Two weeks ago, I returned to Beirut for my first visit to Lebanon since an economic crash turned the country into a perverse laboratory experiment in the limits of human tolerance for totally avoidable deprivation and abusive governance.
The human impact of the crisis, which began in October 2019, has been extensively chronicled, but it’s still amazing to see it in person. Every individual and every household in the country runs a daily obstacle course to ensure food, fuel and medicine are available. Meanwhile, the ultra-rich continue to live in style, crammed into clubs and luxury boutiques in full view of Lebanon’s ailing majority. “The biggest miracle is that there are no more property crimes,” a friend remarked.
The gap between the small “haves” demographic group and everyone else is maddening, especially because there is no inherent reason for the crisis. No shortage, natural disaster or wartime blockade has caused Lebanon to collapse. On the contrary, the country’s economy has been destroyed by the greed and venality of a ruling cabal of political bosses.
From the window of my hotel room in West Beirut, I could see the headquarters of the Central Bank. Its smart new office tower, featuring a “green facade” of lush plants from street level to the roof to keep the building cool, would not be out of place in Frankfurt or Paris. Somewhere inside, the head of the Central Bank, Riad Salameh – the man who has overseen all of Lebanon’s state-run Ponzi schemes, as well as the quibbling of the private banking sector – is living in “hidden” to avoid an arrest warrant from the Lebanese courts.
“He is the master of secrets,” Nizar Saghieh, head of reform and accountability group Legal Agenda, told me.
The intersection of public malfeasance and private suffering is overwhelming. Every friend and colleague I met had a story of misfortune: life savings now held in worthless Lebanese lira accounts; extended families struggling to survive on once comfortable public sector salaries that now barely cover household expenses for a day or two; and wave after wave of emigration. My friends spend their days looking for deals on basic groceries and visiting banks that don’t let them freely withdraw the money they still have. Then they rush home to do household chores in case the electricity comes back on for an hour.
Perhaps this daily consuming obstacle course is part of the plan; it certainly saps energy that might otherwise go into the political opposition. As Saghieh said, the system that caused all this suffering “wants to distract people.”
Remarkably, this system did not yield in the least. Lebanese politicians are in the process of choosing a new government which, so far, looks exactly like the previous one and more or less like all governments since 1991. Meanwhile, Lebanese leaders are negotiating a bailout with international donors , but don’t want to include any reforms or accountability of the private banks that are most responsible for torpedoing the country’s economy. They are playing a tightrope game, betting that international donors will ultimately feel more pity for the Lebanese people than the country’s own leaders and will wink at an unconditional bailout first.
From 2013 to 2018, I worked, lived and raised my children in Beirut. Back then, when things were still “normal”, even my relatively luxurious daily lifestyle involved constant and grueling challenges: competing for limited tanker truck deliveries to fill a rooftop tank when municipal water was exhausted; fighting for capricious rate hikes by the operator of the private generator that I used – like many in Beirut – to supplement the state-run intermittent power grid; seeking the intercession of someone more powerful and important than me as government officials slowed down my children’s residency permits for no reason. Even before the current crisis, these and other difficulties were the lived consequence of the collapse of the power of the Lebanese state and its ability to provide services.
Every aspect of life in Lebanon at the time reflected the flawed compromise that ended the civil war in 1991 without taking into account the hundreds of thousands of dead and missing. There have been no truth and reconciliation hearings, no war crimes tribunals, no exhumation of still-unnamed mass graves across the country, or a public list of the names of the dead. To this day, there are still at least 17,000 Lebanese missing for, and the warlords who still rule the country have frustrated even the smallest of symbolic gestures, such as an initiative to erect a memorial to the Civil War dead. Only one warlord, Samir Geagea, went to prison. But after spending 11 years behind bars, Geagea has gone on to lead Lebanon’s largest Christian political party and is now a serious presidential candidate, while political activists who criticize his wartime record are harassed by the Lebanese security forces.
At Legal Agenda, Saghieh and her colleagues work around the clock for judicial reform and accountability. He sees a straight line connecting every act of impunity, from the mass graves of the civil war, to the mass corruption that sparked Lebanon’s depression, to the elite negligence that caused the port of Beirut to explode. in August 2020, which killed 218 people and left town. traumatized residents. In none of these cases has anyone been held responsible. “We can only end impunity by creating a real democratic state in place of this corrupt state,” Saghieh told me.
Many people around the world, even in neighboring Middle Eastern countries like Iraq and Yemen, suffer equal or worse deprivation than the Lebanese. What makes Lebanon unique, and particularly distressing, is that misery is entirely optional. Lebanon is a small, rich country with less than 6 million inhabitants and a rich and generous diaspora. The technical solutions to its problems are well known and documented. There is no mystery how to provide electricity, clean water, health care and security within the borders of this small country.
As disheartening as the current crisis is, the fact that people still yearn for a dignified life offers hope. But even as the Lebanese people strive to rise from this grim low, it is also clear that the country’s criminal rulers will not willingly give up any advantage.
what i read
A New York Times investigation, “Egyptian Prison’s Revolving Door: One Pretrial Detention After Another,” details the government’s abuse of pretrial detention to keep political prisoners locked up indefinitely. According to rights groups, Egypt currently holds around 60,000 political prisoners. The Times report explores one of the least documented and most vulnerable subsets of the nation’s prison gulag: prisoners on remand, who require no charge or trial and can be renewed almost indefinitely by judges. The investigation examined court records compiled by volunteer defense lawyers in Cairo to arrive at a minimum estimate of 4,500 pretrial detainees in the capital alone during the period September 2020 to February 2021.
A funnier but still sinister read is this investigation by Vivian Nereim of Bloomberg in Neom, the dystopian futuristic city that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is building in the desert. Nereim covers a lot of ground, from the abuse and displacement of poor Saudis who lived on the site that became Neom, to the financial waste, leadership by abuse and apparent delusion that drives the project. As well as getting in-depth insight into how MBS, as the Crown Prince is known, runs his authoritarian kingdom, those who read to the end will likely laugh when they find out what the consultants mean when they say filling their “second bucket”.
Thanassis Cambanis is Senior Fellow and Director of the International Politics Program at the Century Foundation in New York. He teaches at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His books include Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story, A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions, and four edited volumes on Middle East politics and security. He is currently writing a book on the global impact of the war in Iraq. His Twitter account is @tcambanis.