Beirut – On Sunday night, Ali was busy serving coffee from a makeshift stall fixed to the back of a scooter on the corner of Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut. At his feet lay two large coolers containing bottles of iced water.
Within five minutes, he had sold nine cups of coffee and 12 bottles of water before taking a quick break to call a friend waiting on a scooter nearby to replenish his stock. Between serving customers, Ali, 64, reflected back to the times he spent in downtown Beirut and at Martyr’s Square before Lebanon’s 15-year civil war that began in 1975.
“When I was a child, my father brought me to Beirut to show me downtown,” said Ali, who grew up in a small village near Marjayoun in southern Lebanon.
“It was a centre of activity and commerce before the war. There were street vendors, trams, cafes, banks and cinemas, and a pleasant park. I remember it fondly.”
Across the street from where he stood, two ice cream vans were also thriving, while further down the street, vendors flogged ka’ak warmed by the embers of dying coals, and potato crisps, freshly fried by the roadside.
Street vendors have become an increasingly significant presence in downtown Beirut since protests, which are targeting the state’s failure to solve the city’s waste crisis and Lebanon’s broader political malaise, began in late July.
On Tuesday, a third round of national dialogue, due to be held at the Lebanese parliament, was expected to attract another wave of anti-government protests.
The BDC became a graveyard of abandoned buildings, sniper posts, and concrete and sand barriers, as local neighbourhoods in both east and west Beirut became increasingly self-contained as the war rumbled on.
People do not feel welcome in downtown Beirut. They feel it does not represent them and reflects the political classes' disinterest in public demands.
In recent weeks, as large crowds of protesters have gathered at Martyr’s Square, interactions between people from different backgrounds and social strata have inspired nostalgia for the cosmopolitan city centre, as depicted in old sepia photographs displayed in many of the capital’s bookshops. And on Facebook pages, Lebanese residents have bemoaned Beirut’s loss of its architectural heritage.
The post-war reconstruction of Beirut’s downtown was handled by Solidere, a private development company founded by Lebanon’s second post-war Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
But reconstruction efforts have long been maligned by civil society activists, former tenants, and heritage groups, who allege the company prioritised private interests – and profits – over public interests.
In particular, critics often point to the transformation of the city centre’s once-bustling markets into a modern, high-end, air-conditioned shopping arcade, claiming the area has become an exclusive zone for those few locals and tourists able to afford the area’s sky-high rents and exorbitantly priced luxury items.
“People do not feel welcome in downtown Beirut,” said Joseph Kamel, a 34-year-old salesperson from Ashrafiyeh, as he walked past the crumbling edifice of an old French art-deco apartment in Gemmayzeh, en route to Martyr’s Square on Sunday afternoon.
“They feel it does not represent them and reflects the political classes’ disinterest in public demands,” he told Al Jazeera.
As the assembled crowds browsed stalls selling irons, books, clothes, Polaroid photographs, snacks, movie posters, and satirical screen-prints criticising the country’s established political elite, security forces looked on.
Bilal Abboud, a journalist and one of the organisers of the market, said the remarks by Chammas served to reinforce the perception that the general public was not welcome in downtown Beirut.
“When the authorities construct barriers to block access to public spaces, this causes resentment,” Abboud told Al Jazeera. “We are deprived of public space here in Beirut.”
Some Lebanese activists, however, expressed objections to the market, as an implicit criticism of Hariri. Altercations have taken place during largely peaceful protests in recent days when protesters have vocally, or through posters and banners, criticised particular political leaders.
Such realities highlight the difficulties faced by the fledgling protest movement led by the YouStink campaign, a group of civil-society activists, when it comes to maintaining cohesion in articulating criticisms of the country’s political establishment.
However, Lina Khatib, former director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, viewed initiatives such as the market in Riad al-Solh Square positively.
“This was the first time since the end of the [civil] war we have seen an impromptu, popular, grassroots market in the area,” said Khatib, who set up a clothes stall at the market.
“During the war, the area was out of bounds because of conflict, and in the post-war era, it has remained out of bounds because of its exclusivity. In the same way the protests bring people together regardless of social backgrounds, so did the market.”
By Sunday night, Chammas appeared to have walked back his previous comments, pledging in a news conference to help “anyone who wants to implement public events” in downtown Beirut.
However, these sentiments have not been mirrored by Lebanese officials.
By Monday evening, a set of concrete breeze blocks had been installed at the entrance of Weygand Street, opposite of where Ali had stood the previous night – a barrier aimed at dissuading protesters from trying to access Nejmeh Square, home to the country’s parliament and where national dialogue sessions were taking place.