Lebanon sinks under the weight of corruption and a ruling class in denial

Off the Lebanese coast, about 60 kilometers north of Beirut, a 104-meter (340-foot) battleship stands upright, with its bow and some 30 meters long immersed in the mud. The seabed is 140 meters deep, but you can even scuba dive in the back if you are a technical diver. The ship is a bit like Lebanon, for reasons I will explain later.

Five years ago, Lebanon still looked like a middle class country with a lot of poor people. Now it looks like a very poor country with a few rich people. If you want the numbers, the proportion of people living below the official poverty line has dropped from 30% two years ago to 80% today.

Indeed, even the civil war of 1975-1990 did less damage to the economy, although it destroyed several hundred thousand lives and much of the country’s infrastructure. “Even during the civil war there was money and no one was starving,” as one Beirut bus driver put it.

The roots of the current catastrophe are in this war. This has returned the Lebanese to the relative safety of their own sectarian, Christian, Sunni Muslim, and Shia Muslim communities, and warlords have emerged to protect these communities.

By the end of the war in 1990, they formed the new political and financial elite, with militias well paid to impose their will on their own communities – and they did not return to their daily jobs. They have become a corrupt and nepotist club whose members still cooperate to appropriate the riches of the Lebanese state, even if they hate each other.

This system worked smoothly in the 1990s and 2000s, but it was visibly falling apart in the 2010s. There simply was not enough money to be distributed among the elites (politely known as the “political class”). “). Lebanon produces almost nothing, not even enough food for its own people, and its imports are paid for with remittances, foreign aid and loans.

Not having enough money to support their huge patronage networks, the elites began to tax the poorest part of the population more heavily, and in 2019 something broke. Suddenly the streets of Beirut were full of protesters demanding fundamental change.

With Lebanon being a former French colony, French President Emmanuel Macron came by plane and offered the Lebanese government $ 18 billion in return for structural reforms that would eliminate corruption at the heart of government. But the elites who take advantage of this system are the government, in practice, so of course they said no, thank you.

The demonstrations continued for almost a year, as there were now long daily power cuts. Impoverished families struggled to get enough food – annual inflation is now 138% – and malnutrition was rampant.

Then came the massive explosion in the Beirut port district last year. This has involved the International Monetary Fund, offering Lebanon huge loans if the corrupt system is reformed, but the government is likely to refuse it. If stubborn selfishness were an Olympic event, the Lebanese political class would win gold.

He moves closer to the edge. Last Thursday, Hezbollah staged a mass protest in Beirut, demanding the impeachment of the judge presiding over the investigation into the person responsible for importing the 2,750 tons of fertilizer that caused the explosion at the port last year. . (Hezbollah is one of the main candidates to blame.)

When the march entered a Christian quarter, at least one sniper opened up on it. Seven Shiites died and the mob (some of whom were armed) attempted to storm Christian neighborhoods in retaliation. And yet the Lebanese political class refuses to bow.

So why does this political class resemble the captain of HMS Victoria, the late battleship that took a nosedive in 1893? Because the officer commanding the British Mediterranean Fleet, Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon, was one of the most stubborn men in history.

He ordered a very complex maneuver in which two parallel lines of battleships would make simultaneous U-turns TOWARD each other, eventually going in the opposite direction but with the parallel lines much closer to each other. And he got the wrong distance.

Everyone on deck could see that the ships were actually going to collide, and several of them told Tryon about it, but he ignored their advice. The ship that was about to strike him also questioned his orders, but he persevered. So they collided, and the admiral sank with his ship.

Think of the Lebanese political class as Admiral Tryon and the country as HMS Lebanon. Technical divers only.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “The Shortest History of War”.

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