Protesters, some violent, many unruly, most sullen, with looks of repressed anger on their faces, continued to demonstrate in Lebanese cities in a show of rising frustration over the economic and political crisis they have been made to endure by their government over the last two years.
Last week, as a case in point, armed demonstrators took to the streets in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest and most impoverished city, all the while firing in the air, and on June 26 a large crowd of depositors, seeking to access to closed accounts, stormed the Lebanese Swiss Bank in Beirut, destroying furniture, trashing documents and threatening the staff.
The World Bank, not given to hyperbole in its reports, recently described the economic crisis in Lebanon as one of the worst the world has witnessed in 150 years, one made all the more acute by a political logjam that has left the country without a government since last summer.
Nation running on autopilot
Imagine. A crisis the likes of which the world has not seen in 150 years! A country running on autopilot, without a government!
Alarming, yes, but true. The sad fact is that crises have dogged Lebanon for a long time. The country has had a political crisis, a financial crisis, a social crisis, an economic crisis, a sectarian crisis, an environmental crisis and, yes, an existential crisis eating away at its national soul.
But what triggers outrage here is that those who had nothing to do with causing this aggregate of crises — ordinary, everyday folks — have been made to carry the heaviest burden.
Lebanon today, very simply, is a basket case. Its economy is in a tailspin, its politics is in gridlock, its public services are dismal, its leaders refuse to work together and its national currency has fallen so precipitously that last week it nosedived to an unimaginable 10 per cent of its original value, evoking an image reminiscent of the time, between 1919 and 1923, when inflation was so out control in Germany that shoppers were required to fill a wheelbarrow with bills in order to buy one loaf of bread.
Quotidian life for these ordinary, everyday folks is one of drudgery, marked by sweating through constant blackouts, waiting for hours in fuel lines, hopping across town from one pharmacy to another — most with empty shelves — in search of much needed medicine, climbing eight flights of stairs to your apartment in a high-rise building because elevators lack power, and so on with the misery of it all.
A country coming undone
Look, societal failure, even on such a gargantuan scale, isn’t always fatal. Polities everywhere, across cultures and eras, have experienced it at one time or another in their history. It becomes fatal, however, when leaders refuse to change, continuing to allow, as in this case, divisive politics to trump the national interest.
Last Saturday, Nabih Berri, Speaker of the House, told reporters, “Lebanon is in danger of sinking like the Titanic”. Alas, unlike the RMS Titanic in 1912, this one does not even have musicians on deck — playing the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” in order to calm the panicked passengers — let alone lifeboats. The people of Lebanon are left to fend for themselves.
My, what a contrast this Lebanon is to the Lebanon I knew. The Lebanon I grew up in, albeit as a teenage refugee-camp Palestinian. The Lebanon that was then, in the 1950s, a vibrant little nation whose capital, Beirut, perched on the pristine coast of the Mediterranean Sea, was considered the cultural hub of the Arab world.
Freewheeling Beirut in those days was a magnet to intellectuals, writers, poets, journalists, theoreticians, ideologues and other lost souls who were hounded or hunted down in their own homelands elsewhere in the Arab world.
Dangers that lie ahead
All these deracines gravitated to the Hamra, the Latin Quarter of Beirut, where they met in their chosen cafés, micro-societies where ideological birds of a feather — Arab Nationalists, Baathists, Nasserists, Greater Syria Nationalists, Marxists and old-style revolutionary Bolsheviks — flocked together.
There you heard fresh ideas debated about linking the intimate centre of the Arab world’s present to the actuality of its past and the potentiality of its future, verbalised by young, passionate minds impatient with the tired, often reactionary ways of an older generation that still nursed a hangover from its grim days under Ottoman and then Mandate rule.
Yet, all these intellectual effusions failed, sadly, to act as the canary in the coal mine, cautioning against the dangers that lay ahead — not just in Lebanon but, as the current anarchy in several Arab countries would attest, elsewhere in our region as well.
Whichever way you spin it, Lebanon today is indeed a basket case. The fate that has befallen it haunts the imagination of my generation of Arabs, who knew Beirut not as a city but as a world, and Lebanon not as a country but as a place of the mind.
In September 2020, President Michel Aoun despairingly proclaimed: “Lebanon is going to hell”.
This is one prediction no doubt he regrets that he was right about. So are the rest of us.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile