BEIRUT – The last public beach on Beirut's heavily developed seaside could soon be squeezed out by yet another luxury resort, raising fears that residents could find themselves living in a coastal city without much of a coast.
The fight for Ramlet al-Baida beach has emerged as a new flashpoint between civil society activists and the entrenched political establishment over land management and public services in Lebanon's capital. It follows last year's trash crisis, in which mountains of garbage piled up for months, and a conflict over a local park that until recently was only open one day a week.
Activists say the Eden Rock Resort development, greenlighted by the city's governor in September, is the first step to transforming the city's last public beach into yet another exclusive resort.
"If this is how Beirut is going to be, then tomorrow, we're going to be sitting in a cage," said Nazih al-Raess, the custodian of the beach's public swimming zone. "The people who have money will be able to go out to smell the breeze and the people who don't ... will be buried at home."
The project has rekindled debate in this intensely stratified city over who has the right to its shrinking green spaces and shores. Many of Beirut's well-to-do have turned up their noses at Ramlet al-Baida — or pinched them, as the case may be — as municipal authorities have allowed sewage to pollute its once azure waters and white sands.
The new project would feature chalets on a terraced, green slope that opens onto a narrowed strip of the remaining beach, according to illustrations by the developer. A crescent-shaped marina would be anchored off the coast.
Older residents recall a time when they could slip into the sea from Karantina, Normandy, and Rouche, before the onset of the 1975 Civil War. Those outlets have long since been devoured by an expanded port, a marina, resorts and pricey restaurants.
"Where are we supposed to unwind?" said Samer Ballout, a stocky 35-year-old civil servant who was meditating on the beach. "I've been swimming and running here since I was young."
Most beach clubs now charge at least $20 for day access. Some have been caught on camera turning away African or Asian visitors, while others openly bar low-income Lebanese patrons.
In May, a grassroots movement that campaigned on a platform of protecting the city's public amenities surprised the political establishment by capturing 40 percent of the vote at the municipal polls.
Beirut Madinati — which translates to Beirut, My City — did not win any seats on the municipal council owing to the election's winner-take-all formula, but they carried their momentum into meetings with officials. Shortly after the election, it and affiliated groups convinced Beirut Gov. Ziad Chebib to open the city's only park, a pine tree reserve, on a daily basis. It was previously only open on Saturdays.
A similar public campaign compelled Chebib to order the Eden Rock Resort project be put on hold in June. He demanded an explanation for how restrictions on the property deeds prohibiting construction on some of the plots had been scrubbed. But in September, he allowed the project to go ahead.
Earlier this month, a local resident posted a video on Facebook of heavy equipment pouring concrete into a basin dug into the Ramlet al-Baida shore. Civic groups mobilized a small crowd to march to the site, where the demonstrators twice scuffled with hired help working for the developer, Achour Development.
The demonstrators included many of the standouts from last year's You Stink campaign, which brought thousands of Lebanese into the streets to protest endemic corruption and the trash crisis. The crisis remains unresolved, with untreated garbage filling landfills on the edge of the city, occasionally sending a suffocating stench into some neighborhoods.
Achour Development declined to comment on the protests, saying only that it has the required permits. Chebib maintains that the plots marked for Eden Rock are privately owned and the developer has the right to build on them. He also declined a request for comment.
Lawyers are meanwhile building a case against the permit, citing a host of irregularities they say the governor overlooked.
"We have aerial photos showing this area used to be below the shore line, so it's not possible for it to be private property," said Wasef Harakeh, a lawyer and activist who helped organize the protests, citing a French Mandate-era law that protects the coast.
Ballout, the civil servant who has been enjoying the beach as long as he can remember, said he couldn't support the project.
"I'm not opposing this for my own good, I'm opposing this for the good of my children. And the people without money, where are they going to go?" he said.