The summer of 2020 is providing ample proof that whatever dissatisfactions we in the West have with our own governments, there are millions who would risk death to live under their aegis. It will no doubt be argued that Lebanon’s real problem is poverty fuelled by elite greed, and that the thousands of migrants who have risked the dangerous Channel crossing are fleeing wars we started.
But Lebanon was not poor 40 years ago, when its GDP per capita outpaced that of its neighbours by more than a half, yet it was equally marked by the corruption that has sparked protests in recent days. The migrants who have managed to muster tens of thousands of dollars to pay people smugglers are not all escaping armed conflict. Both the Lebanese protesters and the people in dinghies want more than a job: they seek democracy, the rule of law and freedom to speak their minds.
It is reported that just a week after the disastrous explosion in Beirut’s port district that killed 150 people and made a quarter of a million people homeless, some aspects of life are returning to normal. On the Corniche, the city’s handsome promenade, it might almost be possible to imagine the city once again as I first saw it in the 1970s, a glamorous, liberal, cosmopolitan entrepôt. But that picture would have been a delusion even four decades ago. The head-spinningly complicated conflicts between the country’s myriad religious and ethnic groups had already turned the city into an armed encampment, divided between Christian, Muslim, Druze and other factions.
Unlike many nations where you have no idea that you are poor until someone shows you how the rich live, the Lebanese have never been under illusions about their inequality. In 2016, the wealth of Lebanese billionaires represented 20 per cent of national income, compared with 2 per cent in China, 5 per cent in France and 10 per cent in the US. In the past decade the gaps have widened. The World Bank warned last November that 50 per cent of Lebanon’s seven million people could soon be living in poverty. And Beirut’s once thriving middle class can look enviously at the multimillion-dollar mansions in the district of Achrafieh and know that no one there is having to borrow money to buy bread for their children.
It is little wonder that furious demonstrators had to be expelled from government offices, protesting at the incompetence of the rulers they themselves put in place. Lebanon is in theory a democracy, but to paraphrase Star Trek’s Mr Spock, not a democracy as we know it, Jim. To begin with, the nation hasn’t had much practice; its civil war during the 1970s and 1980s made voting impossible. All big parties are based on what are politely called “confessional” divides, ie ethnicity and religion. Article 24 of Lebanon’s constitution, adopted in 1926, specifies that Christians and Muslims must have equal numbers of seats in parliament; in 1943 as a condition of independence all parties agreed that the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. In essence, sectarianism and division were constitutionalised.
In a remarkable display of insouciance, the president of the former colonial power responsible for this poisonous legacy, Emmanuel Macron, turned up within 48 hours of the explosion, ready to distribute French largesse as only the Élysée Palace can. A petition calling for the country to return to the status of a French protectorate garnered 60,000 signatures in less than a day.
But the reality is that former colonisers aren’t the obvious people to export democracy to failing states. So increasingly their people are coming to us. According to a 2017 Gallup poll of half a million individuals worldwide, the regions from which people are most keen to move are sub-Saharan Africa, non-EU Europe, and Latin America; the pollsters reckoned that more than 700 million people would love to see out their days somewhere new. These people know where they want to go, but you can’t always get what you want. Many are having to settle for second best. Data from the Migration Policy Institute shows that the top six actual destinations for migrants in recent years are the US, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the UK and the United Arab Emirates. But when potential migrants are asked where they would really like to end up, while the US and Germany remain at the top of the list, the Arab autocracies and Putin’s Russia drop out, to be replaced by Canada, France and Australia; Gallup estimates that each of these six is the desired destination of at least 30 million people. Despite the many hundreds of billions spent by Xi Jinping in buying friends across the developing world, fewer than seven million would opt for life under the rule of his Communist Party.
he main powers are gathering to see what they can do to rebuild Beirut’s port. Our immigration minister is off to bargain with the French about who pays the bill for the boats in the Channel. The home secretary is recruiting warships to intercept kayaks. They should all reflect on the fact that the true desire of many millions is to express themselves without fear, to be able to choose their leaders and, above all, not to have their life chances defined by religious or cultural choices made by ancestors they never knew.
Give them what they really want. Whether we wish to restore Lebanon to its former glory, or to halt the tide of migrants, the best investment we can make is not in docks and destroyers; it is in democracy.
Trevor Phillips, a writer, broadcaster and former politician.