Nothing has changed and everything has changed. In Mar Mikhael, one of the neighborhoods in Beirut most damaged by the explosion last August, there were more signs of reconstruction than destruction when I visited last month. New glass cases were mounted; inside the pubs, furniture has been put in place for the reopening. Across the highway, the remains of the port’s 48-meter-high silos were charred and desolate.
The traffic congested the roads: it had resumed, I was told, because of the holidays. In the city center, most of the shops were still barricaded and the walls covered with curse words, there since the protests that began in October 2019. The scene repeated itself further west at the central bank, and in various other places. banks, some of which were now permanently closed.
Most of the days were beautifully clear and sunny. I spent the afternoons – before a new, stricter lockdown was imposed – in the expansive garden of an old house in Hamra, transformed into a new branch of a favorite cafe, where apparently everyone I knew also showed up, the former favorite having closed during the first wave of the Covid-19 crisis. It was a bubble, but even the bubble had cracked. Almost every friend I saw was considering leaving the country. They spoke about the indelible memories left by August 4 and the triggers that brought them back, like the roar of thunder or the sound of broken glass being swept.
The currency has collapsed and inflation is rampant. The savings of life were wiped out. Those who are paid in Lebanese lire, including my friends who teach in universities (public and private), barely earn enough to live on. For anyone with “fresh” dollars (that is, dollars that are not already in Lebanese banks, called “lollars”), on the other hand, which includes anyone working for an international organization, everything was suddenly very cheap. It was enough to get used to carrying stacks of local currency and following the three exchange rates: stores are formally bound by the official rate, but dollars can be traded on the black market for six times as much, and banks offer their own rate, somewhere in between. You also had to get used to the guilt of being rich in a country where half of the population now lives below the poverty line. I had never met so many beggars in Beirut in my life.
At night the city was strange. Many street lights were not on and a few traffic lights were not working. Even when they did, the cars would go through red lights sometimes anyway. There were a lot more flies and mosquitoes than in winter. Stray cats roamed and moaned loudly in the dark.
A new government has been promised for Christmas, but has yet to be formed. Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is the one whose government was overthrown by the October 2019 protests. The perceived horizon for change is so distant that hopes now lie with the political regime responsible for the country’s financial collapse , as well as the explosion of last August. Or, to put it more precisely, the hope is a bailout from the IMF, which requires opening the books of the central bank, which in turn requires the consent of all parties making up the existing regime.
The formation of a government, made up of so-called technocrats, is hampered by conflicts over the distribution of cabinet seats between the different parties: a “sovereign” ministry (interior, foreign affairs, finance) is worth up to three ministries ” services â(energy, agriculture, health, etc.). Power-sharing negotiations were accompanied by constitutional arguments: over the powers conferred by a parliamentary majority, the prerogatives of the president in forming a cabinet, and the constitutionality of any vetoing party known as the “Blocking third party” in the cabinet. Legal threats and prosecution have also been launched, with a public prosecutor, the head of the internal security forces and the head of the central bank mutually accusing each other of overstepping their powers under the law.
The simultaneous operation of these two registers – sectarian politics and constitutional debate – was in the spotlight recently when a judge charged interim prime minister Hassan Diab and three former ministers with negligence in the port blast. Diab replied that the judge was acting beyond his legal powers, since politicians are immune from prosecution. He also proclaimed that the prosecution of him amounted to an attack on the country’s highest Sunni position, prompting all Sunni politicians, as well as their supporters, to join him.
Legal and constitutional debates can look like a facade behind which Lebanon’s real sectarian politics unfold. But maybe the two registers are real and work in tandem. Several years ago I had to obtain a residential registration document from the moukhtar. He already had the identity papers of so-called witnesses ready to be included in my application. If he could get away with false witnesses, I wondered why bother with them? Likewise, why do you have to take a driving test when the only way to pass is to bribe the examiner? Some officials may fear getting caught – there are always a few decent people around. But I think it’s also that a lot of those who are ready to cheat, officials and citizens, are also inclined to follow the rules when they can.
In Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (1999), Lisa Wedeen described how everyone in the country behaved as if they believed in the performance of a regime claiming to protect its people, when everyone knew that no one really believed it. The situation in Lebanon is not quite like that. It’s not that everyone claims to be against bigotry but actually believes in it, or that everyone claims to follow the law but secretly thinks that only self-interest matters. The structural conditions – the protections afforded by family groups, the weakness of state institutions, the state supported by the international community – make it reasonable to wish for a secular state but to look to one’s sectarian group for protection, to believe in law but bypass it if necessary, aspire to change but reject all existing alternatives to the status quo.