BEIRUT: Roads in Beirut’s Downtown were blocked Tuesday for the first day of a three-day Parliament session, causing traffic jams, enraging motorists and debilitating nearby businesses.
Banks Street closed to motorists at 7 a.m. and remained closed until the end of the first legislative session in the late afternoon, with security forces cordoning off the perimeter of Downtown. Roads were also closed leading to Riad Solh Square, and a roadblock was set up by the An-Nahar building on the other side of Downtown.
Closure of roads in central Beirut is common when Lebanon’s Parliament meets, with many of the roads that pass through Downtown blocked off by security forces in a bid to minimize the possibility of terrorist attacks and political assassinations, making life hellish for the city’s commuters.
Seething and staring ahead at the traffic jam, Leah, 30, jested, “I want to kill [Parliament] for this.”
Traffic was heaviest in the early morning near the An-Nahar building, as security tried to divert frustrated drivers away from the roadblock.
“It’s horrible, what can I say,” said Ahmad Harb, 22, an employee at the British Embassy on Serail Hill. “I had a meeting in Baabda. It usually takes 15 minutes to get here but it’s been 40 minutes now.”
Mohammad, an older gentleman driving a taxi stuck in the gridlock, grumbled, “Parliament is far, so why are they closing the road here?”
He suggested the Army was instilling fear into citizens by blocking the road. “All this is for Parliament?”
Elie, 55, ate a sandwich as he sat in his yellow Beirut municipality car parked on the side of the road, a few meters from the An-Nahar building.
“I saw all the traffic and pulled over,” he said in between bites. “I had no idea there was going to be traffic like this today, and I work for the municipality.”
Elie was one of many motorists who said they had not received any prior notice of road closures.
“It’s a joke,” said Mohammad, 30, stuck in traffic on the road leading from Riad Solh to the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque.
One gentleman was so visibly frustrated by security forces blocking his way to work that he refused to take an alternate route, instead slowly easing his car forward into the barricade of Army soldiers blocking the road next to the An-Nahar building.
His car was quickly surrounded before he was grabbed by the shirt and pulled out of the car. The man, smartly dressed in a suit and tie, began screaming as a soldier demanded he lower his voice. When the man continued screaming, five soldiers grabbed him, one clamping his hand over the man’s mouth, and escorted him behind an Army vehicle.
Rather than physically confront security forces, some Lebanese voiced their complaints about the traffic on Twitter. One user wrote, “Absolute chaos in #beirut central district over the next 3 days all bcoz Parliament is in session!! What a farce!!”
Another tweeted, “Downtown Beirut Completely blocked for 3 whole days again for Parliament meeting. One more way to annihilate the economy of a city.”
One Lebanese Twitter user noticed the concurrence of the Parliament-induced traffic jam and April Fool’s Day. Nicolas El Hayek wrote, “My dad’s idea of an April Fools prank is to get me stuck in Beirut’s traffic. Well played, dad.”
Even foot traffic was light in Downtown, with all entrances blocked by security forces. Many of the restaurants and cafes in the area have been hit hard by the security situation, with a handful of businesses having shut down in the last year.
“Come back in the afternoon,” said an Army soldier to civilians trying to get past the barricades. “All the restaurants are closed.”
Rita, a secretary for Dar al-Hayat in their Downtown-based office, said that getting to work in the morning had been difficult and had taken her an hour and a half due to traffic and the security checkpoints surrounding her workplace.
Sitting in an empty bookshop near Riad Solh Square, the owner, who asked that her name be withheld, said her business was struggling.
“Business is like you see,” she said, pointing to her vacant store. “It’s ruining us. It’s not just today, it’s every day.”
Business owners and employees also said that the instability in the area was hurting the commercial sector, especially with the increased safety measures in place for members of Parliament.
“Look at the concrete blocks out in front of our store. No one can park there, so customers don’t stop to come in,” the bookshop owner said.
Ahmad Hashem, a 24-year-old sales manager at Class – a mobile phone store near the An-Nahar building – agreed that the increased security and the presence of politicians were keeping customers away.
“People are scared and worried about bombs because all the politicians are here,” Hashem said, adding that the December bombing that killed former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah in Starco, less than a kilometer away, was still fresh in people’s minds.
Lebanon’s volatile security situation is damaging not only Downtown’s economic prosperity but the entire country, said Lebanese economist Sami Nader.
“Lebanon’s debt is growing four times faster than its economic growth, and the budget deficit is growing in a very dangerous manner,” he said. “The only way to get out of this is to boost growth, which is done by instilling confidence politically and re-establishing security.”
Nader’s view was echoed by Hashem: “Usually there are 1,000 people walking on the streets but now there are maybe five or six people. ... People are scared to spend money. They are saving for the black days coming.”