BEIRUT: Over the past decade, Riad al-Solh Square in Beirut’s Downtown has emerged as focal point for political activism in the capital.
Since the square’s devastation during the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese citizens have protested at the space since it was reopened in the 1990s, all hoping their voices would reach the nation’s decision-makers.
Riad al-Solh Square has not always been a gathering point for political activism in Beirut. Both before and during the Civil War, Hamra was an epicenter where activists and intellectuals would meet and mingle.
“The Hamra area, due to the proximity of the American University of Beirut, was a place where lots of cultural and political events took place in the 1970s,” Professor Simon Moussalli told The Daily Star.
“This political activism ceased almost completely in the late ’80s and has never recovered since.”
After Beirut’s Downtown district was reconstructed in the 1990s by Solidere, groups from across the political spectrum began staging their protests in the rejuvenated city center, including Riad al-Solh Square.
Named after Lebanon’s first post-Independence prime minister, urban planner Serge Yazigi said the square’s biggest draw was its proximity to Parliament and the Grand Serail.
“Riad al-Solh Square is the closest one can get to the nation’s main seats of power,” Yazigi said.
The square made headlines on March 8, 2005, when, just three weeks after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, hundreds of thousands of supporters of Hezbollah and its allies gathered. The March 8 alliance’s name came from that day’s events.
Around the corner in Martyrs’ Square just days later on March 14, hundreds of thousands attended anti-Syrian protests. The parties involved would later come to be known as the March 14 coalition.
The confrontational, schismatic dynamic that was established in that month has defined Lebanese politics ever since.
In December 2006, supporters of the March 8 coalition staged a massive sit-in in an effort to force Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to resign. Tents were erected around Riad al-Solh square and many stayed there for 18 months.
“Below Siniora’s window [at the Grand Serail], it was the ideal place to organize a grinding political altercation,” writes Michael Young in his book, “Ghosts of Martyrs Square.”
Later, after the assassination of top Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Wissam Hassan in 2012, young March 14 protesters also staged a sit-in at Riad al-Solh, demanding the resignation of then-Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
In recent months, the square has seen a slew of largely peaceful protests, with disparate groups demanding everything from women’s rights to increased wages. Security forces have been deployed heavily at each demonstration, with soldiers posted behind thick rolls of barbed wire.
Although Moussalli said he did not think the square was designed to facilitate security measures, he admitted the limited entry and exit points made it easy for officials to dismantle barricades and control crowds, unlike in Martyrs Square.