Lebanon: a year after the Beirut explosion, still at the edge of the ravine

It is exactly a year today since Beirut was rocked by one of the heaviest non-nuclear explosions ever. And still the Lebanese people have not received answers to the most basic questions: Why were 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in the port of a world capital? Who owned the explosives? And who knew about their presence in the port storage facility? The chief investigator of the Lebanese prosecution had been sacked shortly before the disaster, so a new one had to be appointed hastily. It was soon crystal clear to this investigator that the investigation should also focus on the responsibility of high-ranking officials and politicians. Fully in line with the expectations of many Lebanese - who have lost any shred of trust in the ruling class - this investigator too was dismissed, as he threatened the position of (members of the) Lebanese elite. It typifies the Lebanese system steeped in corruption and nepotism. While the country is still recovering from a disastrous explosion, it now seems to be facing an imminent implosion. What the distance is between today's Lebanon and that deep ravine is the question for many - but one fears it will not be much. The country is in a deep political crisis, to which economic, financial and social crises have also been added in recent years.

A decade of crisis in Lebanon
These crises are by no means the result of the disaster in the Lebanese capital, nor of the pandemic that has now lasted a year and a half. Indeed, even before the explosion on 4 August last year, the country had been in deep crisis for some time. Ever since the global financial crisis around 2008, Lebanon's economy has been going downhill: national income is declining, and the country has to borrow more and more on the international capital markets, leading to a meteoric rise in public debt. This debt made it increasingly difficult for the central bank to reduce the so-called peg of the Lebanese pound to the US dollar to maintain monetary stability for imports and exports. On Lebanon's black currency markets, dollars traded for 8,000 pounds, while the official exchange rate was set at 1,500 Lebanese pounds. Currently, the black market is reportedly trading as high as 20,000 Lebanese pounds - for just one US dollar.

To still (temporarily) maintain this untenable situation, the Lebanese central bank took major financial risks by repaying foreign creditors with money borrowed from commercial banks. This so-called ponzi scheme only ended up damaging the Lebanese economy more. When it became public, few foreign investors were willing to put their money in Lebanon, leading to large foreign currency shortages. For a country that has to import practically all its products, this is obviously disastrous: hyperinflation occurred, resulting in skyrocketing food prices. The country practically went bankrupt in early 2020. However, Lebanon can only claim emergency financial assistance from the IMF if it implements all kinds of reforms - something that Lebanon's totally dysfunctional politics has so far failed to do.

Out of the spotlight of the world press
While the limelight of the world press has already swapped Lebanon for other countries and topics for some time, Lebanon will continue to be plagued unabated by persistent economic malaise in 2021. Indeed, the pandemic has only deepened the full extent of the crisis. Earlier this year, the World Bank, in its Economic Monitor-report the economic crisis in Lebanon as one of the worst national crises in the past hundred and fifty years. More than half of the Lebanese live below the poverty line. Forty per cent of the population is unemployed, and an equally large group has limited access to basic needs such as medicine and food. Apart from these economic problems, the government's corona regime is also causing major social tensions in a society with a very poor social safety net, which have regularly surfaced in the form of protests and riots in recent months. Not only is Lebanon in an unabatedly bad state economically and financially, the political status quo is even more hopeless, according to Lebanese investigative journalist Jad Ghosn.

Lebanon's political system: product of the past, shaper of the present as well as the future
Lebanon has been governed in a unique and highly complicated way for decades. Lebanon's denominational system is largely an outgrowth of French colonial rule. As chronicled by the prominent, now deceased Middle East historian, William Cleveland, this period in Lebanon's history "assured the existence of an unstable political constellation in which competition for power would be based on sectarian relations." This principle was accommodated in the 1926 constitution, and formally institutionalised in the 1943 National Pact. The entire Lebanese national administration - from parliament to the highest state positions (President, Prime Minister, Chamber President) to civil servants - was literally laid down, as if cast in concrete, on the basis of the 1932 demographic proportions. And while demographic relations have changed considerably over the past century, the political situation has remained virtually unchanged - except for some concessions to Lebanese Muslims in the post-civil war Ta'if accord.

An almost unbreakable cycle of sectarianism and clientelism
In practice, this arrangement of the Lebanese state and politics means that electorates are dependent on the representative of the sectarian group to which they allegedly belong to represent their interests. The current crisis is therefore largely due to the complex system of sectarian clientelism that has held Lebanon hostage to varying degrees for decades - from failing services (healthcare, education, electricity, food) by the government, weak national institutions and serious corruption and nepotism in public administration to years of political paralysis and the ever-present threat of sectarian violence, as politics and (sectarian) identity have become deeply intertwined. Recently, Sa'ad Hariri stepped down as aspirant prime minister, having proved unable to form a government. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, could not agree with Christian President Michel Aoun on the position of Christians in the new government. After his resignation, there was no particular search for a new face to refloat the tenuous political status quo. No, the Lebanese parliament proposed a political veteran, Najib Mikati, one of the country's richest people. Charged with corruption in 2019, but never tried or convicted. All in all, in short, very little has changed.

The nomination of telecom billionaire Mikati and the growing popular desire to do away with corruption, cronyism and the old sectarian politics are totally at odds. As foreign journalist Sacha Kester wrote in De Volkskrant protesters had demanded that Hariri's successor should not come from the political elite. But this internal pressure is hardly felt by the wealthy, unthreatened elite. The system is designed to favour them, to keep them out of the wind and in power - to keep Lebanon 'stable' (and thus paralysed); not to do justice to the concerns of ordinary Lebanese men and women. Because even as their opposition to it grows, in the end the Lebanese people are trapped in the system - dependent as they are on sectarian patrons and their networks for the most basic needs and public services.

Internal pressure unsuccessful; what about outside political pressure?
Many Lebanese are deeply pessimistic. If even THEIR confrontation with their own failures - the gigantic explosion in Beirut that cost hundreds of people their lives and many their livelihoods - does not make the political elite realise that fundamental change is the only way forward, the only way that can spare Lebanon from further calamity, then a dark future seems justified. Internal pressure - in the form of demonstrations and protests - against that elite has so far had no effect whatsoever.

Macron briefly profiled himself as "saviour Lebanons" - or, as The Standard put it, 'emir' of Lebanon. He visited the capital several times in a short time and held talks with the leaders of all political groups in Lebanon. He thus tried to push for a broad reform agenda, and initiated a political-financial plan which should entitle Lebanon to emergency loans from international lenders. A year later, we have to conclude that Macron's efforts (alone) are insufficient. And while reforms of the financial sector, public administration and stability of governance are sorely needed, a more fundamental point that will have to be faced is that the only truly sufficient reform must involve total systemic overhaul: the cycle of clientelist sectarianism must be eradicated at the root in order to break all dynamics of corruption, cronyism and failed government functioning. However, such a radical approach would threaten the interests of the current elites to such an extent that they would rather see the country disappear into an abyss - and that is exactly what we are currently seeing happen.

It is therefore time to further increase the pressure on the political elite - including from outside; nay, precisely from outside. This week, the European Council presented a new sanctions framework that will allow targeted sanctions to be imposed on individuals and organisations that undermine democracy or the rule of law in Lebanon - whether that is "serious financial misconduct using public funds" or "obstructing or undermining the democratic political process by persistently obstructing the formation of a government". This new sanctions regime may be a hopeful start, but it is certainly nothing more than that for now. If Europe wants to avoid new misery on its external borders, it will have to take a more active stance in Lebanon, by encouraging political change - not only through 'negative' pressures such as sanctions, but also by offering the prospect of investment if much-needed economic as well as political reforms are implemented. In addition, support is needed for organisations like FMS's partner, Progressive Youth Organisation (PYO). These organisations want and can change Lebanon from within, but need the support of allies to do so - in order to put maximum pressure on the elites who profit from the destructive sectarian system from within and without.

Submitted by: Niels Schattevoet

Photo by Jo Kassis from Pexels