By Wissam Nasrallah
Chief Operations Officer | LSESD
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of LSESD.
Lebanon is a unique beast. It is a country of sharp social contrast and a fragile sectarian balance—a balance that has dominated Lebanese politics since the end of the civil war in 1990 and that has recently started to show cracks.
The unprecedented popular uprisings of the past three weeks were sparked by an economic and social crisis that was long overdue. Today Lebanon has reached a breaking point where Botox injection (a Lebanese specialty) can no longer hide the deep wrinkles and skin cancer of a crumbling economy: at 150% of GDP, the Lebanese public debt is the third highest in the world, with no prospect of future economic growth and endemic corruption permeating all levels of society.
While this crisis was long in the making, Lebanon’s political class was able to maintain its power through a sophisticated clientele and tutelage system that was carved along confessional and geographical lines. Bread and low-paying jobs were given to the most vulnerable in exchange for obedient consent while a piece of the economic pie was shared with the more affluent. However, this system could not sustain itself anymore with the mounting institutional and economic woes that became too egregious to disregard. Living standards have declined for citizens while costs of living have increased. The future prospects of Lebanon’s brightest youth have become synonymous with emigration.
In the 60s, Lebanon was considered the “Switzerland of the East”. Today with its potholes, unstable electricity and the rampant environmental crisis, Lebanon looks more like Swiss gruyere cheese rather than a Swiss watch.
- There are several reasons why the situation in Lebanon is the way it is. Below is a non-exhaustive list that would give us a small flavor:
Post-war reconstruction efforts were limited to the real estate and tourism sectors while little was invested in the industrial and agricultural sectors. The Lebanese import most of what they consume, and political stability, which is essential for tourism, has been eluding Lebanon for a long time.
- Political, economical and financial resources have been mismanaged by a corrupt political elite that has sought to enrich itself.
- Lebanon endured military occupation by its Syrian neighbor from 1990 until 2005, which enshrined a culture of non-accountability amidst the political class towards the Lebanese people since accountability was instead owed to the Syrian patrons.
- The country has been deeply divided along sectarian lines. There was never a proper reconciliation process after the civil war. The political class decided to have a generalized amnesia regarding what happened while each community was left to write its own narrative. The wound beneath the scar is not yet healed.
- The existence of a state within the state has continuously undermined the authority of the Lebanese government which has lost “the monopoly of the legitimate use of force” to quote Max Weber.
- Deeply rooted sectarianism and political affiliations to foreign governments has linked Lebanon’s fate to regional politics making it a bargaining chip for regional and international hegemons.
So, amidst this bleak portrait, is there hope?
For a long time, I had lost hope. I believed my countrymen to be too apathetic and fatalistic to do anything with regard to the situation, especially since the last parliamentary elections in May 2018 brought the same political elite back into power while half of the population abstained from voting.
The past month’s spontaneous uprising of people from all walks-of-life, young and old, female and male, across religious and geographical divides gave me a glimmer of hope. The unity shown by the protesters in raising only the Lebanese flag reminded me of the successful popular uprising in 2005 that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops after 15 years of occupation.
In 2005, we learned how to be Lebanese together. In 2019, we are learning how to be citizens.
More than ever, we need wisdom from above as there are no easy answers or quick-fix solutions. The algorithm and myriad variables behind what is happening is beyond my comprehension. No one knows how things will unfold. However, as members of the body of Christ we are committed to remaining salt and light in Lebanon and the MENA region and will continue to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8).