Lebanon: Ambitions of a nation taken hostage

Lebanon: Ambitions of a nation taken hostage
Comment: Lebanon has reached a tipping point which, if history is anything to go by, can lead to irreversible damage, writes Carmen Geha.
5 min read
03 Aug, 2020
'A tightly knit web of clientelism and corruption keeps the nation subservient' writes Geha [Getty]
Ordinary people should not have to give their lives away because of bad politicians. But we live in a world where this happens all the time.

It's been almost a decade since the peaceful uprising in Syria started. Since then, it has claimed the lives of over half a million people and caused the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, with over 5 million refugees and 13 million internally displaced.

It is not only that bad politicians and regional wars take lives, but that they also shatter lives, hopes, and dreams of entire generations. In Pakistan, second generation Afghan refugees still live among garbage dumpsters struggling to make ends meet and with no hope of education and social mobility.

In Kenya, Somali refugees fight over a seat in makeshift classrooms in camps and informal settlements, while those who try to leave Somalia have no real home or community to belong to. We know these stories and we have all seen the images, but what we do not consider is that for all these human catastrophes from the Rohingya in Myanmar to the Palestinians in Gaza, there was a tipping point.

Read more: Lebanon's oligarchs crashed the economy, now they're making the people pay

There was a moment when all hope was lost, ambitions stalled, and economies crashed. For all of these preventable human catastrophes there was a moment in time where things went from bad to worse and worse, and it is this moment that Lebanon is going through right now; a tipping point where we can try to stop the bleeding, or we cut a deeper wound and risk not recovering for decades and generations to come.

What does Lebanon's tipping point look like?

Lebanon had a civil war shaped largely by geopolitical realities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the time, and ending with a US-backed Syrian tutelage that would last from 1989 until 2005. The agreement that ended the war granted war criminals full amnesty and returned them to power. They literally got down from their tanks, put on fancy suits, and divided the spoils of the state.

Now, 30 years later, a tightly knit web of clientelism and corruption keeps the nation subservient and living in fear of political retaliation should they dissent. But despite an intricate system of oppression that kept the rich richer and the poor poorer since the civil war, in October 2019 nationwide protests turned into a revolution against them.

There was a moment in time where things went from bad to worse and worse, and that's what Lebanon is going through right now

The symbolism and powerful chants of "all means all", which protesters cried from North to South meant that they held the whole political class responsible for the economic mess and infrastructure chaos the country was experiencing.

From lack of public education to bad sewage, to the worst cancer rates caused by pollution in all of West Asia, life in Lebanon had become unbearable to many. Between October and July 2020, things deteriorated beyond imagination.

I ask people all the time, older people, whether they could have ever expected things to get this bad, and they all say the same thing: bad, but never this bad. Things getting this bad indicates a unique three-fold tipping point known throughout history to lead to irreversible damage.

First, people feel that they are being held hostage. Increased censorship such as that which we are witnessing in Lebanon right now is often coupled with a feeling of fear and hopelessness. Young citizens getting arrested and beaten up over a twitter post or a protest chant. Activists and writers being careful not to name certain politicians or repost certain statements.

One such statement was by Bachir Bou Zeid who posted that lights should be turned off in front of Speaker Berri's home, and instead lit in front of people's homes. That post led to him getting severely beaten up, and the Amal supporters getting away with it.

Second, donors and the international community give up on the nation as a whole because they are not willing to deal with the politicians running the show. Badly needed international funding that keeps some NGOs afloat and supports refugees and other vulnerable communities is dwindling. After decades of being complacent with these same politicians, the international community is blaming lack of reform for their diminished interest in funding anything related to Lebanon.

Third, financial and economic collapse impoverishes what remains from the middle class, throwing over 70 percent of the population under the poverty line. With the lira devaluating from 1,500 to 9,000 to the dollar, previously above average folks now struggle to pay rent.

Fast forward to the crash

The three patterns I describe are not new, but they are exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Lockdowns are conducive to rise in police states and more highly securitised citizen behaviour across the world. A global recession means that donors are less and less interested in saving economies other than their own. And dwindling interest in conflict and refugees because of fatigue around the Middle East in general, is widespread.

This is a depressed nation, which instead of having ambitions for careers and travel and marriage, now aspires merely to get electricity a couple of hours a day

This is a depressed nation, which instead of having ambitions for careers and travel and marriage, now aspires merely to get electricity a couple of hours a day while it lives in a city literally stinking of garbage. All these precipitate the inevitable crash.

Should a nation be taken hostage and suffer irreversible damage because of its bad politicians? Just because a handful of warlords is in power, does that make them the sovereign rulers over people's lives?

The question is not should we, but can we save Lebanon from another 30 years of misery and allow it to contribute to solving regional conflict, rather than slipping into a failed state? I would like to think that we can, and I would also like to continue to have that ambition, even while we are taken hostage and experiencing disaster, which I still see as reversible.

Carmen Geha is an activist, feminist and scholar, researching politics, crisis and mobilisation in MENA. She is Associate Professor of Public Administration at AUB. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CarmenGeha

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.