A country in freefall: What future for Lebanon?

The pessimistic, optimistic and realistic scenarios for a divided nation.

Lebanese soldiers take cover behind shields during a protest after Lebanese Prime Minister-Designate Saad al-Hariri abandoned his effort to form a new government in Beirut on July 15, 2021 [Reuters/Mohamed Azakir]

Once the envy of the Arab world, Lebanon has become a basket case, with no end in sight. Its political system is in deadlock, as its economy perishes with each passing day, forcing its leaders to plead for foreign emergency assistance to stay afloat, including food for its starving army.

But the Lebanese, a savvy people, better known for their hummus than for their humility, have until recently been in denial over the magnitude of the deepening crisis.

They are an industrious, shrewd and entrepreneurial bunch who have overcome two major crises in recent decades and are confident about their next comeback.

But this may well prove a third time unlucky.

Known to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t know, the “bon vivant” Lebanese have become so impoverished and so isolated that there are few goods to buy, fewer people to impress, and little hard currency to borrow.

They now live the “shawarma paradox”: the national sandwich which cost 5,000 Lebanese pounds or $2 a couple of years ago, today is priced at 20,000 pounds or less than a dollar.

But the Lebanese spirit lives on, together with the well-known Lebanese self-deprecating humour, which is increasingly dominating Lebanese social media.

As one joke goes: make sure to say your prayers, or you will go through hell twice, in Lebanon and in the afterlife. Another highlights the three choices the Lebanese have during the crisis: go to Hariri hospital, leave through Hariri airport, or catch up with (the late Prime Minister) Rafiq Hariri, in person.

Indeed, Lebanon is a living, breathing paradox. It is a land of opposites; of sectarianism and secularism, and of immense wealth and abject poverty, of ultra-liberals and extreme conservatives. It is also famous for its brightest intellectuals and most idiotic entertainers.

The country’s contradictions are woven into the national fabric. Though largely confessional, Lebanon’s paradoxical characteristics transcend its religious affiliations.

It is painful to watch how these people – known as the most practical and productive in the region – have turned so utterly impractical and counterproductive towards their own country.

But, to be sure, the “Lebanese paradox” can be a burden but could also be an asset.

It may be pluralistic, inspiring diversity and competition. And it may be polarising, sowing hatred and infighting, as it is today, paralysing its political system and ruining the economy.

Historically, when the Lebanese have felt Lebanese first and have had their loyalty foremost to Lebanon, not to this or that sect (be it Sunni, Shiite, Maronite, Druze, etc), their diversity has become an asset. But when they have put sect above country, their plurality has turned into hostility, and competition – into conflict.

In 1975, the country’s sectarian leaders dragged the Lebanese into a devastating civil war, pitting neighbour against neighbour, to advance their own narrow interests. And soon after the war ended in 1990, they went on to divide Lebanon among themselves by putting sectarian interests above the national interests, and have since squandered its potential for prosperity by plundering its wealth.

Unfortunately, it must be said, that sectarian leaders would not have succeeded if they did not enjoy a large following within their “communities”, albeit through manipulation and divisiveness, making people feel safer as members of a sect rather than as citizens of the republic.

By inserting themselves squarely between the state and its citizens, between the government and the governed, sectarian leaders have made themselves indispensable for running the affairs of the state. But their nepotism, corruption and utter incompetence have broken the country.

This became clear as regional upheavals and the global pandemic took their toll on Lebanon, coupled with a devastating explosion that rocked the capital last summer.

Having suffered for decades from Israeli wars and occupation, over the past 10 years, the small country has also had to bear the brunt of the war in Syria. The Lebanese Hezbollah joined the conflict wholeheartedly on the side of the al-Assad regime and this came at a terrible humanitarian cost, as some 1.5 million Syrian refugees crossed into Lebanon.

In the process, Beirut lost much of its prestige and attraction as an economic, cultural, tourist and media hub over the past decade, falling behind other major cities like Dubai, Doha and Amman.

With fewer resources, fewer remittances and fewer regional opportunities at their disposal, the cynical and entrepreneurial elites turned inwards, and with unmatched cunning, they devoured the assets of the state and society, including the life savings of countless Lebanese families.

The worse the situation became, the more viciously these corrupt elites held onto their power. They have refused to relinquish it, despite nine months of political deadlock, protests and economic collapse.

Today, the country is spiralling downwards thanks to two jaded and cynical leaders at the helm of the state and its parliament, coupled with an incompetent man-boy in and out of the premiership and a behind-the-scenes power broker hiding in his bunker – the loyalties of the latter lying outside the country.

Their political mechanisation, which is too convoluted for outsiders to decipher, has become deeply entrenched, despite popular demand for ending the sectarian system they champion.

But the optimists, delusional as they may be at times, are not giving up.

Some reckon that a government of technocrats is bound to break out of the current impasse and better manage the affairs of the state. But technocrats cannot resolve economic problems in the absence of political will on the part of the country’s sectarian political parties and leaders.

Others hope that direct international assistance and intervention could help the country overcome its economic crisis and provide the time and supervision needed for political reform. They do not see how more impoverished countries are also vying for the same international aid, which, incidentally, is shrinking by the year.

The last international conference for Lebanon collected less than $300m, a drop in the bucket when compared with the country’s $93bn public debt, which, when put against the GDP, is the highest in the world. Next month’s second donor conference will prove no more promising and no less insistent on radical reform and internationally supervised elections, which the country’s effective rulers continue to resist.

And then some assume that the Lebanese expats, who are more numerous and more prosperous than citizens residing in the country, could eventually play a major role in reviving the country’s economy and in improving its governance.

But that is overly optimistic for a country in freefall. Enticing expats to invest, let alone move back, will take far more than a few pledges of reform.

And then there are the pessimists, dark as they may be at times.

Some reckon sectarian leaders are allowing the situation to deteriorate further in order to get their followers to coalesce behind them before they lose their prestige and influence.

They reckon the mindset that dragged the country to civil war in 1975 continues to thrive in the country’s present sectarian system.

In fact, the sceptics fear that as the economy implodes and the situation spirals out of control, violent conflict may well follow.

And last but not least, there are those, let us call them the “pessimi-optimists”, who hope for a grand bargain among regional and Western powers following the settling of the Iran nuclear deal; one that includes a political settlement in Lebanon, paving the way for greater regional, notably Saudi and Gulf interest and investment.

While this rather far-fetched bargain may calm the situation in the short term, it will only postpone the implosion, while consolidating all that is historically wrong with Lebanon.

That is why, the way forward cannot be the way back.

In fact, there is no viable alternative for a radical Lebanese solution to Lebanon’s debilitating debacle.

This entails the people in the streets and civil society activists turning their popular and civic power into political power by organising non-sectarian political parties, and helping democratically change the despicable sectarian system that is at the centre of the country’s woes, in favour of a true Republic of Lebanon.

This may be hard and may take long to accomplish, but there are no shortcuts and no easy magical solutions to building a functioning democracy.

Even then, even after democracy and reform are set in motion, there are no guarantees that Lebanon will shed its sectarianism or become prosperous, or that Beirut will recover its oomph and mystic in light of deepening regional crises and scathing cosmopolitan competition.

But then again, crises are great opportunities for real change. And this dramatic Lebanese crisis presents a rare opportunity for democrats to entice the countless angry and disgruntled Lebanese to change course and stand together for the country they love.

I may not be terribly optimistic, but I am always hopeful for the Lebanese and for Lebanon.