Once envied by the Arab world, Lebanon has become a hopeless case with no end in sight. Its political system is deadlocked, as its economy perishes with each passing day, forcing its leaders to advocate for emergency foreign aid to stay afloat, including food for its starving army.
But the Lebanese, a shrewd people better known for their hummus than for their humility, have until recently denied the scale of the worsening crisis.
They are an industrious, astute and entrepreneurial group who have weathered two major crises in the past decades and are confident of their next comeback.
But that could turn out to be unlucky for the third time.
Known for buying things they don’t need with money they don’t need to impress people they don’t know, the Lebanese “bon vivant” have become so impoverished and so isolated. that there are few goods to buy, fewer people to impress, and little hard currency to borrow.
They are now living the “shawarma paradox”: the national sandwich which cost 5,000 Lebanese pounds or $ 2 a few years ago is now priced at 20,000 pounds or less than a dollar.
But the Lebanese spirit endures, as well as the well-known Lebanese self-mockery, which increasingly dominates Lebanese social media.
As a joke says: Make sure you say your prayers, or you’ll go through hell twice, in Lebanon and the afterlife. Another highlights the three choices available to the Lebanese during the crisis: go to Hariri hospital, go through Hariri airport or catch up with (the late Prime Minister) Rafiq Hariri in person.
Indeed, Lebanon is a living and breathing paradox. It is a land of opposites; sectarianism and secularism, and immense wealth and abject poverty, ultra-liberals and extreme conservatives. It is also famous for its brightest intellectuals and silliest artists.
The country’s contradictions are woven into the national fabric. Although largely denominational, the paradoxical characteristics of Lebanon transcend its religious affiliations.
It is painful to see how these people – known as the most pragmatic and productive in the region – have turned in a totally unrealistic and counterproductive way towards their own country.
But, of course, the “Lebanese paradox” can be a burden but can also be an asset.
It can be pluralistic, inspiring diversity and competition. And it can be polarizing, sowing hatred and infighting, as it does today, crippling its political system and ruining the economy.
Historically, when the Lebanese first felt Lebanese and were above all loyal to Lebanon, not to this or that sect (whether Sunni, Shiite, Maronite, Druze, etc.), their diversity became an asset. . But when they put the sect above the homeland, their plurality turned into hostility and competition – conflict.
In 1975, the country’s sectarian leaders dragged the Lebanese into a devastating civil war, pitting neighbor against neighbor, to advance their own narrow interests. And soon after the war ended in 1990, they continued to divide Lebanon among themselves by placing sectarian interests above national interests, and have since squandered its potential for prosperity by plundering its wealth.
Sadly, it must be said, sectarian leaders would not have succeeded if they had not benefited from a large audience within their “communities”, albeit through manipulation and division, resulting in people feel more secure as members of a sect rather than as citizens of the republic. .
By placing themselves squarely between the State and its citizens, between the government and the governed, sectarian leaders have made themselves indispensable to the management of the affairs of the State. But their nepotism, corruption and utter incompetence shattered the country.
This became clear as regional upheavals and the global pandemic wreaked havoc in Lebanon, coupled with a devastating explosion that rocked the capital last summer.
Having suffered decades from Israeli wars and occupation, over the past 10 years the small country has also had to bear the brunt of the war in Syria. Lebanese Hezbollah joined the conflict wholeheartedly alongside the al-Assad regime and it came at a terrible humanitarian cost, as around 1.5 million Syrian refugees entered Lebanon.
In the process, Beirut has lost much of its prestige and appeal as an economic, cultural, tourism and media hub over the past decade, falling behind other major cities like Dubai, Doha and Amman.
With fewer resources, fewer remittances, and fewer regional opportunities at their disposal, the cynical and entrepreneurial elites turned in on themselves, and with unparalleled cunning, they devoured state assets and of society, including the savings of countless Lebanese families.
The worse the situation got, the more viciously these corrupt elites clung to their power. They refused to give up, despite nine months of political stalemate, protests and economic collapse.
Today the country is crumbling thanks to two jaded and cynical leaders at the head of state and its parliament, coupled with an incompetent man-boy inside and outside the prime minister and a broker in power hidden in his bunker. – the loyalties of the latter located outside the country.
Their political mechanization, which is too complicated to be deciphered by outsiders, has taken deep root, despite popular demand to end the sectarian system they defend.
But optimists, as delusional as they are sometimes, don’t give up.
Some believe that a government of technocrats is doomed to break the current impasse and better manage the affairs of state. But technocrats cannot solve economic problems without political will on the part of the country’s political parties and sectarian leaders.
Others hope that direct international aid and intervention could help the country overcome its economic crisis and provide the time and oversight needed for political reform. They fail to see how poorer countries also compete for the same international aid, which, moreover, is declining year after year.
The latest international conference for Lebanon raised less than $ 300 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the country’s public debt of $ 93 billion, which, compared to GDP, is the highest in the world. Next month’s second donors’ conference will prove neither more promising nor less insistent on sweeping reform and internationally supervised elections, which the effective leadership of the country continues to resist.
And then some suppose that the Lebanese expatriates, who are more numerous and more prosperous than the citizens residing in the country, could in the long term play a major role in the revival of the economy of the country and in the improvement of its governance.
But that’s too optimistic for a country in free fall. Getting expats to invest, let alone return, will require more than a few promises of reform.
And then there are the pessimists, as gloomy as they are sometimes.
Some believe that sectarian leaders are allowing the situation to deteriorate further in order to convince their followers to rally behind them before they lose their prestige and influence.
They believe that the mindset that dragged the country into civil war in 1975 continues to thrive in the country’s current sectarian system.
In fact, skeptics fear that as the economy implodes and the situation gets out of hand, violent conflict will ensue.
And last but not least, there are those, let’s call them “pessimi-optimists”, who are hoping for a big deal between regional and Western powers following the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal; one that includes a political settlement in Lebanon, paving the way for greater regional interest and investment, especially Saudi and Gulf.
If this far-fetched market can calm the situation in the short term, it will only push back the implosion, while consolidating everything that is historically wrong with Lebanon.
Therefore, the way forward cannot be the way back.
In fact, there is no viable alternative for a radical Lebanese solution to Lebanon’s debilitating debacle.
It involves people on the streets and civil society activists transforming their popular and civic power into political power by organizing non-denominational political parties and helping to democratically change the despicable sectarian system that is at the center of the country’s woes, in favor of a true Republic of Lebanon.
It can be difficult and can take a long time to accomplish, but there are no shortcuts or easy magic solutions to building a democracy that works.
Even then, even after the start of democracy and reforms, there is no guarantee that Lebanon will shed its sectarianism or become prosperous, or that Beirut will regain its dynamism and mystique in light of the worsening regional crises. and scathing cosmopolitan competition.
But then again, crises are great opportunities for real change. And this dramatic Lebanese crisis presents a rare opportunity for Democrats to incite the countless angry and disgruntled Lebanese to change course and unite for the country they love.
I may not be very optimistic, but I still have hope for the Lebanese and for Lebanon.