Lebanon’s Descent Into The Abyss

Commentary

The biggest uprising in the country’s history, just one year ago one of the largest explosions in the twenty-first century, a regime obstructing any investigation into the root causes of the explosion, a global pandemic, and now one of the worst socio-economic crises in the world. In the last two years, Lebanon has been transformed beyond recognition, has unraveled beyond limits.

 

Beirut am 08 09 2020: My Government Did This Graffiti

It is rare for societies to be transformed beyond recognition in a short span of time. When such historical moments happen, they are usually caused by wars or foreign invasions. But war is not what is happening in Lebanon, at least not yet.

In the throes of what the World Bank described as one of the worst financial and economic crises globally since the mid-nineteenth century, Lebanon is undergoing a painful process of social disintegration, whose consequences can be seen in almost all aspects of social existence. In a span of few months since the onset of the crisis, the basic fabric of the Lebanese economy unraveled, leaving in its wake unimaginable social miseries. And there seems to be no end for that disintegration.

Years That Felt as Decades

The disastrous crisis, itself the result of years of neoliberal and rapacious policies, came in the footsteps of a short-lived, yet hopeful, wave of popular demonstrations, that started in October 2019. For months, thousands of people demonstrated in a number of Lebanese regions to oppose the fledging regime, only to be met by repression. Whether the uprising was the last chance to avoid the crisis or its first symptom, we do not know, and probably never will. But it was the largest uprising in the history of the country, if that is any consolation.

It was not state violence, in its different guises, that led to the weakening of this nascent movement of popular opposition. The unexpected onslaught of a global pandemic with its restrictive confinement policies emptied the city squares of the demonstrators. Social distancing proved to be very effective at cutting short the uprising. But the monotony of the long months of confinement did not last. On August 4, 2020, the port of Beirut exploded, due to the suspicious presence of tons of highly explosive Nitrate Ammonium. Large swaths of the capital city were destroyed, hundreds of innocent civilians were killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced. August 4 was a turning point, one drenched in blood, shattered glasses, and lost futures.

The descent into the abyss is paved with ‘exceptional’ events, succeeding each other quickly, so quickly that they lose their exceptional character. The unimaginable worse is not anymore the stuff of nightmares or of doomsday imaginary scenario. It is the new reality, the new normal, what most probably will happen tomorrow.

The worst is yet to come, but it will come.

The 2019 Uprising

This was not the mood a year ago.

The crisis, already underway in the financial sector, was slowly making itself felt in the rest of the society. Every indicator was dangerously veering toward the danger zone, but the government was hopeful that some external player will rush to save them from the plunge, as it happened so many times in the past. What they did not expect was that this time the people will not take it anymore.

Forest fires raged in the Summer of 2019, made worse by the endemic corruption that left the fire brigades unequipped to deal with them. Scrambling for some financing, the government proposed to introduce an impossible tax on WhatsApp, the most widely-used instant messaging application in Lebanon, as part of an austerity package, a proposal that was as unjust as it displayed the incompetence of the ruling elites. Still reeling from the shock from the forest fires, the move by the government angered many, now aware that they were left alone to fend for themselves. On the night of October 17, thousands took to the streets, in a number of Lebanese regions, to express their outrage at the current government. The long night of riots was enough for the government to rescind its proposal. But it set in motion what came to be known as the “October Uprising”, a protest movement that will dominate the streets for months.

Between October 2019 and March 2020, people of all walks of life demonstrated, united by a broad sense of outrage and a rejection of what came to be known as the ‘regime’. In a few weeks, the uprising turned from an opposition to the current government to an indictment of the regime that ruled Lebanon since the end of the civil war, a regime composed of an alliance of warlords turned state patrons, rapacious capitalists cloaked in neoliberal ideologies, and violent sectarian militias. For almost five months, the streets of Lebanon were the scene of demonstrations, protests, riots and street violence that signaled the end of an era, the era of the post-war regime and its neoliberal rentier economy.

The uprising might have been sparked by the outrage at the world record corruption of the ruling elites but more importantly, it was a sign of the deep social transformations that were under way for the last three decades in Lebanon. Whether in terms of gender, generation, class, sexual orientations, ideological preferences, there was a society that was in flux but that was forbidden of expressing itself. That society burst into the open with the uprising, brought together by a deeply felt sense of precariousness. A society was discovering itself in the moment of reckoning with its crisis.  

The uprising was met with an unprecedented violence, by both state institutions and party thugs, a violence that targeted the most vulnerable groups in the demonstrations but the violence was not only physical. The deepening of the socio-economic crisis, with almost no attempt by the ruling elites to remedy any of its disastrous consequences on the population, was a form of structural violence unleashed by the regime on its population. The crisis was not simply unfolding, it was manufactured as a disciplinary device, to quell any dissent. Nevertheless, the uprising continued in different forms. Whether in university elections, professional order elections or in the nascent web of militant organizations, the uprising has taken new shapes, adapting to the duress of organizing amidst a social crisis.

The Crises, Long in the Making, Sudden in Their Onslaught

The uprising looks like a faint memory, almost a historical anomaly, when seen from the depth of the present crisis. However we talk of a crisis, it is very hard to describe one of such magnitude. Numbers, however dramatic, do not capture how dire the current situation is. The description of the current miseries, however painful, does not capture the depth of the future miseries. How do we start coming to terms with what it means to have lost everything?

People are leaving their cars overnight at petrol stations to be able to have enough petrol to go to their work; medical doctors are asking patients to secure anesthetics to be able to perform essential surgeries; the provision of electricity is down to less than two hours per day; hunger is reappearing in a country that suffers from nothing else but the corruption and neoliberal policies of its rapacious elites… The country is facing scarcities at all levels, and a complete shortage of basic goods, such as infant milk and medicine, is expected. Lebanese are mustering all their social networks, inside the country and abroad, to be able to secure their mere existence, with a growing number depending on humanitarian aid to avoid hunger.

Lebanon is not facing one crisis, but a combination of crises.

The most apparent one is the currency crisis, which led to a sharp fall of the currency, from the by now defunct even if official rate of 1,500LBP/USD to the real black market value of more than 20,000LBP/USD, and rising… The violent depreciation of the currency, with the policy of multiple exchange rates, have not only depleted the savings of the population and slashed their wages by almost 90 percent. It has stalled any economic activities, and led to what is by now a hyperinflation in a country that relies on imports for most of its consumption.

The currency crisis comes on top of a banking crisis that has practically bankrupted the banking sector, due to the rapacious policies of bank owners and their dependence on the high interest rates of governmental bills. Informal and haphazard policies of capital control were introduced, limiting the capacity of the population to access their foreign currency deposits. This practice, which amounts to legal theft, has led to a loss of more than 80 percent of the value of foreign deposit accounts, which comes on top of the loss in value of deposits denominated in local currencies.

The population is paying the price of this banking crisis coupled with a crisis in the public finances of the state, or paying the price of the greed of bankers and politicians. Since the end of the civil war, the banking sector has been the financier of the public sector, attracted by its policy of high interest rates. Plagued with world- record levels of corruption, the state administration squandered funds, leaving large public deficits and fledging public institutions. More than three decades of this Ponzi scheme have transformed the Lebanese economy into a rentier economy, relying on financial and real estate speculation, and destroying any possibility for a productive economy.

All of this is happening as the government and ruling elites watch idlessly, failing to enact one single policy aiming at dealing with the crisis. The measures that could have mitigated some of the effects of the crisis, such as the early imposition of capital control, have been thwarted. Not a single measure to remedy the severity of the social crisis was taken. Not even a vague reform plan was drafted to lure foreign aid. Instead, the ruling elites prefer to blackmail European powers with the threat of refugees, hoping that they will finance their corrupt regimes for longer. This has been the modus operandi of this rapacious class since the end of the civil war, and it had worked until now, with foreign powers complicit in the maintenance and persistence of the regime. But the severity of the crisis put an end to that system.

“Lebanon is too important to fall”, pundits associated with the regime used to repeat. Well, it fell, and no one will pick it up this time.

The Blast of August 4

On August 4, 2020, at 6:08 in the evening, a massive explosion rocked the Lebanese capital. Around 2,500 tons of Nitrate Ammonium exploded in the Beirut port, destroying large neighborhoods of the capital, killing hundreds of innocents, wounding thousands and displacing even more. The sound of shattering glass drowned the city, leaving its inhabitants to wonder about this massive orange plum hovering over its sky. Hours after the explosion, people started realizing that it was the hangars of the port that exploded. The shock of the explosion gave way to disbelief, then to a violent, deadly and visceral coming to terms with how murderous this regime had become, and how cheap our lives are under it.

A year after the blast, there is still no official answer as to the causes of this crime. This is surely a crime, not a disaster or an accident. The first investigative judge in charge of the dossier was removed from his post when he summoned for questioning Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister and three former ministers on suspicion of negligence. The new investigative judge issued an even wider list of top political and security officials to be summoned for questioning. It is unclear what the fate of that move will be, but from the first reactions of the political elites, we can surmise that there will be no cooperation this time too and hence no conclusive results. A new organization, the Association of the Families of the Port Victims, emerged to demand justice and to counter the regime’s attempts at normalizing its crime, but whether the investigation will reach an official closure or not, the people know who is responsible for that crime.

Those responsible for this crime know it too.

The blast ended any naïve hope in the possibility of reforming this regime or even of coexisting with it, however painfully. It signaled for many that it is time to leave. As for those who stayed behind, the question now is how to protect themselves from this murderous regime. What does a collective movement of self-defense looks like?

An International Humanitarian-Security Response against Global Solidarity

After years of propping this regime under different excuses, international players are now reviewing their stance regarding Lebanon. After a short period of trying to convince or coerce the ruling political elites to form a government and start a reform program, the international community seems to have lost hope in any domestic solution. In the absence of any possible path of political diplomacy, the approach to Lebanon has taken the usual route when dealing with failed states, of a humanitarian-security centric response. In view of the catastrophic social situation, the urgency has been to try to secure basic aids to a population that is facing acute shortages in almost everything.

The humanitarian impulse is also motivated by security concerns, in view of the presence of a large population of refugees that Europe fear might try to cross the Mediterranean but also in anticipation of the coming social violence. Talks about providing support to the fledging Lebanese army have increased, as the last official institution that could hold the country together. Banking on the army to maintain order is ironic, since Lebanon is one of the few countries in the region that have managed to keep the military out of political life. It is unrealistic, as the Lebanese army is too weak to be able to play the role required by foreign diplomats.

These solutions are at best short sighted and at worse bound to make things worse. A security and humanitarian response will only Lebanon into a cycle of never-ending poverty and misery, especially that the ruling elites are eying foreign aid as the last source of foreign currency. Seeing Lebanon as composed solely of “dangerous victims” that need to be managed might be convenient for foreign diplomats, but it will not help much. The current situation calls for a different understanding of solidarity, of a form of global solidarity with a suffering population held hostage by its ruling elites. Past instances of global solidarity have failed to remedy the hardships of population who rose against their regime and there is nothing right now globally that pushes us to be more optimistic. Optimism and pessimism are feelings that we cannot afford anymore, a luxury we lost long ago. Right now, we have no choice but to resist. How to survive and resist amidst all of this misery is our question. How to stand in solidarity with a people facing their rulers is yours.

Photo gallery

Beirut - one year after the explosion (4 August 2020)