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15 October 2021

Lebanon’s descent into humanitarian crisis

Beirut’s street violence on 14 October was all too familiar for a country that can still remember its civil war.

By Abbie Cheeseman

In the schools of central Beirut, children cowered under their desks in the same way their parents had 30 years before: trapped in the middle of factional violence.

It looked like a scene from the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90). The same groups. The same front line. The same look of terror on the faces of civilians cradling their children as they fled their homes. The same rekindling of trauma as Lebanon was dragged deeper into instability, yet again.

Seven people were killed and more than 30 injured when gunfighting broke out on Thursday (14 October) at a rally organised by two Shia parties: Hezbollah – an Iranian-backed militant group that is the most powerful force in the country – and the Amal Movement. It is the latest chapter in Lebanon’s rapid collapse over the past two years, a descent into humanitarian crisis that has been plagued with fuel shortages, blackouts and hyperinflation.

Snipers – their identity and political affiliation unknown – opened fire on the protest, which was calling for the removal of the judge investigating the August 2020 Beirut port blast. The demonstrators, many of them heavily armed, accuse the judge of bias against them. An hours-long battle over the old faultlines of the civil war broke out. Rocket-propelled grenades, launched indiscriminately from the ground, turned the streets of Beirut into chaos.

Hezbollah blamed the Lebanese Forces – a Christian political party and vocal opponents of Hezbollah’s paramilitaries – of starting the shooting, later accusing unnamed forces of trying to “drag the country into a deliberate strife”. The Lebanese Forces said the accusations were “baseless” and the clashes were due to Hezbollah’s extensive arsenal of weapons.

Inflaming sectarian tensions, creating violence on the streets and sowing instability: Lebanon has seen this play before. It has been used by various powerful parties in the political establishment since the end of the civil war in 1990, when a Saudi-brokered agreement allowed the various warlords to take proportional control of parliament.

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Thursday’s clashes, the deadliest since 2008, came in the same week that the country was set to mark the two-year anniversary of the mass protest movement that tried to bring that political establishment down. In October 2019, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets demanding an end to the corruption and chronic mismanagement they had lived under since the end of the civil war.

Chants of “killon yaa’ni killon” had reverberated through the streets and bounced off buildings then as a sea of men, women and children across all demographics and religions tried to reclaim their country and their futures. “All of them means all of them.” The entire political elite would have to go, protesters urged, as would the system that cemented their power and allowed their patronage networks to thrive.

For a time protesters succeeded in bringing the country to a halt. Roads were blocked with burning tyres and skips; businesses were shuttered, schools closed. Nights were spent wielding tennis racquets to beat back the volleys of military-grade tear gas canisters fired by the security forces.

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They demanded change. Instead, the country collapsed.

Later, the protesters sought accountability for the August 2020 port explosion that killed more than 200 people and traumatised a new generation.

The economic crash was quick and ruthless. Lebanon’s foreign reserves had already been drained by the effort to keep the currency, the Lebanese pound, pegged artificially high. In October 2019, the Lebanese pound began to slip; by June 2020, it had lost 80 per cent of its value and Lebanon had defaulted on its entire debt of a $1.2bn eurobond. Salaries became worthless, lifelong savings disappeared in the banks and what was left was under strict capital control, barely accessible. The middle class all but evaporated; the poor slid into destitution.

Two years on, the UN estimates that 82 per cent of the country lives under the poverty line. The World Bank believes that the crisis is among the top three most severe in the world since the 1850s.

Covid-19 only exacerbated the struggle. Businesses folded. The healthcare system teetered on the brink of collapse as medical shortages combined with brain drain and power cuts for 23 hours a day. On a number of occasions, hospitals have warned that all of their patients on ventilators will die within a matter of days if emergency fuel cannot be found for their generators.

Fuel shortages. Medical shortages. Brain drain. Food inflation. Water rationing.

By the summer of 2021, you would have to queue for around eight hours – or overnight – to fill your car with petrol. This would only be temporarily resolved by the removal of fuel subsidies, increasing the price so exorbitantly that a tank of petrol cost around the same as a monthly minimum wage.

The state can only provide an hour or two of electricity a day. Only those who can afford private generators, and the black market diesel it takes to run them, have power. Occasionally, the power plants run out of fuel altogether. In parts of Beirut, generators cost around five times the monthly minimum wage and still leave you without power for over six hours a day. Those who cannot afford generators are plunged into darkness. Traffic lights and street lights have been a luxury over the past four months.

Food inflation has hit over 660 per cent since the crisis began.

It can take a trip to four or more pharmacies just to find paracetamol, let alone anything life-saving. Cancer patients are frequently told they need to secure their drugs for treatment from abroad before they can be admitted to hospital.

For the estimated 1.5 million refugees in the country, the situation could not be worse. Child labour is on the rise: instead of school, parents are forced to send their children to work for less than $1 a day. Coping strategies include child marriage and skipping meals.

Throughout Lebanon’s plunge into crisis, a solution has been on the table. The IMF is offering a bailout package, along with help from the UK, US and France, if a new government implements badly needed anti-corruption reforms. Up until now, none have been enacted.

The country was already in the grip of this disaster when thousands of tonnes of improperly stored ammonium nitrate tore through Beirut’s port last August in one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in modern history.

Lebanon has a history of unsolved politically motivated assassinations, and investigations rarely come to conclusions. But in the middle of the near collapse of the state, this judicial inquiry into the port blast is an extremely sensitive topic. Will the powerful groups that may be responsible be able to shut it down with impunity?

Tarek Bitar is the second judge to have been tasked with investigating the explosion. The first was removed after some of the former MPs he had charged with negligence brought a lawsuit against him. Bitar is facing similar lawsuits in an attempt to suspend the investigation and throw him off the case.

Former officials, ministers, MPs and prime ministers have all failed to show up to interrogations when summoned by Bitar. Over a year later, no one has been held accountable for the disaster.

The families of the blast victims – as well as many Lebanese outside the political sphere – have expressed support for Judge Bitar and condemned the lawsuits against him as the political elite trying to dodge responsibility. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has grown increasingly vocal with its discontent in recent weeks, with reports surfacing that senior leadership had threatened to “usurp” the judge.

Regardless of who was behind the Shia protest shootings, Thursday marked a dangerous escalation as a group openly defied and attacked Lebanon’s most powerful force at a time when the country is bordering on collapse.

[See also: Iraq’s election shows a society fraying at the edges]

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