Traffic Control and State Power in Beirut, Lebanon
At first thought, the subject of traffic, in a place like Beirut, would seem very far afield from more urgent political matters. After all, how important could the issue of traffic be in a nation beset by the anticipation and appearance of conflict? In Beirut, a city where tensions between members of opposing political groups are inflamed by the war in neighboring Syria, spilling over into near daily street battles, why would traffic management figure at all?
Over twenty years ago, in her article “The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women,” Lila Abu-Lughod called for anthropologists to engage in an analytics of power that moved beyond locating resistance and instead used resistance as a diagnostic of power. The significance of this shift in perspective, Abu-Lughod observed, was that it encouraged an understanding of power concerned less with abstract theorization and more with ethnographic attention to how people, in specific situations, are caught up in intersecting and conflicting structures of power. Since the publication of Abu-Lughod’s article, anthropologists have drawn from a range of ethnographic contexts in the march toward developing social theories of power. Here, I revisit Abu-Lughod’s entreaty by considering the relevance of this diagnostic approach for a particular locus of my research on mobility in Beirut, Lebanon: encounters between traffic police and residents.
During my fieldwork in Beirut, in 2004–06 and summer 2010, I found that people talked about traffic all the time. They complained about the unruly drivers, but also about a system of traffic law enforcement that was ineffective and inadequate, with older residents expressing nostalgia for a time, before the civil war (1975–1990) when everything—including traffic control—worked, put simply, better. As I listened to Beirutis’ ready comments about traffic and its policing, often as a passenger in service (French pronunciation) collective taxis, I heard people express dissatisfaction with the state more broadly. As I looked further, by expanding the conversation about traffic control to include members of the traffic police along with young men belonging to the city’s most disenfranchised population, migrant laborers, I began to consider what the seemingly mundane realm of traffic control revealed about the nature of state.
“There is no system here,” Im Majdi, answered when I asked her why she drove in Kuwait, but refused to drive in Beirut. A middle aged woman whom I referred to, as is common practice in the Arab World, as the mother of her eldest son, Im Majdi returned to Lebanon in 1990 following the Iraqi invasion after having lived in Kuwait for nearly two decades. Hers was one of many comments about driving in Beirut that referenced an inefficient and disorderly state and the same sentiment expressed in the popularly used phrase “ma fi dowleh” [there is no state]. I heard this phrase in casual conversations riding in taxis, when someone interrupted me midway through the description of my research, and, even, in interactions with government employees, for example during a meeting with a staff person in an office of the Internal Security Forces (ISF). Sometimes, older residents would hark back to a time before the civil war when, they said, ‘there was a state’. There was even a special police brigade back in the 1960s, two passengers in a taxi told me, whose fierce public presence easily kept drivers in line. In this way, the common refrain about the so-called ‘chaotic’ nature of driving in Beirut was linked with an understanding of the state as ineffective, if not absent, in the management of traffic.
In my conversations with members of the traffic police, however, a different story emerged. Theirs was a story about the on-the-job challenges they faced in their effort to enforce the traffic law. “In a country where the whole country knows the whole country,” as one policeman put it or, where well-connected drivers have on the phone someone who can get them out of the ticket by the time the policeman reaches their window, as a board member of the traffic safety organization YASA once described to me, the work of the traffic police involves regular, and public, confrontations in their endeavor to apply the law. Two police officers, with a combined 25 years of experience in the field, whose job it is to supervise the mostly young and less experienced cadets, spoke about how a routine traffic stop becomes a more complicated scene of status jockeying that requires their intervention. “Some guys are afraid to pull someone over,” they and the director of the traffic police division told me, because they are worried about getting into the crosshairs of a VIP, or, similarly, an individual who can marshal the support and authority of a VIP. In short, the traffic police characterized themselves as impaired, or at least threatened, by the circuits of status and class that might be set off in encounters with residents.
Syrian fast food delivery drivers, who weave through the streets of Beirut on motorscooter, have a different experience. Holding the most marginal status in the Lebanese social hierarchy, they, along with other foreign migrant workers, routinely receive second-class treatment in a variety of everyday contexts, from shops and lobbies, to government offices and, encounters with police. These young men are regularly pulled over and detained by traffic police, cited for not wearing helmets or other minor infractions, and their vehicles are sometimes seized. At the patrols set up by the traffic police, delivery workers would hand over their drivers’ licenses for examination or wait while the condition of their vehicles was inspected. One driver in his late twenties who, after years of making deliveries for a fast food ‘snack’ restaurant now takes the telephone orders there, told me that the police sometimes ask for money in exchange for the release of the scooter or the waiving of a fine. The bribe might also be paid in food. “They stop you” he said, “and they say give me 10,000LL [just under $7 USD] or they’ll even say, which restaurant do you work for? I’m hungry, what do you have?” For the Syrian delivery drivers on motorscooter, encounters with the traffic police were fraught with vulnerability as the muscle of the state was effectively exerted.
In the context of the encounters between traffic police and residents in Beirut I have related, state power is conceived of and experienced as both ineffective, on the one hand, and rather nakedly effective, on the other. Residents, civilians and traffic police alike, are, as Abu-Lughod termed it “caught up in intersecting and conflicting structures of power” that show the state to be an institution made of people, rather than an abstract monolith. These are people enmeshed in relations of hierarchy in very everyday—from the banal to the bullying—ways.
Kristin V Monroe is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Her research concerns the politics of urban space and inequality. She is currently working on a book project that focuses on the role mobility practices play in the formation of civic culture in post-civil war Beirut, Lebanon.