Thu 6 May 2021

The country has been plunged into crisis since the blast, reports Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

Though attention towards Lebanon’s domestic crisis has somewhat waned since the deadly explosion at Beirut’s port last August, the country is edging towards collapse. It has been without a Government following the resignation of its entire Cabinet after the blast, and has fallen into financial meltdown, causing what is believed to be its worst national crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Though the explosion itself caught many observers by surprise, Beirut’s people saw a ticking time-bomb that would eventually detonate. The explosion was caused by the careless storage of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse near the port and, unsurprisingly, no one with substantial power was held accountable.

Attempts to form a Government have since faltered, as Prime-Minister-designate Saad Hariri once again failed to come to an agreement with President Michel Aoun in March, following months of squabbling. Forming a Cabinet is needed to enact reforms, which vital international aid into the country depends on. Both leaders are also long-standing relics of Lebanon’s political establishment, which people accuse of corruption. 

“This is a catastrophe for the country. We were holding on by a thread but now we’re heading towards a total crash,” an anonymous official source told Reuters in March. 

Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri recently warned that the country could “sink like titanic,” if no Government is formed. 

“The whole country is in danger,” he said. “It’s time we all woke up because in the end, if the ship sinks, there’ll be no one left.”

Meanwhile, Lebanese civilians are left to pay the price. The country has fallen into a financial black hole that is only growing deeper. In March, the Lebanese Pound’s exchange rate hit all-time lows at around 15,000 to the dollar – losing 90% of its value in 18 months. As Anchal Vohra argued in Foreign Policy: “No one knows what Lebanon’s currency is worth anymore.”

Since the crisis began, more than 500,000 people have lost their jobs or businesses, out of a population of less than 7 million. And this is amid a pandemic.

The domestic crisis has also prompted many Lebanese professionals to flee the country, leaving behind a ‘brain drain,’ as Lebanon-based journalist Dalal Saoud has reported. According to Saoud’s report, the exodus of doctors, engineers and nurses has accelerated as many are driven to despair and uncertainty. 

“Even if a Government is formed it will still not be able to contain the economic crisis,” Hadi Wahhab, a Beirut-based Middle East expert and PhD graduate of the University of Exeter, told Byline Times. “It has been more than a year since the domestic crisis began and it will last even longer, and the circumstances will remain the same.”

A Lost Generation?

In this manifesting economic and domestic crisis, the younger generation could suffer its worst excesses.

Majida*, a mother of five, two of whom have a disability, told Save the Children in March: “My husband has been unemployed for a year. I owe the food shop 5 million pounds [circa $360 USD]. The owner told me I am not allowed to buy on credit anymore, not even water or bread. We need four bags of bread and two gallons of water a day. They cost 50,000 pounds which we don’t have.”

“My children are not eating enough – they go to bed hungry,” she added. “They haven’t had chicken or meat in months. My two-year-old daughter cries every day, she wants milk. I haven’t been able to buy her milk in months.”

Save the Children said in its report, released on 1 April, that “the social and economic crisis in Lebanon is turning into an education catastrophe, with vulnerable children facing a real risk of never returning to school.”

More than one million children have been out of school since pandemic restrictions commenced in the country last year, according to the NGO’s report. 

“As schools remain shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deteriorating economic crises has made access to learning opportunities out of reach for many children whose families are unable to afford the rising cost of learning materials or to provide children with their basic needs,” Nana Ndeda, a Beirut-based spokesperson for Save the Children, told Byline Times. 

“The economic crisis is a direct threat to children having access to food, medicine, and other basic needs… The situation has led many families to take up negative coping mechanisms to deal with the situation with a reported increase in child labor and other forms of exploitation like child marriage,” the report added.

Indeed, the lockdown has exacerbated an already fragile situation – causing more people to fear for their livelihoods and triggering recent protests in the northern city of Tripoli.

Meanwhile, the protests have been met with mounting repression. Human Rights Watch reported that protestors were “forcibly disappeared and allegedly tortured” in Tripoli, when rallying against the deteriorating economy. 

Lebanon attracted huge demonstrations in 2019, with more than one million people taking to Beirut’s streets at one point. However, Hadi Wahhab says that the impetus for rebellion has now waned, following their previous lack of success.

Segments of the international community have called for change among Lebanon’s corrupt elite. Germany has offered to help reconstruct Beirut’s port, yet on the condition that political reforms are made. The World Bank also offered aid to Beirut, but has said that reforms from the authorities are a prerequisite. 

“Lebanon needs to help itself, so that we can help it,” the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa vice president, Ferid Belhaj, told Bloomberg on 2 April. “Unfortunately, as of right now, Lebanon has not been interested, willing or able to help itself.”

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