Reinstituting Sectarianism Through Everyday Forms of Resistance: The Case of the Informal Transportation System in Beirut

Carine Assaf, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

 

Introduction

I grew up in Beirut in the late 1990s witnessing chaotic traffic, smoke, and huge bostas (big buses) honking for passengers, without ever noticing how Beirut had almost no public transportation. The only exception was the white and blue Berliet buses blocking roads, stopping everywhere, and desperately competing with privately-owned buses and vans. I grew up listening to my parents’ stories of how they used to move around Beirut using the tramways before they were dismantled in 1965, but that remained a distant memory. I got to know Beirut through the window of the car and rarely relied on the so-called jahech el dawleh (state’s mule or state buses) to commute. When I asked other Lebanese why our travel patterns are shaped by car culture, to understand what happened to Beirut’s once glorious public transportation system, which gradually was diminished from the 60s until 90s to allow greater freedom for cars (Assaf, Mady, and Van den Broeck 2022), but no one seemed to have answers. A few shared positive memories about the tram and the train networks, and how such transportation infrastructure connected everyone. Many people seemed to associate the bus system with the bus massacre of Ain El Remmaneh, which ignited the civil war in April 1975.[1] Perhaps the answer is that people came to fear the bus as a symbol of war.

In fact, the 15-year civil war (1975–1990) rendered the state inactive and consolidated it vertically through integrated clientelist relationships, elite politics, institutional diffusion, centralization of social identities, political and territorial stability, and territorial and political isolation that divided the 18 ethnoreligious groups (Mady and Chettiparamb 2017). Fragmentation, embedded in sectarianism, became “an urban condition, affecting the spatial, social and economic, and political evolution” (Graham and Marvin 2011) of Beirut. In other words, the agglomeration of quasi-autonomous territories has evolved independently in alignment with political and sectarian agendas. All these dynamics were reflected in the transportation sector when post-war state members, who fought the war, took advantage of the war to reinforce sectarianism (Assaf et al. 2021). They diminished the potential for a public transportation system because they lacked the political will to re-establish and re-invest in public transportation (Nakkash 2016; Monroe 2017; Assaf, Mady, and Van den Broeck 2022) that unifies the city, promotes conviviality, and raises awareness of common values. As a result, the war shaped Beirut as an unequal city, in which spatial segregation produced uneven patterns of mobility and accessibility. Overall, state decisions to diminish public transportation prior to the war, and de-invest in such social infrastructure pushed many people to rely on private cars. The movement of people became framed by politico-sectarian territorial differences and car culture (Assaf et al. 2021).

As a counter-hegemonic reaction, people found practical solutions for transportation by creating their own system. This system emerged prior to the war as a “paratransit” (Cervero 2000; Klopp 2021) system to supplement fixed-route public transportation by providing individualized rides. Then it became a “gap filler” (Cervero 2000, 5) to compensate for the absence of adequate public transportation after the war (Assaf et al. 2021). This system is usually referred to among inhabitants as informal public transportation, community transportation, or privately-operated transportation and consists of a small fleet of buses, vans, and shared taxi services. I focus in this essay on how the fleet of buses and vans, made by people for people, opened space for contestation and existed beyond the boundaries of the formal state-sponsored system. Such seemingly mundane activity created new mobility arrangements that allowed people to access transportation infrastructure where state-supported public transportation was minimal. Then, I explore such adaptation as a form of resistance-generating counter-hegemonic narrative vis-à-vis the existing order embedded in transportation. I am not romanticizing informal transportation, which risks denying the impact that certain practices may have on wider social and political debates. Instead, I examine its persistence as an “everyday life form of resistance” (De Certeau 1984; Scott 1989; Toro López and Van den Broeck 2021), with the potential to create an embodiment of sense and self-oriented in situmobilities (Jensen, 2013). Informal transportation practices constitute the “people,” who according to Foucault (2007), “are those who refuse to be the population and disrupt the system” (44).

In the next section, I examine whether and how the informal transportation system, which emerged out of need (Moulaert et al. 2013), is a space of power and an everyday form of resistance that contests mobility needs, challenges the hegemonic car system, and re-builds a social infrastructure splintered by sectarianism. I start by analyzing informal transportation as an ambivalent practice of everyday resistance that vacillates between openness and selectivity, equality and hierarchy, and change and statis. I draw upon fieldwork conducted from 2018–2022, based on storytelling or informal and semi-structured interviews with transportation actors: operators, drivers, and transportation union representatives. Through these exchanges I was able to explore how informal transportation institutes, and is being instituted by, politico-sectarian differences. I conclude that informal transportation is a form of resistance since it challenges the car paradigm and provides the right to transportation for some, and the right to work. It is, however, also reinstituting everyday sectarianism by reinternalizing the dominant political powers among its routes, drivers, and riders.

Is Informal Transportation an Everyday Form of Resistance?

 Informal transportation emerges through the non-conventional strategies of residents to reduce the risk of being marginalized by providing or increasing access to public goods. Lucas (2012) explains that the combination of poor transportation options and social disadvantages can lead communities to experience transportation poverty, which in turn can exacerbate the problem of their limited access to opportunities, services, and interactions (see for example Martens 2012). Social inequalities and exclusion can occur (Church, Frost, and Sullivan 2000) across seven dimensions: physical, geographic, economic, time-based, fear-based, spatial exclusion, and exclusion from facilities (Murray and Davis 2001; Hine and Mitchell 2003; Lucas 2004; Currie and Delbosc 2010). These dimensions are useful categories to frame conditions that lead to limited access to opportunities in societies. Hine and Mitchell (2003) explain that the mechanisms excluding some residents from access to transportation can be secondary to mechanisms of social inequality that are unrelated to transportation, with the former aggravating the latter.

Access is thus the overarching governing concept that connects transportation, social, and spatial exclusions. In that sense, access informs travel decisions and strategies for reaching essential opportunities (Martens 2012; Hernandez and Titheridge, 2015). By paying attention to people’s lack of adequate access to transportation, and thus opportunities, it is possible to differentiate between constraints related to the individual and those related to supply. In this context, informal transportation enters at the intersection between a lack of assets and poor transportation provision for vulnerable groups (Lucas 2012). Specifically, informal transportation is a potential mechanism for overcoming barriers to accessing opportunities, and for creating a situation in which individuals may belong in their societies.

Informal transportation, by contrast to state-provided or formal transport system, creates mobility in situ that goes beyond to become a manifestation of an “everyday form of resistance,” Scott’s (1989) influential concept. This kind of resistance is not limited to organizing collective actions but can also be understood as the persistence of “everyday activity” that potentially disrupts the hegemonic order. He describes resistance as a “nearly continuous, informal, undeclared, disguised” (Scott 1989, 4) activity that leaves no record and is designed to be beneath notice. In other words, informal transportation can typically be achieved through cooperative social networks, by forming and creating new forms of “associations” (Scott 1989, 36) that exist beyond authorities. Scott’s conceptualization of power is, however, limited to the division between the state or capital on one side and the peasantry on the other. According to Foucault (1980), power operates through a net-like structure, is ubiquitous, and works well with the notion of everyday resistance (as another form of power) since “there are no relations of power without resistance” (98). Whitson (2006) explains that the Foucauldian approach discards the standard dichotomy of the powerful and powerless and rather favors a multiform, ubiquitous conceptualization of power. As such, this perspective rejects the vertical (rigid) hierarchies of power among actors and actions and instead views everyone as potential and powerful actors. Cresswell (2000) adds that power is not only to be understood as residing within a single institution or actor, but rather is seen “to be something which is exercised by everyone, […] is potentially productive, and at the heart of social relations” (261). This implies that in theory, drivers, operators, unions, ministries, etc. can all be understood as deploying power. In practice, however, informal transportation cannot be fully conceptualized as a space of power or an everyday form of resistance because it is a space that reinstitutes expressions of power, including exploitation and subjugation that interact simultaneously with resistance (Whitson 2006). Informal transportation in that sense can be seen as a space of power in which strategies are created to cherish and nurture creativity and innovation for collective actions (Moulaert and MacCallum 2019). These actions, whether seen as political (Foucault 2007) or social (Mouffe 2007), constitute the realm of sediment practices for collective actions, which have the potential to challenge the political institutions.

How do these theoretical insights apply to informal transportation? Cervero and Golub (2007), Behrens et al. (2016), and Klopp (2021) explain that informal transportation contains multiple and overlapping spaces of power as different actors enter, interact with, and create meaning for informal work in various ways. The informal transportation system operates between the public and private spheres. Exploitation, subjugation, and resistance are all present in informal transportation since the system has been largely, though not entirely, unregulated and run by various arrangements with either operator associations or unions heavily involved. In other words, it is a self-managed service and supported by providers who decide when and how the system operates, for example, allowing the drivers to divert off the designated routes. This is also partly due to the laissez-faire and informal nature of the socio-political contexts that allow the emergence of these practices (Klopp 2021). Most of the operations are family businesses or cooperatives that engage family members, unskilled laborers, or both. As such, new inter-community relations and institutional structures are being built.

Moreover, the drivers and the operators often belong to a union that determines who may serve a given route and use the route’s terminals. Regardless of having a government operating license, the unions charge their members for the use of the terminals and for the right to operate on specific routes. Unions are usually very rigorous in the enforcement of their prerogatives and are a significant political force, as in most developing countries (Kumar 2021) like Lebanon. Their influence is due in part to the number of people involved in the sector and the fact that government officials (such as police, and inspectors) are often directly involved in the industry through license and vehicle ownership. Even when such services are regulated and legalized, they continue to be referred to as informal transportation to distinguish them from bus services operated by large organizations that adhere to fixed routes and schedules. As such, informal transportation can be seen as a form of resistance since it can be developed into an organized, collective type of political activity and since it is a service approved by people (riders) and supported by a popular culture that encodes it with notions of transportation justice (Toro López and Van den Broeck 2021). However, informal transport could remain limited when its space of power contests subjugation and exploitation, instead of challenging the hegemonic systems. In the next section, the empirical case illustrates this theoretical discussion by examining how the space of power and resistance of informal transportation intertwine to reinstitute sectarianism.

Research Methods

Storytelling or informal conversation is the first method of data collection that I used during the qualitative research interviews. This method was important because Lebanon has limited national transportation archives. The first step was to determine the participants and contexts in which I wished to address the research question by subdividing it into: how, when, and why did the informal transportation system emerge? And by whom and for whom? Overall, the assembled stories resulted from five years of fieldwork (from 2018 to 2022) conducted with the operators and drivers in Beirut of Buses 2, 3, 6, 11, 12, and Vans 4, Tripoli-Cola, Saida-Cola, and Matar (airport). This approach allowed me to interview vulnerable groups (such as workers or operators with limited educational backgrounds) in a manner that obtained authentic and rich data without further disempowering the interviewees. The stories were mostly collected during weekdays to ensure data was captured from individuals moving around the area. In addition, I was able to collect more reflective stories by chatting with random people while circulating in streets, coffee shops, and transportation stops. Interviews were recorded and then transcribed. Participants’ details were anonymized and since they were all men, I refer to them by age or sect. The assembled data was also connected to semi-structured interviews with transportation union representatives.

There were some limitations to this approach. I had to think clearly about my positionality, epistemological approach, and theoretical framework when engaging with this data. Being an insider to the city to which I belong was essential for this method. I was able to collect stories that conveyed a genuine understanding of the informal transportation systems while understanding their true meaning and context. Overall, the choice of using interviews as a research method has allowed me to build a narrative of how the informal transportation sector was driven by innovative behaviors and sectarian politics.

Reinstituting Sectarianism in Informal Transportation as a Form of Resistance

Following the overview on mobility in Beirut and given the numerous challenges that the capital city faces in terms of urbanization, privatization, and weak planning within the consociational state (Assaf, Mady, and Van den Broeck 2022), this section discusses whether and how the emergence of informal transportation, advanced from the people to the people, is a space of power and an everyday form of resistance.

In the beginning, the informal transportation system emerged as a feeder system to existing public transportation, including trams and train networks before the civil war (1975–1990), and municipalities organized this system by providing spaces for bus and vans to park (Chidiac 2008). The transportation system, however, became a self-managed practice in response to a lack of social services, similar to how the system that provides electricity through private generators developed to compensate for cuts in the state’s electricity provision, or the insufficient government supply of water is supplemented by actors not mandated by the state, or waste collection is carried out independently by neighborhoods (Farjalla et al. 2017). Informal transportation, in that sense, emerged to answer demands that were unmet due to de-investment in the formal public transportation system. The informal transportation system provided significant access to cities that otherwise would not have been possible—a valuable service to otherwise marginalized poorer and middle-class populations (Klopp 2021). Mobility and accessibility are essential elements of informal transportation, demonstrating its potential to reduce social exclusion and thus achieve the right to transportation. Such practices, however, are framed by a sectarian political system produced by authoritarian and clientelistic state entities (Salamey and Tabbar 2008; Traboulsi 2014). This hegemonic system has been supporting and feeding processes of informality over the years (Farjalla et al. 2017). Informal transport, whether it is owned by private or cooperative actors (Cervero 2017; Klopp and Mitullah 2016; Klopp 2021; UITP 2021), reflects some of the typical political dynamics of a segregationist sectarian state that fails to enforce urban planning regulations, including transportation infrastructure that caters to people’s need to everyday life mobility (Assaf, Mady, and Van den Broeck 2022).

The informal transportation system tends to be invisible within a car-dependent mobility culture (Assaf et al. 2021), and due to its characteristics—no fixed routes, stops, or schedules, and the formation of political cartels (or “mafia” as many people described it)—it is framed as unreliable and dangerous. One of the reasons for this view is that the politics of everyday mobility have rendered this system quasi-inaccessible, unsafe, and irregular for non-habituated riders, and non-transparent for riders and operators alike (Assaf et al. 2021). At first the informal transportation system may seem chaotic and unorganized. Nevertheless, decoding its operational system reveals how the system is incrementally constructed to defy and re-define different socio-economic variables while reinforcing socio-political hierarchies. It is thus important to understand that the elasticity of formal and informal processes around informal transportation reveals how “informality is not a setting, sector or outcome but rather a site for critical analysis that unveils how informal strategies work for both powerful actors and those with little power” (Klopp 2021, 5; see also, Banks et al., 2020). Informal transportation has the potential to create a situation in which individuals may belong, at the same time, to both the formal and informal sectors due to the actors involved such as municipalities, unions, ministries, drivers, operators, and even riders (Klopp 2021). To illustrate, one can differentiate between the privately-operated vehicles (and networks) and the state-owned buses by looking at the vehicle’s license plates. The private buses and vans often operate with a red plate. The red plates are mandatory by law for shared transportation in Lebanon, including taxis, demonstrating that the informal transportation system is considered a semi-legal and flexible operating mode. Why did the government keep pushing for the red plates and why did it not invest in public transportation? The current head of The Federation of Unions of Public Drivers in Lebanon (personal communication, Jan. 25, 2022) explained that the militias who fought the war in 1988 took over the fuel sector, which became monopolized by four companies affiliated with them. In the mid-1990s, the former transportation unions president, Abdel Amir Najdi, attempted to push then-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to invest in public transportation infrastructure. However, the latter did not respond. The post-war government was benefiting from the continuous development of a car culture (see El Zein 2020) and from new policies for the red plates that allowed the fleet of shared, private transportation services (including taxis, buses, and vans) to grow. One example mentioned by the union head was when “Farid Makari, the former Deputy Speaker of Parliament of Lebanon and exclusive agent of KIA automobile manufacturer, lobbied in 1994to buy all vans from KIA.” The elasticity of informality reframed the system as a hybrid of public and private since it is being operated under an informal-formal governance system, on public roads, and made by people and for the people.

The informal transportation networks operate on a successful economic model as well as being an interesting social phenomenon. The informal transportation networks play an important role in providing the right to transportation, a service that should be delivered by state agencies. They also break the perceived boundaries dividing the city (dangerous, unreliable, etc.) by creating a lived urban experience through a journey that blends social classes and transcends geographic and political boundaries. One of my interviewees explained that “the operating system is a family business or cooperation between different individuals that belong to the same politico-sectarian group, and sometimes between two sects yet with the same political affiliations,” a fact expressed by many of the middle-aged drivers during the fieldwork (personal communication, March 8, 2018). For instance, “the operational system of Bus 5 from Hamra (in west Beirut) to Ain Saadeh (a suburb located northeast of Beirut) depends on the sectarian territories in which the bus is operating,” expressed a Bus 5 driver. He added, “from Hamra to the first node of intersection, Beirut River, which separates Beirut from its eastern suburbs, the operator is Shiite. Then, the operator becomes Maronite in the Christian areas” (personal communication, July 2, 2022). In this way the operators distribute political and economic power among themselves according to the agreed power-sharing formula. As for Van 4, for instance, the leader of the Loyalty Union of Transport explained that “legally registered vehicles operate beyond Beirut’s southern suburbs (Dahiyeh’s borders), but the non-registered vans operate within the limits of ‘our area’” (personal communication, June 3, 2021). Immobility is created since the flow of this system depends on the power-sharing arrangement between different sects. A bus driver, who belongs to the Druze community and works on bus route Cola-Chouf District (southeast of Beirut), explained that informal transportation is like board games, “what is your role (driver, operator, union, etc.), what is your political affiliation?” (personal communication, March 8, 2018). The divisions of lines are also reflected in the mobility of riders. Many riders expressed, during the five years of my fieldwork, that they only take the lines that they are familiar with. Familiarity here implies “the lines that serve our communities” (personal communications, March 8, 2018; July 3, 2019; Jan. 25, 2022). As Nucho (2017) explains, “community is translated as sect” (Nucho 2016, 7) in Lebanon. As such, the informal transportation system is reinstituting and being instituted by a sectarian state. Nevertheless, the system is resisting the actions of the state by creating new mobility practices for those in need (such as providing work opportunities or accessibility in the city). The informal transportation system in this case reveals how the situation in Beirut is not determined merely by the state, but by an entire society that reproduces and produces mechanisms of sectarianism.

Conclusions

In this essay, I mobilized the concept of the “everyday life form of resistance” as the lens to examine how the informal transportation system in Beirut is filling the service gap of formal public transportation, and to what extent such practices can be understood as resistance against the hegemonic socio-political order embedded in dominant systems of transportation. From a first reading of the system, it is clear that the practice emerged as a community initiative initiated by and for people to fill market gaps in formal public transportation provision. The practice itself emerged in an unstable political context and kept flourishing in each corner of the city (and even the country) to address the right to transportation. It is challenging the predominance of the car and providing the right to transportation for all, including drivers and operators. It may appear to outsiders as chaotic, disorganized, and unsafe. However, the system has a vertical hierarchy among the drivers and operators, which is connected to unions; the Ministries of Transport and Public Works, Interior, and Labor; the vehicle registration center; Internal Security Forces; and municipalities. The space of power in which the informal transportation system operates is framed and shaped by the hegemonic political order. As a result, the system reinstitutes part of it. Instead of being a vehicle for revolutionary change, the sectarian social structure is maintained. Therefore, this transportation system remains a political tool used by the hegemonic order of power, and its capacity to be an everyday form of resistance remains limited. In other words, the power-sharing formula among different sectarian groups is embedded in the power structure of the transportation system, yet it remains informal in its features. Lastly, sectarian politics also limit the system in meeting people’s needs in a bottom-up fashion because of the reproduced injustices they reflect concerning workers and passengers.

 

 

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[1] Ain El Remmaneh is a Christian neighborhood, in the Baabda district of Mount Lebanon, a suburb of Beirut and part of Greater Beirut.