As Lebanon unravels, Beirut neighborhood takes security into its own hands

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s ongoing economic, political and social demise has paralyzed much of the state infrastructure and has brought poverty levels to numbers unseen since the country’s 1975-90 civil war.

The decline is forcing residents to take security into their own hands, with neighborhood groups emerging to fill in where state security has lapsed.

“Achrafieh2020,” a nongovernmental organization established last year to reinvent the area in central Beirut as a “breathable, welcoming and friendly neighborhood,” launched this month a neighborhood watch with a walking patrol that looks for anything out of the ordinary or suspicious, especially in the streets.

Achrafieh is an area in eastern Beirut that is characterized by residential and commercial buildings along with cafes and major arterial roads.

“The neighborhood watch consists of a network of 120 young people from Achrafieh who act as guardian angels of the residents from 6 pm to 6 am, in full coordination and cooperation with the Lebanese security forces,” head of the group Akram Nehme told Al- monitors,

“We plan to continue this initiative until we feel that the state can do its job properly and operate as it used to be before the crisis,” Nehme said.

The project is divided into three phases to cover the entirety of Achrafieh in a period of 100 days. When first launched, it was planned for a period of 100 days to cover the festive season, but the NGO decided to carry on with the watch for as long as possible, as they are getting great feedback from the residents, business owners and municipality.

The first phase includes the neighborhoods of Sodeco, Tabaris, Furn El Hayek, Haimari and Sagesse. The second phase includes Sioufi, and the third phase is the area of ​​Geitawi. The areas were divided into phases based on priority in terms of which areas need the most patrolling and extra security. They will begin with the second and third phases based on the number of watchmen and the funding received. They don’t have a specific date.

Those participating in the neighborhood watch maintain security in the streets and watch over properties while helping the police. They can report any suspicious activity, whether it involves vehicles or persons, and residents can make complaints via a 24-hour call center. The watchmen are equipped with flashlights and batons, without any other weapons.

A member of the police in Beirut’s municipality who wished to remain anonymous told Al-Monitor, “We really need this initiative in such times where robbery and theft are becoming more frequent, driven by desperation and poverty and dark streets where thieves are also taking advantage of the lack of CCTVs and lighting on the streets.”

He added, “We are still operating despite the harsh conditions; many members (of the police force) have left the job, and many are having to take on double jobs to overcome the financial hardships.”

“Our resources have dwindled and our demands are not met. We are struggling to perform our duties properly with no basic needs in place, such as lack of fuel, lack of heating in the police centers, and most prominently our shrinking salaries that are not even enough to secure transport to work,” he said.

The police force itself faces multiple challenges — mainly a tight budget, transport issues, and fuel costs that lead to a lack of patrolling in areas and slow responses.

Recently a statement was issued by Caretaker Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi on the situation of security forces and their anticipation of potential chaos. For example, he said in an interview with Sharq al-Awsat, “We are working with the security and military leaders to secure the security forces’ requirements, including fuel and medicine, and adjusting salaries despite the difficulties.”

The NGO is funded by residents and the Lebanese diaspora and has trained those in the neighborhood watch through a contracted company, which in this case is the Lebanese security company AMN. The watchmen are divided into teams of six to eight under the supervision of an AMN employee. While on patrol, they are accompanied by members of the company for extra professionalism, and they get free transport to work and $200 per month.

Nehme said they coordinate with Lebanese security forces that are short on manpower — for example, the Lebanese Internal Security Forces — and they reject comments on the initiative echoing the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War where militia-operated patrols and checkpoints were common. In an interview with Reuters, the mayor of Beirut expressed concern that the neighborhood watch could prompt others to follow suit and spark clashes between groups or even between neighborhoods.

Lebanon’s security forces were hit hard by the currency collapse, which slashed the value of their wages, like other state services, and the neighborhood watch initiative is filling the gap to make residents feel safer. Watchmen earn between $80 and $120, depending on their position, but the basic monthly salary used to be $800.

Carrol Baddour, a 28-year-old resident in Achrafieh, told Al-Monitor that the group makes her feel safer returning home at night.

“I feel safer as a woman returning home when it is dark, especially since I have been hearing about harassment and street robbery. So I hope such initiatives take place all over the city to provide a safer environment for everyone,” Baddour added.

Hady Tahtah, the manager in charge of training those patrolling in the neighborhood watch, told Al-Monitor, said the feedback has been enormously positive.

“Business owners are able to operate for longer hours, which was never the case before. And the watchmen have been doing very well in following the code of conduct put in place by the security company and are even getting paid $200 per month for the job,” Tahtah said.

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