Ihe day after the tragic explosion of the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, the words of the Lebanese poet Nadia Tuéni were everywhere, on the roads and the walls of the city: “Beirut is dead a thousand times and is reborn a thousand times” (“Beirut is a thousand times dead, a thousand times relived”) – a hopeful reminder in a vulnerable situation.
Yet Tuéni’s hyperbole only repeats and amplifies the widely held popular belief, bordering on celebratory, that Beirut has Survived destruction so many times in its long history. In the relative immediacy of the explosion two years ago, it rings hollow and without conviction.
I can’t forget the moment it happened: the clocks stopped at 6:08 p.m. There was a huge explosion, which killed at least 218 people. The loud explosion echoes in my bones and in my ears even now. When I think about it, I relive all the shock, the disbelief, the heartache.
I remember what I thought afterwards: “This is another disaster. This country is cursed – both cursed and loved.
It is easy to think that Lebanon is “cursed”. The recent crises – economic, moral, political and social – are the scourge of the Lebanese people’s existence. What about our love for the country, too? Is it just a tragic fantasy? Wishful thinking?
In 2020, it was easy to feel that Lebanon had hit rock bottom – all we could hope for was that the disaster would generate much-needed lasting change and reform. Yet two years later, nothing has been done to change the status quo; in fact, the ruling elite made the situation worse – much worse. And no one is listening.
We are in the midst of an economic collapse, with a failed state and the collapse of our currency. We have a crumbling healthcare system, an energy crisis, our industry is gone, people are struggling for money and our poor are starving. Almost 80% Lebanese citizens now live below the poverty line.
Since the civil war, successive governments in Lebanon have implemented financial engineering policies that have led to a real dystopia: the fiction of the Lebanese “economic miracle”.
The coffers of the nation – Lebanon was once known as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” – are empty; the dark underbelly of its banking system (offering illusory interest rates) has been exposed. The old Middle East bank safe is nothing more than a piggy bank with a padlock for anyone who failed to hide their money under their mattress in time.
With depositors and bankers engaged in a surreal, unethical and ruthless melee, we are descending into collapse. It is as if the ruling political clans have rejected and abandoned their people, abused their patience and goodwill, denied their trust and enraged the younger generations – who are now marching through the streets in protest. They also succeeded in killing hope.
For me, Lebanese politics is at the heart of his malaise. The convoluted electoral laws preserve the stranglehold of politicians on the people. Managers spend hours scrutinizing and discussing torturous and unnecessary details, while the structure, in fact, determines the outcome – regardless of people’s preferences.
What’s worse is that we seem to largely accept, without any evidence, excuses about the interaction of “external forces” responsible for the state the country finds itself in. Lebanon is dominated by political elites with multifaceted loyalties. It is difficult to accurately state that a member of the political elite has the best interests of Lebanon in mind.
Yet in every election we vote for people from the same loose alliance. Lebanon is a pluralistic society. It is not easy to design an electoral law that addresses the tense sectarian issues in this country. It is a difficult balancing act: 18 religious sects are recognized in the constitution. But how can we claim it’s democratic when it’s not one man, one vote; but a voice for a list that does not remotely represent the voter?
Politically and geologically, Lebanon is a country controlled by structural fault lines. We ignore them at our peril. We are also on the verge of social catastrophe: Lebanon is no longer a country of young people. The education system – once the pride of the Middle East, if not the world – has been gutted. It is collapsing before our eyes.
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Lebanon is indeed becoming a retirement home with no future. Is it any wonder that young people across the country – from all regions and all religions – are rising up against corruption?
In the aftermath of the devastating port explosion, swathes of one of the world’s most beautiful cities now look like scenes from the apocalypse. As Tuéni wrote during the Lebanese civil war: “Those who live in the sunlight of speech, on the mad horse of slogans, those, break the windows of the universe.”
His words still apply today, resonating in the broken port of Beirut, the hospitals, the shops, the restaurants, the homes, the windows – and the lives of its long-suffering population.
Dr. Sam Mattar is based in Lebanon and runs an independent consultancy to promote the use of systems dynamics in understanding projects