Lebanon is small. Colonial powers who drew borders around its mountain ranges and Mediterranean port towns gave it about half the land area of Wales. You can drive up and down in about three hours.
So driving for five hours, like I did recently, is unusual. Lebanon had not expanded: the journey should have taken less than two hours. But like other motorists that day, we were plunged into chaos caused by a shortage of fuel, which made little Lebanon slower to move and life more and more anxious.
As the country’s economic crisis deepened, we got used to the ravages of dark traffic lights and unlit streets. Today, endless queues to refuel cars have become a new feature of Lebanese roads, with raw nerves, fights and intermittent shootings. “I’ve already been waiting for an hour and a half!” a tall Beirut motorist shouted at passers-by. I had timed his car about 75 minutes earlier and understood why he was screaming: he had barely moved 50 meters.
Low-paid gas station workers, often migrants, are burnt with the rage of frustrated drivers. A fuel company manager told me that 25 to 30 percent of his workforce had quit, having decided that a monthly salary equivalent to $ 76 was not worth the verbal and physical abuse.
Nowadays, drivers allow a minimum hour to refuel. But because they can be turned away empty-handed, motorists have resorted to extreme tactics: a taxi driver said he was lining up as early as 4 am for a train station that opened at 7:30 am; a friend drives 20 km to a pump where an acquaintance fills up. To survive a failed state, it helps to be well connected, extremely patient, or wealthy: the wealthier may pay extra for fuel delivery or send drivers.
As he pleaded with foreign countries for money last week, Acting Prime Minister Hassan Diab listed “car queues” alongside other daily indignities, such as drug shortages and baby milk. Diab argued that conditioning aid on reforms threatened Lebanon’s survival. His audience was unfriendly. For months, foreign leaders blamed Beirut for wasting time – the Lebanese waited in vain for 11 months for politicians to bicker to form a new government.
The fuel crisis stems from the fact that the Lebanese currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value in less than two years and its commercial banks no longer provide companies with hard currency for purchases abroad. Lebanon is dependent on imports, so the currency crash caused runaway inflation. To stop soaring fuel prices, the central bank subsidized foreign exchange operations, using its dollar reserves. But since a banking crisis erupted in October 2019, these reserves having halved. In recent weeks, the interim government has started to raise gas prices, a prelude to the lifting of costly subsidies.
But as the fuel is still subsidized, much of it is smuggled into neighboring Syria, which also suffers from shortages. Pump owners are accumulating more, in the hope of profiting from the rising prices. Even more is stuck on tankers, waiting for central bank dollars to be backed up before they can be unloaded.
The acting energy minister encouraged the Lebanese to give up cars and take public transport. But the minibuses are private and the state pays the employees of the railway administration, but there are no trains.
Our long journey began with the search for gasoline in the pretty port town of Byblos. Outside of town, a station with a (quick) 15 minute wait half-filled our tank – most pumps are rationing the supply.
Heading north, we passed kilometers of waiting cars. Then roadblocks erected by demonstrators diverted us. An hour late, we crawled into Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli. Confused by more roadblocks, we approached a line of gasoline blocking the road. A man rushed towards us shouting, “There has been a shooting! The cars made squeaky turns and we ended up where we first turned away.
A few hours later in the mountainous Akkar, our destination, we found that the gas stations were closed. We bought fuel from a young man who had obtained plastic gallon cans of gasoline (I didn’t ask how). In the afternoon, the roadblocks and fuel lines remained. Don’t ask me how long the return trip was.