'War is inevitable': Lebanon's lost generation grapples with a bleak future

'War is inevitable': Lebanon's lost generation grapples with a bleak future
Many young Lebanese feel trapped in a disintegrating country where hope is in short supply.
10 min read
15 July, 2020
Lebanon is mired in a severe economic crisis. [Getty]
Rana Haddad still remembers how blissfully uncomplicated her life used to be during her internship in a northern European country a few years ago.

But back in her homeland, she's living life with both her feet firmly planted in a reality that is becoming bleaker by the day

"You can't even think about what you want to do... you only think about the best option for you and your family, how to provide for them," Haddad, who asked for her name to be changed, told The New Arab.

"You can't chase your dreams; dreams have now become a luxury, like everything else," the 27-year-old humanitarian worker adds despondently.

While the Lebanese are no strangers to hardship, from a devastating 15-year-long civil war to on-and-off bursts of sectarian strife and long periods of economic struggle, the collective hopelessness and panic reverberating throughout the country is palpable.

Many bitterly joke that even a simple "How are you?" has become an extremely loaded question. 

Headlines warning of an impending famine, suicides over financial desperation, photos of Lebanese families standing in front of their empty fridges, and groups on Facebook where people barter for everyday basic necessities have sparked outrage and a collective realisation that the quality of life for the average Lebanese citizen has sunk to lows not seen since the horrors of the civil war.  

You can't chase your dreams; dreams have now become a luxury, like everything else

In the last nine months, the tiny Mediterranean country has faced a trifecta of compounding disasters that have derailed daily life for most Lebanese citizens.

In October 2019, an unparalleled civil uprising sparked by worsening economic conditions rocked Lebanon. Although the uprising led to the ouster of the then-government, the new government's inability to fulfil the demands for reform further deepened public cynicism. 

Read more: 'Enough is enough': The fraught return of
Lebanon's revolution

With the shock of the global pandemic, tourism, traditionally a crucial source of income for the country, took a massive hit.

And while people were adjusting to quarantine, facing unemployment and random capital controls, the national currency took a dizzying dive from a stable peg of 1,507 pounds to the US dollar last summer to an astounding 10,000 pounds to the dollar on the black market at the time of writing, a depreciation of over 80 percent.

Trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare

While the Lebanese are no strangers to waves of people leaving its shores in search of a better life - with a diaspora that's often said to be almost three times the size of its actual population - this time around the few people who actually have the chance to leave are instead stuck in a Kafkaesque nightmare.  

"I went from getting a solid job offer abroad in November to losing that same job offer because the embassy, which would enable me to process my papers, closed during the uprising, only to find out now that my current employer likely won't get enough funding to make it through the year," Haddad says. 

In the last nine months, the tiny Mediterranean country has faced a trifecta of compounding disasters that have derailed daily life for most Lebanese citizens

Haddad, part of the latest lost generation of young Lebanese who have seen not only their future plans but also their daily lives derailed by the crisis, has little hope left.

"Before, we were at a stage where we actually felt guilty for having just enough, because so many were worse off. Our only dream was for our families to be safe - to have a meal on your table every day and to pay for your health insurance in case something happens," Haddad says.  

"But now we can't even count on that, and you feel like all these years when you're supposed to be the most productive and when you're supposed to build your life are just going to waste."

To add insult to injury, banks have also put in place strict and random capital controls that prevent account holders from withdrawing their US dollars, whether in Lebanon or abroad, and from transferring money overseas. This means they cannot apply for a visa, pay tuition abroad, or start a new life anywhere else. 

Read more: Lebanon's uphill corruption battle against an 'untouchable class'

"I keep having to postpone my ticket out of here," says Dany Khoury, who also declined to give his real name, a 32-year-old professional basketball player and insurance expert who was meant to leave for Canada after having received a visa last summer. Between not getting paid for months, then having his painstakingly earned savings lose most of their value, he says he can't imagine leaving before next summer. 

"As usual, the situation in Lebanon, and subsequently its effect on our lives, will depend on events in the region and even globally. The presidential elections in the US, the elections in Syria... We have to sit idly by to wait and see who decides what in Lebanon so we can continue our lives."  

'A lost generation'

While the unemployment rate in Lebanon wasn't exactly rosy before the country spiralled into its worst economic crisis to date, its youth unemployment rate has now surged past the 45 percent mark according to Dr. Rima Majed, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the American University of Beirut.

"Lebanon's main export to the world is human beings and their skills, and this has always been the case historically, but things have dramatically changed since last year," says Majed. "Unemployment is becoming a huge problem everywhere in the world so to be employable elsewhere, one must really have this comparative advantage which is becoming more and more difficult."  

Lebanon's lost generation has seen both their future plans and daily lives derailed by the economic crisis

Options have become limited for even highly educated Lebanese people, as they don't have access to their money and face slim job prospects abroad despite their exceptional qualifications. 

"As sociologists, we are starting to think about a lost generation, also for generations to come. There is a whole generation that is going to be unable to attend school or universities," Majed says. "We are talking about thousands who won't be able to afford schooling because of the weakness of the public system in Lebanon." 

According to Majed, public schools and universities won't be able to absorb the huge numbers of people who would enrol. Thus, the category of people who don't have an education - and consequently don't have the opportunity to leave - is going to grow tremendously and have huge internal implications on both society and the economy, as it has always been heavily reliant on remittances from Lebanese diaspora

"Lebanese who are abroad will not be able to send money as before and in this crisis for dollars that we are experiencing, we should expect less and less dollars to come in from abroad, so it looks like a very dark scenario for at least a decade from now," Majed says.

Read more: How Tripoli emerged as the epicentre of Lebanon's national crisis

Plagued by deep-rooted corruption 

While many outsiders may wonder how Lebanon, a country known to many for its wonderful weather and cuisine, famed diaspora, and Hollywood-approved fashion brands, managed to tie itself into such an inextricable knot of financial ruin, those who grew up in the country all point to the same culprit: decades of deep-rooted, rampant corruption which has benefited the political elite, desperate to remain in power while lining their own pockets, to the detriment of millions of Lebanese citizens.

"Most people get their jobs through wasta [the concept of quid pro quo]. This is the core of our issue," says Kareem, a 30-year-old social media executive who declined to give his last name. "At a certain point, without wasta, you hit a wall. Only if you have no ambitions and if you really love what you do, then maybe you will accept the next 50 years in the same position with the same salary in a country which is going down the drain." 

Kareem, who affirms that he's very grateful for his current job, especially as he sees others struggling around him, says friends grapple between either becoming a slave to a system that is entrenched in corruption on every level or proactively going against it. "What's frustrating is that most people, by nature, want to get married, which requires settling down and stability which means you have to settle, because you can't have a family and go fight the system."

In October 2019, an unparalleled civil uprising sparked by worsening economic conditions rocked Lebanon

While Kareem, like many others, points to the ruling elite that created and continues to profit off the corrupt system as the main issue, he stresses that people should not downplay their own role in keeping that system in place. "We lack responsibility in this country. We can't just complain about the corruption in this country because it starts somewhere. We're not corrupt just because the ruling class is corrupt. I'm not defending them obviously, but they came from somewhere: We put them there." 

Kareem was in the process of planning to try his luck abroad, to pursue his lifelong passion, which is out of reach in Lebanon, but like others, the money he had saved up until now sits idle in his account. "I am currently stuck with useless currency, so whatever I had saved is shit. It's like it's not even there. I laugh, but it's a laugh of desperation."

October revolution

While the first few weeks of what was commonly referred to as the thawra [Arabic for revolution] were marked by a collective sense of solidarity, unity and hope, some interviewed by The New Arab mentioned a feeling of utter hopelessness, referred to as an "emotional hangover", while others said they never believed in its efficacy and were thus spared disappointment. 

Read more: 'We will rise again': Lebanon's revolution is
on hold but far from over

"I wasn't a thawraista [one who participated in the thawra], no. For me, here was no hope from the start. It's not a press of a button with which you change mentalities that have been stagnant for over 40 years," Kareem says. "You have to know what you're fighting. You can't just revolt blindly." 

Majed says that, while stressing that this is not a critique of those who took to the streets, the October revolution was not willing to take power which is why, academically, it would not qualify as a revolution.

"Apart from the semantics, whether it was or not, people were demanding the system to change itself, they were not demanding to take power and change things," Majed says. "Also, this was not a coup, this was really a spontaneous social explosion, so people were not ready. It's as simple as that." 

'A war is inevitable'

Although some may have lost hope and trust in what Majed refers to as 'the movement', she says that it's important to remember that revolutions take time. "The French revolution took eight decades," she says. 

Additionally, Majed points out, this is not a 'normal' case of revolution where there's a retreat, but people are still able to organise.

"Our frustration is even more amplified by the fact that on a daily basis we are losing our savings, the purchasing power of our salaries, and our jobs. We are talking about a society now where almost 55 percent already lives under the poverty line, so this is a recipe for disaster. And this is why I fear that a war is inevitable, that the next phase of this revolutionary process is going to be violent." 

The collective hopelessness and panic reverberating throughout the country is palpable

According to Majed, this war will be a political decision and, for the ruling class, it may be the best and only possible way out at this point. "It will benefit them, as it will reproduce them as heroes. And a war is cheaper now than ever before. If one wants to think about it economically, it's one of the very few options left for dollars to flow into the country."

After the disastrous decisions made by the governments in the past year, Majed says no country in the world will still have enough trust to put any money in Lebanon. But in the meantime, people have to keep going.

"All these accumulated drastic changes in our everyday life are too much for any individual to take. But we're managing, I guess," Majed says. "It's actually quite impressive how much we can take," she adds in a dejected tone that betrays a sense of awe.

Farah-Silvana Kanaan is a Beirut-based freelance journalist. She formerly worked as a reporter at The Daily Star

Follow her on Twitter: @FarahKanaan