The Lebanese Street Asks: ‘Which Is Stronger, Sect or Hunger?’

Patrick Baz/AFP via Getty Images
Patrick Baz/AFP via Getty Images.  Lebanese anti-government protester, draped in a national flag, sitting atop The Egg building overlooking the Mohammed al-Amin mosque and the Martyrs’ Square, Beirut, Lebanon, November 14, 2019

In mid-November, when protests against Lebanon’s venal, incompetent, and bankrupt government had already been taking place for three weeks, President Michel Aoun dismissed the demonstrators: if they weren’t satisfied with the country’s political leadership, they should “emigrate.” But young Lebanese have been doing just that, by the thousands, for decades. The country runs, to a large extent, on the money they send home. In 2018, the remittances of the huge Lebanese diaspora accounted for about 13 percent of the country’s GDP.

Until recently, there were three options for young people in Lebanon, a friend told me when I visited the country last month: you could join one of the country’s sectarian factions, trading loyalty for patronage; “go into internal exile, smoking pot with your ten friends”; or get out. But now there seems to be a fourth choice.

The protests in Lebanon broke out on October 17, after the government announced a new tax on WhatsApp calls. This petty tax on daily communication was the final straw in a country where many want to speak to relatives around the world, and where people struggle to make ends meet while the political class has failed spectacularly to provide for their most basic needs.

The rallying cry of the protests has been “All of them means all of them,” meaning “get rid of all of them.” The first demand has been for a new government with new faces—without any of the politicians and clans that have ruled the country since they stopped fighting the civil war in 1990. Each of these zuama, or chiefs, claims to defend the interests of a particular sect, but what the protests have dramatized is the degree to which they are all in league together.

The last government embodied the usual dysfunctional power-sharing arrangement by including a Christian Maronite president (Aoun), a Shia speaker of parliament, and a Sunni prime minister. It made sure that all factions had a seat at the table by apportioning out thirty ministries—a huge number for a small country with a population of just six million (France, for example, with a population ten times greater, has sixteen).

“Sectarian leaders have been keeping voters captive,” Karim Emile Bitar, a political scientist and professor at Lebanon’s renowned Saint Joseph University, told me, when we met for dinner in mid-November. But now, he said, “all the psychological barriers are falling.” Over the course of the evening, Bitar alternated between hope and deep anxiety. “If you are pessimistic you can say that sectarianism will be back with a vengeance. That this is a mirage rather than a miracle,” he said at one point. And if you’re optimistic? “You could argue that we are witnessing the emergence of a post-sectarian Lebanon, and that citizenship has finally prevailed over narrow communal affiliations.”

To reach the protests in downtown Beirut, I would walk through an eerily empty neighborhood of luxury condominiums, glittering plazas, and a marina for yachts—part of the exclusive, glitzy future that politicians and speculators have constructed at the city’s core and that now seems particularly unreal, an amazing confidence trick. More than a quarter of Lebanese live beneath the official poverty line of $14 per day, while the economy is sluggish, growing at less than 1 percent a year, on average, since 2015. Social inequality is staggering: according to one study, the top one tenth of a percentage point of the country’s population earns as much as the entire bottom half does together.

Eventually, I’d reach the protests, which have taken over Martyrs’ Square, a huge central plaza that had served as a parking lot. They have also occupied the adjoining downtown district that was redeveloped by the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. His development company, Solidere, turned the historic heart of the city, damaged by the civil war, into a sleek outdoor shopping mall. Since the protesters took over, it’s become full of graffiti, barbed wire, and army checkpoints, and abuzz with energy.

At the beginning, protesters smashed the windows of downtown banks and businesses. Everyone I talked to described feeling stunned at discovering the crowd they joined, at finding how widespread their own indignation was, how it cut across sects and social classes. But after the anger and the amazement of those first nights wore off, the protests became places for serious conversation and communal celebration. People came with their children and their families, in the evenings after work. They attended seminars, film screenings, group discussions of legal and economic matters. Street vendors materialized to sell Lebanese flags and grilled corn cobs; they set up impromptu street cafés where men and women sat smoking shisha pipes and drinking coffee brewed from espresso machines rigged up in the backs of vans. There were music concerts and bouncing dabke circles, a local form of celebratory line-dancing.

The ferment was not limited to Martyrs’ Square but has swept across the country. In Saida, a coastal city some twenty-five miles south of Beirut, I sat in a municipal garden that had become the staging post for demonstrations and collective organizing there. Youssef Kleib, a small business owner in Saida, has been an activist for years, advocating against the role of sectarianism in Lebanese politics. But what happened in his hometown this year surprised him.

The protest movement there is guided by a group of fifty or so activists who didn’t know each other before. “We are from different political parties, different sects, different classes,” he said. “What’s new and remarkable is that we sit and discuss and find what we can agree on, which are economic issues, the need for new economic and social policies. What we can’t agree on, we set aside.”

(What Lebanese can’t agree on yet remains significant. It includes Hezbollah, the powerful Shia party and paramilitary organization that fought the Israeli army out of southern Lebanon and also sided with Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, and what role it should play in the country. There is also the question of whether to do away with laws regulating elections that require voters to return to their native villages to cast their votes, as well as family laws that regulate matters such as marriage and inheritance according to sect. Such legislation entrenches sectarianism, but many Lebanese still view it as necessary to protect their rights and identities.)

In Saida, as elsewhere, the protests have been led by women and by the young. Kleib is impressed with high school students who, he said, “are ready to lose a school year because they see this as a historic opportunity to win their future.” Their families don’t necessarily agree; some of them are shocked by their children’s actions. But as Caroline Hayek, a journalist for the Lebanese newspaper Orient Le Jour who has been busy documenting the upheaval, told me: “There’s a break between generations, between people and their parents. Those who didn’t live through the war say: ‘Don’t talk to me about it, I don’t care what they did to us.’ If this continues, in ten or fifteen years, we’ll have a different Lebanon.”

The country’s political leadership seems petrified at the thought. All factions have paid lip service to the need to fight corruption, while doing everything they can to maintain the status quo.

“The politicians don’t have the slightest respect for the street,” said Kleib. “They can’t read the street. They don’t know what to do, all they can do is argue with each other. They’re waiting for it to rain, for people to get bored or tired and go home.”

Since Prime Minister Saad Hariri acceded to the protesters’ demands and resigned on October 29, the country’s political parties have been unable to agree on the formation of a new government, let alone one of technocrats and independents, as people are calling for. For his part, the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said in a series of speeches that he welcomes investigations into corruption—even telling the judiciary not to be afraid and to “start with us”—and that he understands the protesters’ frustrations. But he’s also called on his own supporters to stay away from the protests and talked darkly of the country’s being “targeted” by outside forces to push it into chaos.

Supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, another majority Shia party, have showed up at protests on motorcycles, assaulted demonstrators, and burned their tents. This violence and intimidation—especially in the south of the country, largely under Hezbollah control—has rattled people, but not yet deterred them. It seems designed to provoke counter-violence, and to raise the specter of escalating sectarian conflict.

Still, volunteers have continued to collect donations, set up tents, defend arrested protesters, organize clean-ups and caravans to link different cities across the country. Activists have also taken their actions out of city centers, gathering outside suspect real estate developments, at polluting power plants, and on the site of a contested dam project. They have even organized protest picnics along beaches that have been sold to private developers.

In Beirut, I met Lina Mounzer, a writer and translator, who, like so many others, has been electrified and absorbed by the protests. “It’s all we do, think and talk about,” she told me, adding:

One of the most beautiful things has been how public spaces have been reclaimed as spaces to have collective civic lessons. We’ve been able to talk about the kind of things you only talk about with your friends—to talk about the economy, about how you can never earn enough money, or to talk about interest rates… there’s something very cathartic about that collective anger of everybody sitting down and saying: “Well, no, we shouldn’t be living like this. It’s not OK.”

Among the many things that aren’t OK in Lebanon: the drinking water is polluted; the air is polluted, because people rely on generators powered by cheap diesel; they need those generators because electricity provision is limited and unreliable, even though the government spends up to 15 percent of its annual budget subsidizing the national electricity company; the coastline has been handed over to private developers; trash is neither collected nor disposed of properly (the last major  protests the country witnessed, in 2015 and 2016, occurred when tens of thousands of people demonstrated over the government’s inability to solve the garbage crisis, calling their movement “You Stink”).

“Lebanon is a poor country with a façade of being middle-class,” Rosalie Berthier, the co-founder of a research agency named Synaps, told me. “There are no public services, it’s all privatized.”

Like a number of other analysts, Berthier has been warning of the coming crash for several years. In a report she wrote in May 2017, she quoted an unnamed adviser to Lebanese banks, describing the country’s relationship to its debt and its capacity to deal with the problem:

Just imagine a man is trying to kill you. You find refuge in a building and climb up the stairwell, but he’s still on your tail. On the first floor, you consider jumping out the window, but you fear spraining your ankle. On the second floor, you fear breaking a leg. As you reach the fourth floor, you give up on the idea entirely, because it would kill you anyway. So your only option is to continue to climb, up and up, until you reach the rooftop.

Lebanon may be close to the rooftop now. The fall could be very bad indeed.

Since the civil war, the country’s economy has relied heavily on the real estate and banking sectors, and on the Lebanese diaspora, which sends billions of dollars home every year. These three elements are inextricably linked: many Lebanese send money home intending to eventually buy a pied-à-terre there.

What holds it all together is the fixed exchange rate of the Lebanese lira to the dollar, which has remained at 1507.5 since 1997. It is such a fundamental facet of Lebanese economic life that people use lira and dollars interchangeably, rounding the exchange rate to 1500 and doing the math in their heads automatically. But the system has required ever-increasing in-flows of dollars to maintain liquidity, even as the economy has slowed down in recent years.

The national bank, Banque du Liban, has resorted to risky and convoluted schemes to attract dollar deposits, which some critics have described as Ponzi schemes. The BdL has issued Treasury bonds at very high interest rates; most of that debt has been bought by other Lebanese banks. Jad Chaaban, a professor at the American University in Beirut, has found “individuals closely linked to political elites control 43 percent of assets in Lebanon’s commercial banking sector.” He also calculated that, to take one example, the Hariri family had earned $108 million between 2006 and 2015 from interest on the public debt.

What this suggests is that the country’s political elite benefited enormously from policies that plunged the country into debt. At the same time, this leadership invested nothing in productive industry or infrastructure, and what few state resources were left over they used to subsidize their patronage networks.

“They divide government posts by sect, if there are a hundred posts, fifty go to Muslims and fifty to Christians, this many to Shias and this many to Sunnis,” said Kleib, the Saida activist. “This is untenable, we’re in 2019! We want to separate religion from government, not erase religion. Sectarianism is the real crisis, it produces corruption.”

Lebanon’s sovereign debt stands at about 150 percent of the country’s GDP, making it the third most indebted country in the world after Japan and Greece. If Lebanon were to default on its debt, or if there were a run on the banks, the all-important fixed conversion rate to the dollar could break. In practice, it already has: in a growing informal currency trading market, the lira has reached at least 1,900 to the dollar. According to World Bank estimates, if the lira loses 30 percent of its value, more than half the population will slip below the poverty line. The value of people’s savings will be wiped out. Because Lebanon imports so much of its goods, the price of basic necessities such as bread and medicine will jump; the government has already had to step in to prevent gas shortages. The effect on those who are already vulnerable and marginalized—a population that includes more than a million Syrian refugees, as well as domestic workers from countries such as Nepal, the Philippines, and Ethiopia—could be catastrophic.

When the protests started, the country’s banks closed for several weeks; since they re-opened, depositors have been able to withdraw only $1,000 a week from dollar-denominated accounts. But rumors have been circulating that the country’s politically connected elite has already moved hundreds of millions of dollars offshore.

In downtown Beirut, I’ve always been intrigued by a strange abandoned building known as The Egg. An unfinished cinema, started in 1965, it floats above the street like a slanted cement balloon. Its construction was interrupted by the war, and these days one of its sides gapes open over a crater that was designed to be a underground parking lot. The protesters broke into The Egg, and now you see kids wandering in and out all day, some even climbing a rickety metal stair so they can stand atop its dome, dangerously free (I was told that one person has fallen and died).

Inside, the walls and floor are dark and ragged. On one wall someone has painted, in a beautiful bright script, a question: “Which is stronger, sect or hunger?” This is one of the many questions that Lebanon will answer in the coming months and years.

President Aoun has taken to Twitter to say that staying in the street “hurts the country’s interests” and that “to protect the Lebanese economy, the Lebanese people need to return to their homes, so that life can return to normal. Staying in the street and blocking roads causes losses to the economy.” This is clearly an inversion of the actual causality. The protests are a symptom of the economic crisis, and the crisis is the result of the way the country has been governed.

“It’s not as though if everyone stays home, Lebanon is going to get out of this,” said Julia Sakr-Tierney, an analyst with the Open Society Foundations who wrote her doctoral thesis on Lebanese economic resilience and its limits. With this latest economic crisis, she told me, one may “get to the heart of how this system finances itself. Sectarianism is a way to ignore class alliances at the top.”

And with its rampant privatizations, its speculative non-productive economy, its environmental calamities, its huge population of refugees and migrant workers, Lebanon is far from an isolated case; it is, proposed Sakr-Tierney, “a harbinger of many futures.” The question of how the country might remake itself, as she posed it, is incredibly difficult to answer: “How do you rebuild an inclusive economy here within a global financialized world economy that is increasingly precarious?”

There are proposals, of course. Kamal Hamdan is an economist, the director of a development and business consulting firm, and one of the signatories of an emergency economic rescue plan for the country. It calls for defending the lira in the short term and putting in place capital controls to make sure rich depositors don’t take their money out of the country; adopting much needed initiatives like the reform of the electricity sector, and cuts to generous lifelong perks for senior civil servants; and putting in place social measures to protect those who will suffer the most from the debt crisis (rather than embracing austerity). It also calls for immediately restructuring the sovereign debt, making the rich take a hit proportional with their recent gains, rather than dragging out the spiral of debt to protect their investments.

I heard Hamdan speak one night in a small park beside the protest site to an intent audience huddled on benches in the gloom. He had lived through the civil war and the hyper-inflation in Lebanon in the 1980s, he said, but even back then, the banks and the state were not as disastrously entwined as they are now. There is no chance of avoiding an economic crisis, he warned the crowd; the question is how to mitigate it, and make sure that the burden is shared fairly. Seen this way, he said, the crisis could also be an opportunity: “There has never been a better chance in a hundred years to destroy the sectarian system.”

Ursula Lindsey writes about culture, education, and politics in the Arab world, and cohosts BULAQ, a podcast on Arabic literature. She has lived in Egypt and Morocco and is now based in Amman, Jordan. (October 2019)

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