Mona Fawaz remembers when traffic lights were first installed in Beirut several years after the civil war ended.
It was the late 1990s. The gutted downtown area of Lebanon’s capital, a front line throughout the brutal 15-year conflict, was being rebuilt in grand fashion. Prosperity – or at least a sense of normality – felt within reach. Everyone wanted to move forward.
But the chaos of the war remained ingrained in the way people drove.
Traffic was horrendous, a fast-paced free-for-all on the freeways that turned to gridlock in narrow city streets and a mess of clamouring metal at intersections.
It was overwhelming for 26-year-old Fawaz, back in Beirut on a break from studying in the United States where she had become accustomed to the simple guidance of green, red and amber.
When the lights first came up, many Lebanese were slow to adjust. Fawaz “felt like an activist” when she stopped at red, and would intentionally block the path of impatient motorists who tried to manoeuvre through.
“It was dangerous – I remember almost getting killed when I drove through a green light without thinking. This guy jumped out of his car and was screaming at me. I told him the light was green. He looked at me like I was from the moon,” said Fawaz, now a professor of urban studies and planning at the American University of Beirut.
‘Sense of certainty’
For a long time, Fawaz says, traffic lights were one of the few examples of a successful policy in the city. Basic? Yes. But effective at organising the streets and “creating a sense of certainty that had been lost during the war”, according to Jad Baaklini, a Lebanese commuters’ rights activist who also remembers when the stoplights returned.
Today, in a sign of growing uncertainty as Lebanon slides into a dramatic socioeconomic collapse, most of those traffic lights have abruptly stopped working. About three-quarters of the stoplights in the city have failed in the past couple of weeks, leaving motorists to navigate the streets of their own accord.
The reasons for their sudden downfall reflect the political deadlock, mismanagement and alleged corruption that have characterised post-war life in Lebanon and have brought the country to its knees.
Funds ‘squandered,’ funds lost
Keeping traffic signals running in a country with chronic power cuts requires round-the-clock maintenance, which was outsourced by the Traffic and Vehicles Management Authority (TVMA) to a private company.
The maintenance contract was funded by proceeds from parking meters that were installed across the capital in the late 2000s, in a World-Bank funded project tendered to a private company via the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR).
The CDR is an opaque body whose president and vice-president are Nabil al-Jisr, a close associate of former prime minister Saad Hariri, and Yasser Berri, the brother of Lebanon’s parliament speaker Nabih Berri.