North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

After nine months of waiting, Lebanon has neither a government nor accountability

As Saad Hariri steps down, anger is still growing at a political class that has led the country into an ever deeper financial crisis. But how can anger be harnessed into political change?

Walid el Houri
15 July 2021, 12.00am
Lebanese soldiers push back relatives of the victims of the 4th of August massive explosion at Beirut's port, during a protest near the house of Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri
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Marwan Namaani/dpa/Alamy Stock Photos. All rights reserved

After almost nine months of bickering among Lebanon’s ruling parties over shares in the government while the country’s economy and the lives of its inhabitants were going into ruin, Lebanon's prime minister designate Saad Hariri has declared his decision to step down having failed to form a new government.

Saad is the son of the former prime minister and billionaire, Rafic Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, and who was the architect of the country's catastrophic economic and financial system.

This would have been Saad’s third tenure as prime minister: he resigned under pressure from mass protests in 2019, and has failed in his post twice already.

Saad has also failed at the helm of the private companies he inherited from his late father. Like the banks who are withholding the money of countless people in Lebanon, Saad had previously failed to pay his employees what they were owed. But he is hardly the only incompetent leader among parties that have been ruling the country and overseeing the plundering of its wealth for decades.

Explosions

Last week, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, announced the imminent “social explosion” of the country to ambassadors from various nations. With a stern voice, he begged “kings and princes, presidents and leaders” of other countries to give Lebanon money so that said catastrophe is averted. The man at the top of the country’s executive power, however, failed to tell the ambassadors, and his own people, how exactly it is that he will use the potential donations to avert the anticipated explosion.

One actual explosion happened almost a year ago, when tons of ammonium nitrate carelessly stored in the Beirut port detonated and destroyed large parts of the Lebanese capital, killing hundreds, injuring thousands. The families of those killed, along with the rest of the population, have been calling for answers, justice and accountability. The only answer from Parliament and the Ministry of Interior has been to refuse to lift the immunity protecting officials called in for questioning by the investigating judge. Instead, the families were attacked by the army and internal security as they protested in front of the interior minister’s house, and outside the house of the speaker of parliament.

The victims’ loved ones may not get their answers. But we all know that the explosion in the port was a symptom of a deeper disaster. There is no war in Lebanon. The country is not under siege, nor has it suffered a natural disaster. Nonetheless, it is facing total collapse.

As the state falls ever deeper into financial crisis, there has not been even an attempt to come up with a plan, even a bad plan that one could criticize. Political parties bicker over what little remains, and have but one strategy: beg.

The crisis is left to manage itself. In reality, it is left to be managed by elites controlling all the vital sectors of the economy, banks that have for decades profited from the dysfunctional system, and a governor of a central bank who is under investigation for corruption in several countries and accused by the government of withholding data, mismanagement, and of having a lot of responsibility for the policies that led to the present economic catastrophe.

But crisis always produces its own profiteers, and in Lebanon, there is a long history of war profiteers.

Any real solution requires real accountability, which inevitably means the end of the political careers of those who have been in power since the end of the country’s civil war

In his book ‘Open Veins of Latin America’, Eduardo Galeano wrote about the continent’s “pimps of misery” who accumulate billions in their foreign bank accounts at the expense of the rest of the population, who dwell in grief.

“Harnessed as they have always been to the constellation of imperialist power, our ruling classes have no interest whatsoever in determining whether patriotism might not prove more profitable than treason, and whether begging is really the only formula for international politics,” Galeano writes. “Sovereignty is mortgaged because ‘there is no other way’. The oligarchies’ cynical alibis confuse the impotence of a social class with the presumed empty destiny of their countries.”

How fitting is this description to Lebanon's condition today, a country that, unlike most Latin American states, has few resources save for its geopolitical value and the cheap lives of its population. It is a country whose corrupt rulers are mostly former warlords who don’t seem to have any national ambition, but are driven only by their personal interests and the dictates of their foreign patrons.

Two years of crisis

Since the summer of 2019, Lebanon has been sliding into a severe financial and political crisis. Where you needed 1,500 Lebanese pounds to buy one US dollar two years ago, now, it’ll cost you more than 20,000. But as opposed to previous moments of economic and financial crisis in the country’s recent history, no rich Arab or foreign country is willing to bail out this failed state.

This time the cronies in power are left to fend for themselves, but as incompetent as they are corrupt and irresponsible, they find themselves incapable and unwilling to even attempt to rule, let alone to try to propose real plans.

Any real solution requires real accountability, which inevitably means the end of the political careers of those who have been in power since the end of the country’s civil war (1975-1990) and who led the country to its current state. Almost two years into the severe financial crisis, and those same people in power continue to blame one another while failing to offer either accountability, transparency or solutions.

Instead, leaders boast empty slogans about fighting the corruption that they are all accused of, accountability that they are themselves preventing, and accuse one another of being obstacles to the reforms they are all blocking.

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Policeman attacks families and relatives of victims of the 4 August Beirut explosion outside the home of caretaker interior minister Mohammad Fahmi during a protest demanding to lift immunity for senior politicians and security chiefs | Marwan Naamani/dpa/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The real plan is simply to keep stoking sectarian divisions, in order to keep the divided population docile, scared and dependent on sectarian parties. And meanwhile, those who have the right kind of influence continue to smuggle their wealth abroad, while those who don’t, have their deposits held hostage by the banks in Lebanon, unable to withdraw but some fractions determined at random by the banks and a government which has already resigned, but failed to leave.

No alternatives

Lebanon is not at war. It is not under siege, but in the space of two years, the minimum wage has gone from around $450 to under $40. According to a recent report by UNICEF, 77% of households don’t have enough food or enough money to buy food. For Syrian households in Lebanon, the figure is 99%. According to the same report, one in five households does not have enough drinking water.

For a country that produces very little of its basic needs, and has one of the most import-heavy economies in the world, the decrease in value of the currency coincides with an alarming increase in the prices of almost everything. The country's productive sectors have been systematically destroyed since the end of the civil war, with an economic plan built around consumerism, tourism, real estate speculation and banking.

There are ways out. But they are all faced with the rigidity of a violent and powerful ruling class that controls all aspects of the economy, protected by militias and most of all holding people hostage to sectarianism and networks of clientelism.

All possible solutions require the removal of the whole political class, but this is an impossible feat when there is no viable alternative and when elections are neither free nor just, and where a large part of the population is still dependent on or loyal to its corrupt leaders.

Seeing my family, loved ones, and others descend into poverty, shortage, and misery, is painful, especially mixed with a feeling of powerlessness – and guilt

Visiting a home, changed

Writing about the ordeals of one's country is not easy when one is no longer living there. I grapple with survivor guilt, and acknowledge my privilege of being one of the ‘lucky ones’ who left.

On a trip home last month after too long away locked down in Berlin, I was a visitor witnessing the collapse, while having the option to leave. Seeing my family, loved ones, and others descend into poverty, shortage, and misery, is painful, especially mixed with a feeling of powerlessness – and guilt.

For people from my generation who grew up during the country’s civil war (1975-1990), it feels familiar. But it is also enraging to see our parents who survived and struggled to live and give us a chance at life throughout the war and its aftermath, having to suffer this all over again, this time in their old age, with far less energy, more bitterness, and often on their own.

They lived amidst war, they had us during war, they raised us and protected us in war. And now, they have to go through the same thing again, in their old age, seeing their children leave or suffer. And we who leave, must live with our guilt about leaving, and the feelings of incapacity at the little we can do for them to have a life that is more than survival, loneliness, humiliation and broken hearts.

How can one work, think, hope, and live when daily life is a series of logistics, anxieties and frustrations?

Even for those young enough to have a future and the energy to deal with the daily struggles, how can one work, think, hope, and live when daily life is a series of logistics, anxieties and frustrations? Waiting for hours to get a fraction of your money at the bank, hours for a ration of gas, only two hours of electricity a day, and an ever increasing generator bill if you are lucky enough to afford one in the first place, no internet, no medicine, no water, no jobs, but escalating violence and insecurity, and an ever declining currency that has fallen to less than a tenth of its value and is going ever lower…

It’s literally hard to breathe in Lebanon. With less than two hours of electricity a day, private generators keep the lights on for those who can afford them. They run on diesel and fill the air with thick fumes. Last week, COVID vaccinations had to be suspended for lack of electricity and internet in the vaccination centers. The human cost of the collapse gets worse: power cuts, medicine shortages and fuel shortages are literally killing people. There are regular media reports about fights breaking out at gas stations, people pulling out knives, sticks or even guns to secure a gallon of gas. And it is only the beginning.

Time for a revolution

Lebanon is indeed facing total collapse, but it is not donations from foreign powers that it needs, especially when these are most likely to end up in the coffers of the same corrupt elite that bled the economy, to help them keep their positions.

Meanwhile, the protest movement that erupted in October 2019 and was vital in shaking the stagnation of the regime, is faced not only with the ruthless resistance of the ruling class, but also with its own shortcomings in organizing viable alternatives, perhaps for no fault of their own. Nonetheless it is there.

For someone who is going back to safety and stability, it is not my place to judge. To work out political alternatives while living in such a situation is no easy feat. For most people in the country, survival is the priority at the moment, and the political class knows full well that when people are too busy surviving, they are unlikely to have the energy to rise up against them. But there is a thin line between survival and having nothing left to lose.

Anger is a political emotion. The question is, how can it be harnessed into a project?

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