A daily traffic jam on the Baouchriyeh Highway near Beirut, in an undated photo. (Hussein Baydoun/The Public Source)

A daily traffic jam on the Baouchriyeh Highway near Beirut, in an undated photo. (Hussein Baydoun/The Public Source)

The Road to Mobility Justice Is Not Paved by Technocrats

Day 55: Tuesday, December 10, 2019

This year, and in these revolutionary times, Lebanon’s Independence Day was redefined; instead of the traditional trappings of the day, a Civil Parade reclaimed the public sphere for associational life. Playing with the symbols of militarism, hundreds of activists, organizers, and engaged citizens came together as “battalions” of affinity and expertise. Musicians, doctors, and mothers — this display reasserted the basic civil liberties on which our Lebanese state was ostensibly founded: freedom of assembly, freedom of conscience, and less obviously, perhaps — freedom of movement.

This latter freedom has been heavily weaponized over the past few weeks, as protesters blocked roads and authorities scrambled to reopen them, condemning in the strongest terms any disruption to circulation. Freedom of speech was to be relegated to public squares, we were told, and not the highways and byways that keep labor flowing.

As should be abundantly clear to anyone on the margins of power, this split between “good protest” and “bad protest” based on a thin red line between symbolic action and direct action is a method of pacification that ultimately silences speech.

Indeed, to have the freedom to move is to have the privilege of being heard. This is true in extraordinary times of protest, but it is also true every day: who gets to move, and how they get to move, are always questions of power. This fact is blindingly obvious to anyone in Lebanon who is navigating life on the outskirts of major cities, without a car, in a body victimized by unwelcome attention, or in a wheelchair.

This politics of daily mobility is the basic premise behind Riders’ Rights, one of the dozens of organizations that marched during the Civil Parade on November 22. This is an initiative that I co-founded with Chadi Faraj, who marched with Train/Train under the banner of the “Public Transport Brigade.” The two groups have been working together on several pro-transit actions since the start of the “October 17 Revolution,” including a march along disused train tracks and a creative intervention that saw ghostly images of railway crossings projected across the city. These activities have captured the attention and imaginations of many, and they fit the mood of these ongoing protests: spontaneous, yet building off of years of experience; expansive, yet motivated by concrete improvements to people’s daily lives.

As an observer with a deep connection to both initiatives, the encouraging symbolism of the Civil March was not lost on me. Train/Train has been tirelessly fighting to recover Lebanon’s rail heritage since 2005, while Riders’ Rights — only recognized by the state as a nonprofit this year — grew out of a grassroots mapping initiative that began in the summer of 2015. We produced the first two maps of Beirut’s informal bus and van networks in 2016 and 2018. Both initiatives have shared an obsession and fidelity to what has sometimes felt like a lost cause; with so much wrong about life in Lebanon, persuading others to care about public transport with the same sort of passion that other issues and crises can generate has not been easy. Hence, mobilizing freedom of movement in this way in a shared platform like the Civil Parade has indeed “opened possibilities for new ways of relating to each other” as non-governmental organizations so often siloed into single-issue campaigns.

But there’s a shadow side to the imagery and language of “battalions,” one that fits too comfortably with the worst aspects of technocracy, or the rule of experts. On good days, I tell myself that this symbolic language is just shorthand for civic rights, something not fully formed yet, but that radically breaks from the confessional order we’ve inherited. But as bus riders, pro-transit advocates like Riders’ Rights are also aware of the limits of the politics of expertise.

After all, it wasn’t the warlords or religious leaders who worked out the details of our transport policies over the past three decades; it was economists and engineers. It wasn’t the political regime that sought to criminalize existing modes of transit, imperfect as they are, but rather, a handful of civil society organizations in concert with universities and the police. And when it comes to the few improvements to the state’s provision of public transport in recent years, it has been the irony of ironies that the worst sectarian impulses have sometimes led to material gains for the everyday rider, as new bus routes to far-flung areas were developed to satisfy Lebanon’s logic of clientelism. Are these mobilities corrupt? What’s the way forward?

These claims may sound alarmist or apologetic, but being bus riders in a country where most rights-based activists have for years insisted that public transport simply does not exist, because their state-oriented definitions of publicness are not satisfied, complicates the comfortable battle lines. “Technocracy” begins to take on more sinister tones when we look more closely at the differences of opinion around infrastructure. Even the playfulness of marching as “battalions” can be taken much more literally when the question of fair transitions in sectors like transit comes up. In our experience, more than one pro-democracy advocate and transport expert has proposed the state reassert itself in the sector through a militarized imposition of new buses, for example.

October 17 has changed everything. What once seemed like competing priorities now feels like a single current, and it is important to keep this spirit of solidarity alive across all sectors, especially in public transport. But we must do this with a sense of epistemic humility, as well. We need to continue to work on large-scale policy changes, while building more relationships with the people who operate our existing modes of transit. They’ve been locked into confessionalism, and can be supported in ways that break up the system from within. It’s a reality that can be seen in microcosm on the very buses that many reform advocates claim do not exist.

We need to target the Council of Development and Reconstruction, the Ministry of Public Works, and all institutions that failed to provide us with adequate services, while developing meaningful initiatives with the informal networks that filled the gaps in state provision. We must advocate for the new, while fighting for a dignified transition away from the old.

None of this implies letting go of the radical critique of the sectarian system as a whole; it just means that the fight for mobility justice is a lot more complicated than it might first appear, with the lived expertise often lying outside the borders of professional qualification. Riders’ Rights hopes to live this conviction out in the coming months in collaboration with groups like Train/Train, Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), and the Lebanese Union of the Physically Disabled (LUPD). The future of public transport is in all our hands.