An anti-government protester chants slogans as she holds up a Lebanese flag Image Credit: AP

There was a time, not long ago, when Lebanese looked down their noses, or at the least pitied, those wretched refugees from neighbouring Syria who boarded smugglers’ boats from the port cities of Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli for the risky — at times deadly — crossings to Europe, via Cyprus, the island nation in the eastern Mediterranean a mere 165 miles away from the Lebanese coast.

Now the people of Lebanon, in droves, are doing just that, trusting that their boats will not get caught in storms or lost at sea — all in an effort to escape the misery of life in a country that has become a basket case, unable to cope with multiple social problems, reform its sclerotic government institutions and curb a political elite too invested in the system to change it, a country now pitied as much by its own people as by the outside world.

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Evidence of how true that is was presented last Saturday when Prime Minister Designate Mustafa Adib threw in the towel and stood down following his failure to form a government after a whole month of negotiations with the feuding political blocs in Parliament, who appear to put their parochial and narrow agendas ahead of the national interest.

Failure by an individual as by a nation is not fatal. We all fail at times. Failure to change, however, is.

Singling out Hizbollah for harsh criticism

At a news conference last Sunday devoted to Lebanon, French President Emmanuel Macron — whose country was the Mandate power in the region in 1943 and carved Lebanon out of Greater Syria that year — took to task those political blocks for their failure to work for the collective good, namely to come up with an audacious plan to form a national unity government, singling out Hizbollah for harsh criticism.

He said bluntly that the group, which since the 1980s has played an oversized role on the political scene, needed to explain, and do so soon, whether “it is a serious political party committed to implementing a road map for the country’s future” or a militia operating at the behest of Iran. He wondered additionally whether Lebanon’s power brokers have “betrayed” their obligations to the nation, thus committing “collective treason” (in French, “trahison collective”).

Them are fighting words, Emmanuel. But given the fact that Lebanon has seen its unemployment rate rise to 35 per cent and the value of its currency drop by 80 per cent, topped last month by the devastating explosion of close to 3,000 tons of improperly — very improperly — stored ammonium nitrate that killed 200 people and ravaged large swaths of the capital, plunging the country into deeper crisis, fighting words are what is needed to jolt that political elite, whose divisive, what’s-in-it-for-me view of political culture has torn Lebanon apart.

Heaven knows when the next prime minister designate will be appointed and tasked with forming a reform-minded government. Meanwhile, Lebanon will remain in limbo, unable — with a lame-duck, caretaker government in charge — to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for much needed funds slated for economic recovery. If, as seems all but inevitable at this point, these feuding blocs in parliament abandon efforts to form any government real soon, we’re all in for the long haul.

Illustrious modern history

How sad for Lebanon, once an otherworldly and winsome nation that — at just roughly 4,000 square miles and a population of just under seven million — is not just the smallest sovereign state in the Arab world but the smallest in mainland Asia, a state whose illustrious ancient history places it as home to the Phoenicians, the enterprising maritime culture that flourished for three thousand years, and whose equally illustrious modern history places it as a cultural hub, traditionally a gathering place for writers, poets, theoreticians, ideologues, artists and belle lettrists, whose creative effusions fuelled the Arab struggle for national independence and self-definition, a country that, additionally, enjoyed a diversified economy that included tourism, agriculture, commerce and banking, indeed a country that exuded prosperity, élan and self-confidence.

Today that country is, well, yes, a basket case.

If at the end of the day you find yourself, as a political commentator, reflecting on what to say about the future of this troubled land, don’t take at face value the stark observation proffered by Michel Aoun, the country’s president. “Lebanon”, he said last week, “is hell-bound”.

We all hope, of course, that that prediction will be proven wrong, and the country’s many failures will in time act as its teacher not its undertaker.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile