Beirut’s security measures: effective deterrent or display of power?

Published first on AAE

By: Moe Ali Nayel
Published Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ali

Many residents in Beirut today are questioning the efficiency of the latest surge in security measures across the city, claiming that while there has been a very public display of force, little is being done by the authorities to build trust with residents.

Armed men in uniform are reinforcing positions on street corners from Dahiyeh to Burj Hammoud with cement-filled barrels – often adorned with the slogans and flags of the local political leaders, including but not limited to Hezbollah, Amal, the Future Movement, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, as well as a variety of other local religious leaders – linked with chains or yellow ribbons bearing the signature of the Internal Security Forces (ISF). Oversized SUVs with black tinted windows blasting sirens while driving full speed on the narrow, traffic-jammed streets are now a daily occurrence, and random searches of citizens of a specific profile (whatever look seems to bother the patrolling officer in question) have increased significantly.

All this constitutes the government’s “show of force” in response to a soaring crime wave, which politicians of all stripes have blamed on Syrian refugees, despite the fact the ISF’s own daily arrest data, reported on its website, shows that fewer than 20 percent of those being taken into custody are from Syria. That means the vast majority of reported muggings, kidnappings for ransom, rapes, and other crimes are the work of Lebanese against Lebanese. Many crimes still go unreported, due to a lack of trust in the security forces.
The increased deployment has done little to make people feel safer, with security forces at best being seen as ineffectual, and at worst contributing to the sense of insecurity through ad hoc applications of the law, discriminatory policing practices, and corruption.

‘Waste of time’

Last month, Abu Ali, a taxi driver, was mugged at gunpoint in broad daylight. Instead of driving to the police station he drove home.

“Thank god I wasn’t harmed,” he told Al-Akhbar. “Two well-dressed men in their 20s stopped me and asked for a taxi to Khaldeh; it was a slow working day in Beirut, and I decided to take them. Soon after we crossed the Khaldeh bridge they asked me to turn into an alleyway and drop them by their house, promising an extra fee. As I started driving through the alley, I felt his pistol pushing the back of my neck. The man sitting in the backseat told me to stay calm and drive slowly. The man sitting next to me grabbed my phone, stuffed it in his pocket then rummaged through the glove compartment, taking all I had, 50,000L.L ($33).”

Abu Ali, 66, like many elderly Lebanese, has no social security or retirement savings, and rents a taxi at 45,000 L.L. ($30) per day to drive for a living.

Abu Ali did not bother reporting to the police station. “It’s a waste of time” he said. “What will the police do for me? When did they ever serve ordinary people? They always protect the big ones, the rich and the political leaders.”

Scowling, he vented his resentment towards the latest security procedures: “Every time extra security procedures are implemented they [the police] direct it at us, on the weakest, taxi drivers, looking for the smallest excuse to write a fine I can’t pay.”

Earlier this year Ziad, 25, had just finished his shift at the café where he works in Beirut. It was late at night and he was heading to the southern city of Sidon. He took a minivan from Cola bus station and while on the highway to Sidon, he was mugged at gunpoint by the van driver and another passenger, who turned out to be the driver’s partner. Infuriated by the incident and devastated at losing half of his salary and his $700 Smartphone bought on credit, he found his way to the closest police station.

“God will compensate you. Just consider yourself lucky they didn’t hurt you,” the officer on duty told him.

To Ziad’s surprise, the police officers tried to shake him off when Ziad insisted on filing a report. “The police officer started raising his voice and asked me if I was serious. He asked me ‘do you want to make us work at this late hour?’” In the end they made him wait 4 hours until they returned from their patrol at 4am before he was able to file a report.

Today Beirut resembles the Beirut of post civil war years, where the political elite – surrounded by their convoys of personal bodyguards – drive around with guns pointing out their windows, while their residences have now become fortresses of security. Policemen, under pressure to make arrests, are becoming more arbitrary in their stop and searches, increasing the level of insecurity amongst residents.

Take for example the widely reported story of a local musician, Hussein Sharafeddin, also known as Double A the Preacherman, was detained and beaten by the police in Beirut’s southern suburbs after being suspected of being a terrorist because of his beard and alternative clothing style. His detention and subsequently quick release only came about because his story went viral on social media and news outlets. Yet, many unheard stories of discrimination continue to take place on checkpoints and on streets of Beirut on a daily basis.

Women bearing the brunt

Police discrimination and sexism toward women is also a common occurrence. Last month two women in their 20s, Mariam and Joumana, were chased near the Ain el-Mraisi area, by “a man in his thirties holding his penis in his hand while chasing after us.” Both girls were traumatized by the incident and as a result they phoned the 112 emergency number, only to be told to avoid their attacker and try to not be provocative.

Both girls were outraged by this indifference to their situation. “When we insisted the police come to the place where we were harassed the operator (a man) started flirting with us, telling us he would never treat us this way.”

When another woman had her car stolen, she was so unnerved by the police officers behaviour towards her, she left and asked her father to deal with it.

“They were asking why I was still single, commenting on my looks, and staring at me in a way which made me really uncomfortable,” she said, wishing to remain anonymous. “They were being sleazy and unhelpful.”

According to a Human Rights Watch report: “Women face discrimination under personal status laws, and vulnerable groups report being mistreated or tortured by security force members during arrest and in custody.” Despite the increased security presence and heavy deployment on streets, harassment against women continues to rise.

Another case depicting neglect and inefficiency of the security forces is that of Samira, 52, who went missing from her home in Beirut’s eastern suburb of Sid al-Bouchrieh. When the police found her under a bridge with her legs broken and bruises on her face, instead of taking her to the hospital, they arrested her and took her to the police station, where she died a few hours later.

Recently, Lebanon witnessed the birth of a new government. Like previous governments, they have tried to put on a new face that always begins with a show of power, focusing on “sovereignty” and “security.”

Yet in reality, the extra security measures have resulted in more inconvenience with little to no perceived impact on our personal security. More checkpoints means more traffic jams. Police and military on the streets arbitrarily stopping people at whim creates more bitterness and distrust among anxious citizens.

These politicians have made no attempt to identify and address the sources of societal dysfunction and instability, while at the same time expending a great deal of energy dodging the responsibility to actually governing the country by blaming our current woes on Syrian refugees, a people currently so disenfranchised that they lack the voice to cry “scapegoat!”

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