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Why Lebanon is too important to fail

The country desperately needs reform – but still there is no coherent political alternative to the status quo.

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From some angles, Beirut looks the same. Every morning, from dawn, the long, curved promenade along the Mediterranean known as the Corniche is crowded with people taking their daily exercise. Men desperately hoping to cancel out years of lavish Lebanese lunches sweat along at a fast walk. Younger guys sprint past them topless, displaying proud abs and tattoos. Appearance matters in Lebanon, a lot. Some noisily whack shuttlecocks at each other with wooden bats, as hard as physics will allow. The Corniche is unusual for the Middle East as a lot of women exercise there too. Some wear athletic versions of hijab. Others have the latest lycra from Lululemon. Nothing compares in any other Arab capital. In the evenings families treat the Corniche as a cross between a public park or a back garden. Children charge around and their parents set up folding chairs, picnic tables, charcoal for shisha and small camping stoves to make tea.

It could be a perfect advertisement for a long-held self-image of many Lebanese, who are proud that the peoples of their diverse country found a way to live alongside each other after a civil war that killed at least 90,000 people. (You would have to multiply by about 20 to get a British equivalent today, since Lebanon’s population in the 1970s and 1980s was less than three million.) But everyone I spoke to in Lebanon was deeply depressed about the future. Look a bit closer on the Corniche and the results of a thousand different failures of the state are showing. Murky brown water discharges into the sea; the idea that the government could regulate the sewers is laughable. Schools of small sardines called bizri congregate near the ooze from the outfalls. Men stand shoulder to shoulder to catch them, taking home buckets full. Some fish with a new urgency. It isn’t a hobby any more. It’s putting food on the table. Inflation and the collapse of the Lebanese pound have destroyed incomes, and made basic food and groceries a major expense. The United Nations estimates that 55 per cent of the population live in poverty; almost twice as many people as last year.

Bizri are, traditionally, deep fried until they are crunchy, then garnished with tahini and the juice of squeezed lemons. At their best they are delicious eastern Mediterranean whitebait. Perhaps the hot oil kills whatever it is that attracts the fish to the outfall on the Corniche. Some of the men without angling gear make five-litre water bottles into improvised fish traps. They loop rope round the handles, and spend hours throwing them into the waves and dragging them back. It is good to see plastic water bottles having a useful second life. Thousands that don’t bounce on the foam and settle on the rocks. Disputes about who should pay for refuse collection and disposal have despoiled the beauty of the country and eroded the quality of life. Stinking piles of garbage end up dumped on beaches and in fields.

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The Corniche is about a 15-minute fast walk from the entrance to the port of Beirut. Buildings much further away than that were damaged by the explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at the port on 4 August. A few shop windows in Hamra, further back from the sea with not even a line of sight to the docks, are still broken, smashed by the blast wave. The areas closest to the docks remain cordoned off by the army, though they do not stop people walking through street after ruined street. Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael and Achrafieh used to bustle, especially at night. They are largely Christian areas of tangled narrow streets lined with old stone buildings, full of restaurants and bars. Some of these have reopened next to piles of rubble, but it feels, for now at least, as if the heart has been torn out of the place. Karantina and Bourj Hammoud – poorer, working class, religiously mixed – are also devastated and full of misery. Facing the sea is a big 1960s slab of an office block that housed Électricité du Liban, the Lebanese electrical authority. The full force of the blast turned it into a see-through skeleton, with doors, windows and floors blown out. It ran a grid that has programmed daily power cuts. Consumers pay multiple electricity bills, for generators as well as the mains.

Lebanon was in deep crisis long before the explosion; it was caused not just by criminal negligence but by the dysfunctional nature of the Lebanese state. The deal that was negotiated in the Saudi hill resort of Taif in 1989 to end the civil war sliced Lebanon up between the sectarian militias that had fought each other for 15 years. Most of the powerful men in Lebanon are former warlords. Add to that the billionaire Hariri dynasty. Its patriarch Rafik was assassinated in 2005. Days after the port explosion in August, a special court near The Hague, after a 15-year, almost billion-dollar investigation, convicted a single Hezbollah man in absentia (three others were acquitted for lack of evidence) and ruled that Hezbollah and Syria had motives to “eliminate” Hariri. Hezbollah denies it, and never gave up its men. A formidable Iran-allied Shia militia that fought Israel to a standstill in 2006, Hezbollah is also a social movement and key political party, making it the most powerful single organisation in Lebanon. Hezbollah is a state within a state that is stronger than the state, and is classified as a terrorist group by, among others, the US and the UK, which complicates any international response to Lebanon’s crisis.

Taif made sense at the time. Lebanon was in ruins and it was a way out of the war. The agreement declared that “abolishing political sectarianism is a fundamental national objective”. Reform never happened. Lebanon’s Syrian occupiers did not want it, and they were the main cancer in the body politic after the civil war. Sectarianism entrenched itself into every level of Lebanese public life. It fostered corruption and cronyism, and so weakened the state that its citizens had to get used to fending for themselves. For some that meant relying on families and sects, which deepened the malformation of the state’s institutions.

The president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim. Sometimes they are referred to as the three presidents. But low-level jobs are also split between the sects. Sectarian bosses keep their followers loyal by doling out patronage; the most favoured get government contracts, and official positions which come with the opportunity to take commissions and bribes. Protection is part of the deal.

A senior official in the Amal movement, the Shia political party and civil war militia, complained about the progress of the investigation into the explosion at the port. He told me it was being hampered because the octogenarian president, Michel Aoun, was protecting one of the top officials, who is also a Christian. At the end of the civil war, Aoun led his men against the Syrian occupiers. He was rescued by France, where he spent years in exile calling for an end to Syrian domination. He returned home, full of promises of a new beginning, when the Syrian army was withdrawn after the Hariri assassination in 2005. Now he is an ally of Hezbollah – which fights for the Assad regime in Syria’s war – and has worked to install his son-in-law, the controversial Gebran Bassil, as his successor.

By last October something had snapped in Lebanon, after a summer of wildfires and the start of a banking collapse. The final straw was an attempt to impose a tax on users of the WhatsApp messaging service. One estimate was that a million people took part in the demonstrations that started on 17 October. Protesters who took up residence in tents in downtown Beirut called what was happening a revolution. It forced the prime minister to resign, but lost momentum and in the end was forced into retreat by the coronavirus pandemic. Protest is a luxury for people struggling through the days as they are forced into penury.

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The economic consequences of Covid did not cause the collapse of the currency, but probably made it happen more quickly. For almost as long as anyone could remember, 1,500 Lebanese pounds bought one US dollar. Unfortunately for the country, the system was backed by what amounted to a pyramid scheme. The Central Bank set high interest rates. Lebanon’s big expatriate community sent home their dollars to earn returns of up to 15 per cent. Some people even borrowed money to fuel their bank accounts. The cash financed the country, and lubricated sectarian patronage. In the manner of Ponzi schemes, the currency crashed when the money coming in could not pay the bills going out. Inflated interest rates could no longer tempt wiser investors who saw trouble coming and pulled out their money. In March this year, Lebanon defaulted on its debts for the first time, declaring it could not repay a $1.2bn Eurobond. The state was effectively bankrupt.

Wealthy, connected Lebanese oligarchs had already exported billions. The anger came from individuals who are allowed to withdraw only small amounts to stave off a run on the banks. When I visited Riad Salameh, the governor of the Central Bank for the past 27 years, a noose had been left on the graffiti-covered concrete wall that had to be installed against the protestors. He is not popular. Salameh is a very rich man, which he defends as the fruits of the honest and judicious investment of a private fortune he accumulated in the first half of his career at Merrill Lynch. He argues he brought Lebanon stability for as long as he could and denies accusations that he has profited from his nation’s pain.

He shrugged and said what was happening was the fault of the politicians. Outside the world of limousines, cigars and Italian suits another wave of emigration is happening.

Everyone who is paid in Lebanese pounds has been badly hit, impoverished virtually overnight. Because of years taking refuge in Europe or North America during the civil war, many middle-class Lebanese have foreign passports. At the airport the other day families were getting out, burdened down with huge suitcases and the family pets. The people left behind talk wearily of two different kinds of money. Most desirable are “fresh dollars” from abroad. They can be exchanged this week on the black market for around 7,500 to the dollar. The unlucky ones have “Lollars”; US dollars tied up in Lebanese banks, which can be withdrawn only in small quantities at a much lower rate of exchange.

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The wreckage at the port is almost untouched. A new fire started, destroying a warehouse where tyres and oil were stored. A deadline set by President Macron of France to form a new government has been missed. He has been to Lebanon twice since the explosion, reading the riot act to the leaders of the sects. His message is that they will get the aid they need if they reform. If they do not, they might even face individual sanctions.

Civil society rallied round admirably after the port was destroyed. But social solidarity, and simmering anger that sooner or later will spill back onto the streets, has not produced a coherent political alternative to the status quo, short of a general desire to get rid of the lot of them. The oligarchy shows signs of wanting to return to business as usual; but it is hard to see how it can be done without the cash that oiled the wheels of the system. Diplomats speak darkly of a hungry winter.

Lebanon, with its population of almost six million, is home to one and a half million Syrian refugees. Pro rata, it is like Britain absorbing around 20 million destitute people. Thin children barely old enough to go to school, if only they had the chance, beg in the streets. Lebanon is much more than a faraway country at the other end of the Mediterranean. It is too important to fail. The world does not need another broken state in its most unstable and dangerous region. That is the risk if Lebanon and its friends cannot stop its spiral towards further disaster.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent