The financial disaster is causing suffering for many people in Lebanon, once considered the jewel of the Middle East. Can it become again not only a country, but “a message”?
Despite the extreme hardships Lebanon is going through right now – and there are many, causing widespread suffering – there is hope that people will pull through. And if there is one thing that seems to keep hope alive, it is the family culture of the Lebanese people.
Although the government is currently at an impasse and seems unable to find solutions to Lebanon’s economic crisis, people have never turned to the government for help anyway.
“Within Lebanese society, there has never been a dependence on the government for support, as a social safety net,” said Cédric Choukeir, Catholic Relief Services national representative in Lebanon. “People’s social safety net is their families and relatives, both at home and abroad. This is how society is; this is how people take care of the elderly.
Choukeir reflected on Lebanon’s ongoing struggles in the wake of Pope Francis’ recent appeal to Lebanese political leaders put their own interests aside and work for the common good.
“I take this opportunity to call on Lebanese politicians to put aside your personal interests and talk about the country and come to an agreement,” Francis told an in-flight press conference on the way back to Rome after having visited Bahrain at the beginning of November. “First God, then country, then self-interest.”
Another religious leader, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Raï, at a Nov. 11 meeting of Lebanon’s Catholic patriarchs and bishops, called for an international conference to help Lebanon break its political stalemate.
extent of suffering
Many Lebanese are hoping for the same, especially since a $3 billion International Monetary Fund aid package hinges on concrete government reforms.
Meanwhile, suffering manifests itself in various ways in Lebanese society. The Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value. The Lebanese do not have access to their savings, the bank accounts being frozen. Civil servants, who receive insufficient pay, do not work or drastically reduce their working hours. Sixty to 70 percent of Lebanese live below the poverty line. People normally have to make do with just two to four hours of electricity a day, and utility bills have become unaffordable. Medicine is hard to find.
Caritas Lebanon Programs Director Nayla El-Khoury reports that there is a worrying increase in cholera infections as many sewage treatment plants have stopped working. (Pictured above, cholera patients are treated in a mosque ward converted into a field hospital in the northern Lebanese town of Bebnine on October 26). She also said there was a sharp increase in food insecurity, as Lebanon was mainly dependent on imports for its food. Certainly, the war in Ukraine has not helped in this region, and the shortage of fertilizers has had an impact on farmers in Lebanon.
“Access to education is another issue,” El-Khoury said. Parents who are no longer able to afford tuition fees for private schools send their children to public schools, which imposes additional burdens on these institutions. “They are already overloaded,” she said. “Already they do not have the capacity to accommodate additional children.”
“Most people don’t make enough money to feed, clothe and house their families,” said Edward F. Clancy, outreach director for Aid to the Church in Need USwhich supports several aid projects in Lebanon.
Many Lebanese depend on money from family members abroad, Chokeir said.
The roots of the problem
The roots of Lebanon’s problems are multiple and the solutions are not easy to implement, let alone find. Choukeir traces today’s unrest, in part, to the years following Lebanon’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. In its recovery and reconstruction, Lebanon became a safe haven for investment. foreigners – and there is a large and fairly affluent Lebanese diaspora.
“What the Lebanese did, with the support of the central bank, was to take out large loans for the reconstruction of the country, at high interest rates,” Choukeir said. Lebanon has a large diaspora and a strong banking sector. “So, effectively, the government was borrowing through the central bank, mainly from Lebanese private banks. The Lebanese private banks had a significant amount of deposits from the Lebanese diaspora, who put their money there because the banks offered very high interest rates – exceeding 10%”.
But because of corruption, loans taken out by the government did not go to financially viable areas, he said. “Thus, the banks were effectively covering the public deficit for recurrent costs, year after year after year. And most of the costs are linked to the electricity sector, which the government subsidized. The scheme has continued to operate because it is some sort of Ponzi scheme. As long as people put more funds into Lebanese banks, these new funds will cover what the government needs to keep running and will cover interest rates. But we have reached a point where the Lebanese budget, around 60% of public expenditure, has been used to repay the interest on loans. … That leaves only 40% of government spending to the country itself. Of this 40%, almost half would be used to supply the country with fuel for electricity. And then the rest would go to the officials.
In 2018, remittances from Lebanese expatriates began to dry up. “There was not enough money to make this system work,” Choukeir said. “That’s what kicked things off in 2019 because at that time private banks had to start using their deposits to cover the government deficit from 2018 to 2019.”
Currency devaluation and bank account freezing began in 2019. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with lockdowns starting around March 2020. Many people have lost their jobs because of this. Then, in August 2020, an explosion in the port of Beirut, caused by massive amounts of ammonium nitrate that had been carelessly stored, killed at least 218 people, caused $15 billion in damage and left some 300,000 homeless people.
“Majority of the people see no hope on the horizon because the way the government and the various political leaders have handled the crisis has not been helpful, which means we have had political stalemates in terms of forming governments because of wrangling over seats and how much each party gets, we have been without a functioning government for most of the past three years,” Choukeir said.
With nearly 30 political parties in Lebanese society, no one can amass a majority and no one can do anything without forming coalitions, he explained.
“Since the legislative elections [in April 2021], we have no cabinet, no government. The current government is an interim government,” he said. “They’re not supposed to meet to do anything; they are just supposed to conclude what they are doing until a new government is formed.
“And then the president’s term ended in October, so we don’t have a presidentcontinued Choukeir. “In a normal situation, the Council of Ministers takes over the powers of the President, but for the moment, the Council of Ministers is interim. … The election of a new president requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament. And no coalition has that number or is able to get that number of votes, because the parliament is kind of split evenly between the pro-American type of parties and the pro-Iranian parties.
Can a solution be found? Anyone can guess this, but it is vital that it is – not only to help alleviate the suffering of ordinary people, but to help maintain a Christian presence in a country that prides itself on coexistence and societal tolerance.
“I think in Lebanon there’s an almost even split between Sunni and Shia, which creates a lot of tension within the Muslim communities,” Aid to the Church in Need’s Clancy said, “and so often Christians are intermediaries, intermediaries, communicators who help in these situations.They therefore have a great value for Lebanese society.Many popes, including John Paul II, have mentioned the importance of Lebanon for Christianity in the Middle East. We believe it’s a worthwhile effort to keep them there and support the community.
Pope Francis, echoing his predecessors, has more than once recalled that Lebanon is more than a country, it is a message. He said :
Dear Lebanese friends, I strongly desire to visit you and I never tire of praying for you, so that Lebanon may once again be a message of peace and brotherhood for the whole Middle East.