2012 volume 30(4) pages 655 – 674
doi:10.1068/d11410

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Fregonese S, 2012, "Beyond the ‘weak state’: hybrid sovereignties in Beirut" Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30(4) 655 – 674

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Beyond the ‘weak state’: hybrid sovereignties in Beirut

Sara Fregonese

Abstract. Depictions of Lebanon in international politics have historically represented it as a ‘weak state’ whose domestic sovereignty is eroded by nonstate actors viewed as anomalies to extirpate. The War on Terror has been no exception. Since at least 2002 international efforts have aimed at reinforcing Lebanon’s ‘weak’ domestic sovereignty against ‘extremist elements’. These approaches adopt a classic understanding of sovereignty as the achievable, exclusive, and measurable control by a state over a bounded territory. Such an understanding is misleading and even obstructive of peace for Lebanon. The accepted view of Lebanon as a ‘weak state’ suffering from chronic conflict and the myth of its capital Beirut as cyclically destroyed and reconstructed actually normalise imaginative geographies that ultimately impact on international action. Through the concept of ‘hybrid sovereignties’, this article goes beyond traditional views of legitimate state power and irregular nonstate ‘dissidence’ as dwelling in distinct legitimacy categories. Engaging theoretically with epistemologies of hybridity, and relying empirically on official foreign policy statements, archive material, and interviews conducted in Beirut between 2005 and 2010, the article considers Lebanese sovereignty as resulting from complex hybridisations between state and nonstate actors. Firstly, I review scholarly approaches to sovereignty and engage with the notion of hybridity to set a basis for discussing Lebanon’s sovereignty beyond the ‘weak state’ discourse. Secondly, I show that ‘weak state’ approaches to Lebanon fail to account for differential views of sovereignty and weakness from inside the Lebanese political system. Thirdly, I use the notion of hybrid sovereignties to interpret political violence during two moments of intrastate conflict: the early phases of the civil war in 1975–76, and the May 2008 clashes in Beirut. In both moments, distinctions between accepted binaries, such as state/nonstate, legitimate/ illegitimate, security/insecurity, and domestic/foreign, blurred. Both state actors and nonstate militias performed sovereignty practices increasingly resembling each other, and coconstituting each other through Beirut’s physical environment. Exposing Lebanon’s hybrid sovereignties demystifies the self-fulfilling prophecy of the ‘weak state’ rhetoric and its deadly consequences for Lebanon.
Keywords: sovereignty, hybridity, urban geopolitics, Lebanon, Beirut

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