BEIRUT/TRIPOLI/SIDON: The montage of political posters and party banners that have become part of the cityscapes of Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli were taken down Thursday, in line with an agreement reached during dialogue sessions between the Future Movement and Hezbollah to defuse sectarian tensions in the country.
To publicize the initiative, Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib led a tour around the city to tear down what little signage remained.
“There were no objections, people were welcoming to us and about the campaign,” Chebib told The Daily Star. “This is a visual pollution that every citizen needs to fight in order to have a clean environment.”
Parties and neighborhood residents were told about the measure two days ago to give them time to remove signage on their own, Chebib said, and now the authorities would enforce the decision.
Across Beirut, it appeared that locals fervently agreed with the idea of removing the city’s sometimes intimidating territorial markings, although many expressed doubts that it would have anything more than a superficial, temporary effect.
“Removing the posters is hugely symbolic,” said Mohammad Itani, a resident of Ras Beirut. “While it might slightly contribute to diminishing Sunni-Shiite tensions, more work is needed at the level of the people to change the prevailing mentalities.”
For Mohammad Ghalayini from the Beirut neighborhood of Aisha Bakkar, the taking down of the signage was “irrelevant.”
“I got used to the Amal Movement flags and posters,” he said. “It’s like they’ve been there forever.”
While elsewhere in Ashrafieh, teams had started whitewashing previously postered walls, the streets of Geitawi, a quiet and largely Greek Orthodox neighborhood, boasted little more than the occasional torn strip showing a politician’s face.
The one exception is Beit Kataeb, one of the headquarters of the Christian group, which still proudly displays portraits of party figures.
“It’s a good thing,” Rony Booz said from behind the counter in his TV shop when asked what he thought of the initiative. “It will help if any place you go feels only Lebanese, not the property of one sect or group.
“But it won’t be easy to take them down in all places,” he added. “Some places even the government can’t enter. They won’t be able to remove all the religious and political flags there.”
Jessica Azzi, 25, echoed his sentiment: “It’s a good idea and it should happen everywhere. If they’re removed, it won’t feel 100 percent like an area doesn’t belong to one group.”
But she also cautioned it would not change facts on the ground: “Even if you remove them, some areas, like Dahiyeh, will always be for Hezbollah,” she said, referring to the Beirut southern suburbs.
In the hectic, largely Shiite Zoqaq al-Blat neighborhood, a well-known Amal Movement stand on the corner of a busy intersection leading onto Airport Road had packed up its numerous green signs and posters, rendering it unrecognizable.
“Patrol units came and took everything; they didn’t leave out even one banner,” said Sleiman Ghtaimi, sitting on a stool outside the stand.
“Over there is Hezbollah,” he added, pointing at a nondescript building on the opposite side of the road, “and here is Amal. It’s so much better this way. Personally it makes me more comfortable and happy.”
Amal official Hussein Ibrahim concurred: “It’s 100 percent better, it decreases tensions. It’s good, people are relieved.”
Only Ali Kamaleddine, also sitting outside the stand, admitted he was not happy about the absence of his leader’s face: “A picture of Mr. Nabih [Berri] was hanging here behind me but they took it off, why? I was saddened. I want everyone passing by here to see the photo.”
Down the road, clothing shop owner Siham Ghtaimi said she preferred the streets without the clutter of flags and posters in clashing colors.
“It’s much better like this,” she said. “They took the banners down two days ago and no one protested or objected at all. Everyone’s behind it here.”
However, she said the signage hadn’t caused any real problems in the first place: “The area is known for supporting [Hezbollah] and Amal only, so the banners weren’t causing tensions.”
For Adham, who works in a nuts and sweets shop, the move was a good idea, but one that was unlikely to last long or change anything.
“They removed it now but in two days they’ll put it up again,” he said with a shrug. “Removing the flags and banners do not affect the people, you need to have pure hearts.”
Up in northern city of Tripoli, a hotspot for sectarian tensions and party-fueled rivalry, a similar cleanup campaign was launched.
North Lebanon Governor Ramzi Nohra instructed security forces to remove all political banners from the city, starting in the neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, which was the scene of several rounds of sectarian fighting over the past few years.
In the southern coastal city of Sidon, Hezbollah members cleared a party billboard of political announcements and messages. Posters showing “martyred” fighters were also removed, including those of the faces of the six Hezbollah fighters killed by an Israeli airstrike on a party convoy in the Syrian Golan Heights village of Qunaitra last month.
Only signs for Hezbollah’s museum in the southern village of Mlita, which displays Israeli military vehicles and weapons seized by the party’s armed resistance, were kept.
“We hope it is one step in the right direction, since political banners contribute to fueling tensions, and we had agreed with Hezbollah to defuse tensions as part of the dialogue,” Future MP Ammar Houri told a radio station. – Additional reporting by Joseph Ataman, Antoine Amrieh and Mohammed Zaatari