s assassination] does not allow the possibility of negotiating or discussing the severe unreconciled issues. Instead the use of the square as such seems to strengthen these divisions,” she says.
In a city completely lacking in communal areas, “I believe the redesign of the square as a public space for day-to-day use may help foster a socio-political conversation between residents, which is important and much-needed in Beirut,” Rishani adds.
For Karl Sharro, a Lebanese architect and writer living in London, the Square has been injected with a forced sense of symbolism, especially since 2005.
That the site is described as a neutral space, for all Lebanese, but only when it is “convenient for us to say we have a national reason to meet,” in Sharro’s opinion almost “formalizes this communal division.”
Built more like a theatrical stage than a genuine public sphere, Sharro believes the square is “orchestrated and staged,” and used only for an “expedient and temporal meeting place.”
Consequently, he says, the demonstrations which now take place in the square, “have almost in themselves become forced.”