11/09/2020

Will the Lebanese phoenix rise from its ashes?

 

Almost two hundred people dead, six thousand injured and three hundred thousand homeless. Such is the terrible toll of the double explosion that on August 4 of 2020 devastated the port of Beirut and destroyed half of the city. The explosions, which were due to the storage of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the port since 2013, the criminal negligence of Lebanon's political elites and the bureaucratic incompetence of the security services and the judiciary, not only damaged traditional houses -a heritage already threatened by the unbridled construction of skyscrapers- but also destroyed the artistic and nocturnal heart of the city.

On social media, the Lebanese connected with the litany of tragic events including -but not limited to- the civil war, car bombings, Israeli military actions and the garbage crisis that have marked the past decades. They invoked their ability to resist the bombings and rebuild their country every time it was destroyed. In fact, the citizens of the Land of Cedars have always responded with courageous and resilient responses to catastrophes, patiently rebuilding after each cycle of destruction.

However, this is a dynamic that seems to be lacking today. Despite celebrity mandates inviting Lebanon to "rise from its ashes", symbolized by the T-shirts designed by famous Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad, the Lebanese are exhausted; they are tired of rising from the rubble and living to fight day after day. They are tired of these cycles of rebuilding of Sisyphus. The phoenix appears to have been consumed by flames.

This is a year that had started on a note of hope and optimism regarding the political outlook. In October 2019, the Lebanese rose up against the patronage, corruption and embezzlement that have characterized the Lebanese political class since the end of the civil war. In a movement that some describe as the second wave of the Arab Spring, young protesters demanded an end to the communal regime, which they see as the source of all evil. "Everyone means everyone" was the motto of this October "revolution" that demanded a total replacement of the political elite, but above all the fall of the government led by Saad Hariri and the removal of President Michel Aoun and his corrupt son-in-law -and pending heir to the "throne" - Gebran Bassil. If the first objective was achieved quickly, the second has not been so easy. Aoun has clung to power with the support of Hezbollah, the king-maker of Lebanese politics since 2005.

The coronavirus pandemic ended protests and sit-ins on the streets of Beirut and other Lebanese cities. Shortly after, the economic crisis predicted by analysts occurred. In March, for the first time, Lebanon defaulted on its debt payments and then the currency collapsed. Thanks to a feat of economic engineering, a Ponzi scheme run by the Central Bank, the Lebanese pound had been pegged to the dollar at an exchange rate of one dollar to 1,507 pounds since the 1990s. After the collapse, the black market exchange rate reached unprecedented levels, with the Lebanese pound losing 85-90% of its value. What was left of the Lebanese middle class disappeared and today more than 55% of the population is trapped in poverty. On top of it all, banks have implemented informal capital controls that prevent small account holders from withdrawing their money while allowing operators linked to politicians to take US$6 billion out of the country.

These successive attacks on the Lebanese people preceded the explosion of August 4th. The optimism of the thawra (revolution) has been stifled. Many young people who were so eager to rebuild the country and its economic and political system have given up the fight. All they want now is to get out of this hell that is Lebanon. Ironically, the destruction of the port and its surroundings has left only one landmark: the so-called "Lebanese emigrant" statue, the one and a half ton bronze copy signed by sculptor Ramiz Barakat. This work, which still stands in front of the port in rue Charles Hélou, represents a man dressed in the clothes of a 19th century Lebanese peasant, with his back to the mountains and with his gaze turned towards the sea and the distant lands towards which he hopes to travel and make his fortune.

Lebanon is a land of immigration, and the human capital forged through a tradition of education in the West has long been a means of escaping the dramas that have marked life in Lebanon. The Lebanese emigrant's ability to withstand blows, to survive and thrive in the harshest conditions, can also be considered to have been forged in the very flames of Lebanese hell. The Lebanese take pride in the achievements of their citizens and their descendants abroad and rely heavily on remittances from abroad. But the informal capital controls imposed by Lebanese banks today make such strategies impossible. Families can no longer transfer funds to their children who are going to study abroad, and only students previously enrolled in foreign universities can receive bank transfers from Lebanon. Today the country is closed and the financial and human capital flows mainly in one direction: abroad.

The ability to restart this time will require a spark of life from outside, as the Lebanese are dejected, exhausted by their constant struggle for survival. To regain the will to rebuild, they will need the help of migrants, who have found respite elsewhere, but also of donors and organizations. Rumors about the upcoming elimination of subsidies for basic products like gasoline or wheat threaten to increase poverty rates and raise fears of famine.

The last great famine in Lebanon (called "The Great Famine") took place a century ago and killed more than half the population. But it also announced the birth of a new country, which took place in 1943, with the National Pact. The Lebanese-American poet and writer in exile, Gibran Khalil Gibran, reflected on it well when he declared in Broken Wings: "Out of suffering the strongest souls have arisen, the most solid characters are riddled with scars".

 

Rola El-Husseini is Professor at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Lund (Sweden) and is a member of the Scientific Council of CAREP - Centre Arabe de Recherche et d'Études Politiques (France).

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