Lebanon has not reached its nadir yet - Impunity and corruption have become chronic diseases
This article contains excerpts from the author’s report, Lebanon’s Disadvantaged Face a Long, Uphill Battle (2021) published by a SKL International, which is conducting a SIDA-funded project in Lebanon. The report deals with the challenges for donors and development actors in a country torn by multiple crises. The report focuses on Akkar, one of Lebanon's poorest provinces, which hosts a large number of refugees from Syria.
Hammargren's article is a very recent update on the current economic and political situation in Lebanon, which also contains a brief historical review. In her analysis, she points out in which direction the development in the country can go.
Bitte Hammargren, born 1955, is a Swedish journalist, author, Middle Eastern analyst, and Senior associate fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI). During the years 2001-2012 she was a Middle East correspondent for Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish newspaper.
No festivities marked Lebanon’s centenary on 1 September 2020. On that day one hundred years earlier, the State of Greater Lebanon was carved out by the French colonial power from Greater Syria – although it would last until 1943 before Lebanon won its independence. The Lebanese found no reason to celebrate the centennial. Instead, the country was marred by multiple crises.
A few weeks earlier, on 4 August, a gigantic blast had shaken Beirut, when 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the Port, laying large parts of Beirut’s historical neighbourhoods in ruins, leaving 300,000 homeless, killing over 200 people and injuring 7,500. Devastated citizens witnessed an explosion that caused more physical damage to Beirut than 15 years of civil war. Months later, a German firm found 52 containers of lethal chemicals in the Port, which could have caused a second catastrophe. Lebanese citizens talked with dismay about a blast caused by criminal negligence in ‘a rotten country’.
Impunity prevailed, as has often been the case in Lebanon. The judge who led the criminal investigation was removed after complaints by two former ministers charged in the probe. Lebanon was thus back to square one. National top figures, including former prime ministers, other relevant ministers, and heads of the security services and the Lebanese Armed Forces were spared from the investigation, while Lebanon became ‘the Titanic without the orchestra’, as France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described it.
Parallel to this crisis, the collapse of the economy has pushed the country closer to the brink, while the Covid-19 pandemic has caused another disaster. Every intent to hold Lebanese leaders to account, or to enforce political reforms, deals with the IMF, anti-corruption measures and transparency into the Central Bank have been in vain.
The blast in Beirut, plus the pandemic, stifled a non-sectarian, national protest movement which had turned its anger against Lebanon’s political class. For months, the slogan of the protest movement, Killoun, yani killoun (All of them, means all of them), had echoed across the country, bringing about the fall of Saad al-Hariri’s premiership in October 2019. However, ‘the Lebanese street’ was not able to rock the boat. Old power structures remain intact.
As this is written in mid-May 2021, Lebanon is still led by a paralyzed caretaker government. Hariri is designated to form a new government – most likely a cabinet where President Aoun and his son-in-law will have vetoing power. The delay in forming a new government is tightly connected to the wider geopolitical tensions, and on whether the Biden administration will come to terms with Tehran on the Iran nuclear deal or not.
Once more, Lebanon displays features of a dysfunctional state. Earlier, this was manifested during the 1975–1990 civil war, during the 30 years of Syrian control of Lebanon, the Israeli incursions in 1978 and 1982, followed by Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon until 2000, and the standoff in Beirut in 2008 between the two political blocks (March 8 and March 14), when the country was close to a new civil war.
The current combined crises of Covid-19, corruption, economic meltdown, and a political class that rejects accountability and necessary reforms, have resulted in Lebanon tail-spinning to disaster. The eruption of a new civil war cannot be excluded. An opaque political class in Beirut turns a deaf ear to the demands from the streets. At the same time, the political elite is highly susceptible to the influence of powerful external forces. For many years, Lebanon has been at the center of the rivalry between Iran/Syria on the one hand and Saudi Arabia/United States on the other, while Israel operates from the south. However, in today’s Lebanon, Syria and Iran have the upper hand.
Some factions, especially the Shiite Islamist Hezbollah (Arabic for God’s Party), are deeply involved in the war in Syria, supporting the Assad regime. Simultaneously, Lebanon hosts the world’s largest refugee population per capita, due to a huge influx of Syrians, who are mostly Sunni Arab enemies and victims of the Assad Regime.
Ten years after the eruption of civil protests in Syria, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has risen to at least 1.5 million, equal to a quarter of the total population. Since 2015, UNHCR has suspended all new registrations of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, on request from the Lebanese government. Syrians in Lebanon are subject of an official ‘no camp’ policy. The government refuses to let displaced Syrians settle in official refugee camps, which forces impoverished Syrians to stay in informal tent settlements.
The ‘no-camp’ policy has emerged from Lebanon’s history of hosting Palestinian refugees since 1948, which led to a militarization of their camps in the 70’s. During the civil war, Palestinian guerillas advanced in a weak state by the help of Lebanese allies. In today’s Lebanon, there is a deep-rooted resentment against granting the Palestinians, mostly Sunni Muslims, any platform in the society. They are stateless, discriminated on the labor and housing market, lacking civic rights. In a similar pattern, Syrian professionals are exempt from getting work permits, even if there is a demand for their skills. The word ‘inclusion’ in relation to Syrian and Palestinian refugees triggers strong negative reactions in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s political system is built on sectarianism, which prescribes that the President is a Christian Maronite, the Prime Minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shiite Muslim. Lebanon’s population is divided into 18 different religious sects. Civil marriage is not possible, which forces Lebanese who wish to marry across sectarian lines to travel abroad, often to Cyprus. Despite its sect-based political system, Lebanon has not held a census since 1932, when there were considerably more Christians residing in the country. Unsurprisingly, tensions have emerged repeatedly, with various leaders calling for support from external actors.
On this backdrop, Lebanon has been dragged into the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia/USA and Iran/Syria. After the assassination in 2005 of the pro-Saudi former premier Rafiq al-Hariri a peaceful, popular uprising forced the Syrian military and security services to withdraw. Nevertheless, Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian forces have prevailed. This was also manifest in 2016, when the ex-army chief Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and an ally of Hezbollah, was elected President by Parliament. Aoun previously belonged to an anti-Syrian camp, but made a U-turn in 2005, after the departure of Syrian troops.
Saad al-Hariri is generally seen as pro-United States, but has not been willing to confront Hezbollah. A Saudi passport-holder like his deceased father, he has close ties to the House of Saud. However, his loyalty to the Saudi royals waned considerably in 2017, when he was kidnapped by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, taken into custody in Riyadh, and forced to sign his resignation in front of TV cameras. He was set free only after French President Emmanuel Macron intervened to secure his release.
The assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri made the UN set up a Special Tribunal for Lebanon to investigate the murder. After 15 years of work and 415 court hearings, the Tribunal’s final verdict found only one accused, a mid-level operative of Hezbollah, guilty in absentia. With this anti-climax, the judges dashed previous hopes in many circles that the Tribunal would find damning evidence against Hezbollah’s top brass or the Assad regime.
For decades, Lebanon has been the scene of political murders. These crimes are often left unsolved, but politically they cause deep wounds. In some cases, they have led to gory revenge against innocent people, as was the case in 1982, when civilian Palestinians were massacred in Sabra and Shatila after the assassination of the Phalangist leader and President-elect Bashir Gemayel. In numerous cases, writers and publishers have been victims of targeted killings. Among the victims can be mentioned Gibran al-Tueni, politician and publisher of the daily paper al-Nahar, as well as the influential columnist Samir Kassir, both vocal critics of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. The pattern of impunity after political assassinations has continued, with the slain Lokman Slim, a prominent political activist and Shiite critic of Hezbollah, as the latest example, in February 2021. Hezbollah denies any involvement in the killing.
Still, Lebanon is so much more than just vendettas and struggles for power. The country has also been the cradle of entrepreneurs, thinkers, artists, and a rich culture. Literary trends have originated here, from the 19th century renaissance of Arab literature, al-nahda, to modern poetry, journalism and novels. According to a classic Arabic saying, the Egyptians write, the Lebanese publish, and the Iraqis read. However, Lebanon has also fostered its own great writers, from classics such as Khalil Gibran and Emily Nasrallah to modern authors such as Amin Maalouf, Hoda Barakat, Hanan al-Shaykh and Elias Khoury. Despite Lebanon’s traditional press freedom, many of the country’s most prominent writers have chosen exile over the years, earlier mostly to Egypt, but nowadays more to countries in the West.
Another worrying sign for today’s Lebanon is the risk of a ‘talent erosion’. In 2020, the Dubai-based Arab Youth Surveyfound that out of 17 Arab countries studied, including conflict areas such as Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Palestine, Lebanon had the highest ratio of youth who consider leaving their country. In the age group between 18 and 24, 77% of the Lebanese wish to emigrate, findings showed.
This yearning to emigrate is partly due to family connections to the Lebanese diaspora. There are more Lebanese abroad than in the country itself. But the current, multiple crises in Lebanon also constitutes a new push-factor, especially for young people who have lost hope in a decent future in their own country. For them, unemployment, corruption, lack of transparency and of accountability have become chronic maladies of the country.
For decades, Lebanese civil society activists have argued that there is an organic link between foreign meddling and the corruption and patronage in the political system. “Almost no one believes that it is possible to respond to the economic and social disasters by continuing to act according to the codes of the existing political system, which simply isn’t working. It has to undergo a deep reform,” comments Joseph Bahout of the Issam Fares Institute.
While parts of civil society have called for an immediate overhaul of the political system, others advocate gradual change towards better governance, thus hoping to prevent the state from imploding. Some analysts are warning that Lebanon risks a Somalia-like scenario, with a new civil war and implosion of the state, if the system does not undergo a profound change.
A dwindling exchange rate of the Lebanese pound, down 90 percent to the USD since October 2019, has led to hyperinflation, rapidly increasing poverty, and widespread desperation. The public debt amounts to at least USD100bn, or 160 percent of GDP. The situation has become so dire that one of my contacts in Akkar, one of Lebanon’s poorest governorates which is also hosting many Syrian refugees, asks herself ‘Is it a shame to put meat on your table, when others can’t?’
In a state which used to be classified as an upper middle-income country by the World Bank, the middle class is close to extinction. Food prices have spiked, hunger has become a tangible problem and suicides have become more frequent. The situation has also created greater inequalities between those who have access to USD and those who do not.
One way to measure the devaluation of the Lebanese lira is by the price of the standard breakfast bread, mana’ish. Within one year it became eight times more expensive. My sources in the impoverished Akkar province no longer find it relevant to talk about the unemployment rate. “It is easier to talk about who is employed. In our region, the only people still working are in the military, health, and education sectors, or are staff of international agencies and NGOs. But taxi drivers, daily workers, people in the service sector and construction workers are all jobless and without an income.”
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 Pandemic has placed Lebanon in a state of medical emergency.
Due to the government’s empty Treasury, the Lebanese state did not have enough dollars to pay for vaccine and other essential imports. In January 2021, the World Bank announced financial support of USD 34 million to provide vaccines for Lebanon. The immunization programme was to be handled by private hospitals and clinics. However, concerns were raised regarding the need for transparency, to prevent of the vaccination campaign from being subject to politicization and patronage.
Overloaded with patients, hospitals in Lebanon have been turning away Covid patients. Also, admittance to hospitals for Covid treatment comes at a high cost. “To enter a Covid ward in a private hospital, a patient must pay 30 million Lira, which at the black-market exchange rate is around 3,000 USD. There is no way even the middle class can afford that,” comments a young Syrian refugee, a volunteer in the fight against the pandemic.
One of the problems of fighting Covid-19 has been a belief shared by many that all the talk of a pandemic, followed by lockdowns, was a conspiracy aimed at halting the protests against the political class. But after rising death tolls, many of those who previously denied that there is a pandemic, had to face friends and loved ones falling sick.
Still, there is no lack of money among some Lebanese, but the wealthy have mostly transferred their capital abroad. This is also the case of the Governor of the Central Bank, Riad Salamé. He and his family members hold assets worth approximately 100 million USD, mostly invested in real estate.
Against this backdrop one can easily understand the wrath among the hungry, the sick and the unemployed. Given the malfunctioning of the Lebanese state, plus the wider uncertainties in the Middle East, there is reason to fear that Lebanon has not reached its nadir yet.
This article contains excerpts from the author’s report, ‘Lebanon’s Disadvantaged Face a Long, Uphill Battle’,published by a SKL International, which is conducting a SIDA-funded project in Lebanon. Link to the report here.
For more insights into how Lebanon became prey to so many external actors, not least the destructive rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, ‘Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion and Collective Memory in the Middle East’ by Kim Ghattas (Henry Holt, 2020) can be recommended. The author, a BBC journalist with a Lebanese background, has written a masterpiece for understanding Lebanon and the wider Middle East.
 Centre Arabe de Recherche et d’Études Politiques de Paris (2020)