On the Brink of Collapse: Lebanon’s New (Un)Normal

To leave or not to leave? This is the question Lebanese people are asking themselves nowadays, in a country that is facing an unprecedented multidimensional crisis in which the coronavirus emergency is the last one of importance. While the whole world is going through a pandemic, Lebanon also has to deal with a political, economic, financial, and social crisis that create an explosive mix.

In the evening of October 17th 2019, many Lebanese began to protest in the central areas of Beirut, like Martyrs Square and Riad el-Solh, against new taxes that the government was going to approve. That was only the last straw of an economic situation that started to deteriorate in 2018. The uprisings spread all over the country, inaugurating what is called “the October revolution”: people were asking for the downfall of the entire political system based in corruption and cronyism – the wasta – that contributed to the crystallization of the oligarchy in power. During those months, the Lebanese people coordinated through social media to share information about next steps and initiatives. Moreover, some of them created grassroots collectives like thawramap, a revolutionary group organized surprise protests outside politicians’ houses . The motto of the revolution was killon ya‘ni killon, “all of them means all of them”: no one can stay in power anymore.

However, after few months of protests, the structural economic problems of Lebanon – which is one of the most indebted countries in the world – emerged, and the country fell into a crisis worse than during the civil war (1975-1990). The government froze bank accounts and put restrictions on capital withdrawal, especially in dollars. In December 2019, it was already arduous to have dollars, and it was impossible to send money abroad, which caused dramatic repercussions for Lebanese students studying abroad. The spread of the coronavirus, besides the lockdown, imposed a temporary stop to the uprisings and aggravated the economic situation until the point that in March 2020, Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who took power after the resignation of Saad Hariri, officially declared default because of the impossibility to pay the $1.2 billion Eurobond. From that moment, the local currency started to lose its value arriving today at a loss of around 90%.

 

A country’s freefall

On August 4th 2020, 2.750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had arrived in the Beirut port seven years earlier and had remained in a warehouse, exploded, causing the death of around 220 people, over than 6000 injured, and 300.000 displaced. The blast – which has been one of the largest non-nuclear explosions globally to date – did not only devastate the port-area but also the nearby neighbourhoods like Kharantina and Bourj Hammoud – some of the poorest in Beirut. It caused damage to houses and buildings situated ten kilometres from the epicentre.

The explosion was a shock and a collective trauma that confirmed once more how Lebanon seems trapped in a cyclical history made of wars, bombings, explosions and killings that seems impossible to escape. Nadia Mourad, assistant professor at the American University of Beirut, gave a meaningful account of this sensation: Lebanese people used to describe themselves like a phoenix that always rises from its ashes. However, this mythological image, which could be a way to cope with the critical situations the country has faced, is becoming a damnation. The blast widened the rift between the people and the ruling class responsible for this carnage.

After August 4th, many Lebanese lost their faith in possible change due also to the rapid deterioration of the economic situation without any solution in sight. With the devaluation of the Lebanese lira that has reached around 90%, many people lost their savings. The minimum wage that before was estimated around $400 now has dropped to around $60. Unemployment has increased because the economic crisis and the pandemic pushed many people to close their activities and many foreign companies to leave the country. In this context, starvation is hitting around half of the population that lives below the poverty line. At the supermarkets and grocery stores, food prices are becoming more and more unaffordable for many Lebanese. Since Lebanon imports almost everything, in this moment there are low supplies of different products. This situation pushed many pharmacies to go on strike in March to protest against the shortage of medicines. Furthermore, many families cannot find or afford diapers and powdered milk for their babies, and at the supermarkets, fights among people over food are becoming a frequent thing.

Furthermore, fuel is becoming sparse, and many people no longer have the possibility of paying for generators to have electricity. At night, many  roads are in complete darkness, and the traffic lights have stopped working during the day, which makes car circulation in danger. In this situation, the coronavirus emergency with more than 500,000 new cases each day is only one crisis added to the others. Moreover, Lebanon is still without a government since Hassan Diab’s resignation after the blast. At the end of August 2020, Mustapha Adib, former Lebanese ambassador to Germany, was nominated Prime Minister to form a new government. However, after a period of negotiations, Adib resigned due to the impossibility to find an agreement on who would have led the key ministries, especially the finance one.  After Adib’s failure, in October 2020 Saad Hariri was re-nominated Prime Minister but has not been able, until now, to form a new government.

With the State falling apart, it is Lebanese associations and NGOs that are helping indigent people and families by providing food boxes. Many revolutionary groups themselves, one of the members of thawramap says, are turning into NGOs. For them, this is a short-term solution, and the risk is to displace energy and resources from the leading goal, which is the revolutionary process. However, they underline how it is now demanding to gather the same amount of people on short notice for protests, except for commemoration dates.

 

Existential choice

In this context, many people left the country, or they are thinking of leaving. For Lebanese people, to leave or not to leave has always been a perennial and cyclical dilemma. However, it seems that today the answer for many that have the means to do so is indeed “leaving”. Many of those who have foreign passports or job opportunities abroad have already left. Among them, there are many doctors. The Lebanese journalist and podcaster Médéa Azouri speaks about a “massive brain drain” of young and qualified persons. For them, in Lebanon, there is no possible future. Leaving, Azouri confirms, is one of the recurrent conversational topics among friends, besides the economic crisis, the dollar rate and the vaccine. Since the blast, she claims, people are living in a state of lethargy that she calls “the Lebanese (un)normality”, that is the acceptance of living in a way that is not normal, losing any belief in possible and successful change. Without blaming people for their disbelief in a real possibility to overthrow the system, she underlines that this lethargy is harmful to all of them because it is time to do something. “Only we can change the system”, she states. As Mourad points out, for some people “exile is the ultimate revolt” for them not to serve a corrupt system anymore. For others, going away from the country is imperative to give a future to their children. For many people, instead, leaving will remain only a dream.

 

Few steps to make Sisyphus happy

Citing Albert Camus’ version of the myth of Sisyphus, condemned by gods to perpetually rolling a stone up a mountain, Nadia Mourad underlines how Lebanese people seem condemned to the same destiny: rebuild their lives all over again. However, as Camus concludes his myth, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”. It is not a question of disguising this tragic fate and adhering to blind optimism. It is, instead, a matter of rebellion against this destructive destiny, to break the rules and take control. This is what many Lebanese revolutionary groups and political oppositional organizations are trying to do.

In an extensive interview on the Facebook page of a group of the Lebanese diaspora called ‎Meghterbin Mejtemiin (“the expatriates collective”), the Lebanese public policy consultant and activist Sara El-Yafi underlines how the battle for Lebanon is not only political but also ethical and moral. Lebanese people have to think of their past responsibility, and of what is coming next for them to not repeat the same mistakes the future. It is necessary to reconstruct the concepts of politics and justice to be able to picture a new Lebanon.

The solutions are complex, and time will be needed to make a change possible. However, as one thawramap representative underlines, the entire political class has lost any trust and legitimacy. It is not doing anything to stop this collapse and has not been able to submit a credible plan to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to receive financial assistance. Now the country needs liquidity in foreign currency because the reserves of the Central Bank are depleted. Nevertheless, the corruption of the political system and the isolation that Lebanon is facing is not helping find immediate solutions. The international community is interested in maintaining the country’s stability because collapse would have huge repercussions on the region and Europe. That is why, for El-Yafi, the opposition must consolidate for it to create a valid alternative to the class currently in power.

To this end, the different grassroots movements and groups need to organize and coordinate. According to Médéa Azouri, the Lebanese should mobilize in the streets and join the oppositional parties, like Minteshreen-Impact Lebanon, to which she belongs, or Nahwalwatan, a platform for political change and socio-economic renewal. They are organizing themselves for the next election that constitutionally should be held in May 2022, even if it still has yet to be confirmed. The goal is to consolidate an electoral machine that can effectively shake the electoral results.

In this regard, the role of the Lebanese diaspora is essential. El-Yafi has invited all the Lebanese of the diaspora to prepare themselves for the next election because their votes can change the political scenery. Like ‎Meghterbin Mejtemiin, many other diasporic groups are keeping the spotlight on Lebanon. As El-Yafi stresses, it is paramount that Lebanese people inside and outside continue to be curious and passionate about their country, engage in taking actions like voting. Azouri adds that it is essential to give space to the independent media not affiliated with political parties like Megaphone News that is doing an excellent job in helping make public debate flourish.

The future of Lebanon is uncertain, and the social and economic situation is more dramatic than expected. In a country that is waiting for justice and a new start, people have covered the concrete barriers alongside the port area destroyed by the blast with red paint and posters of politicians on which they have written in Arabic “he knew”. It seems that there are no more excuses. Civil society is mobilizing and the next elections, in Médéa Azouri’s words, “are the deadline for a large number of Lebanese involved. If things do not change, the country will be permanently dead”.

 

Beatrice Morlacchi is a Ph.D candidate at the American University of Beirut.

 

Cover Photo: Youths wave a Lebanese flag from atop a bridge during a protest against the dire economic and social conditions – Beirut, March 8, 2021 (Anawar Amro / AFP).


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