If you have paid attention to the news in the past four years, you might associate Lebanon with hell.
A monumental financial crisis caused political and economic chaos in 2019, followed by the pandemic, the 2020 explosion at the port of Beirut of a massive depot of ammonium nitrate that devastated parts of the city, and now, despite the elections held one year ago, the absence of a real government and basic public services. The allocation of power according to religious affiliation, coupled with the collusion of formerly competing political and business interests has made it next to impossible to replace the caretaker government.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of a massive emigration of young people (more than 200,000 Lebanese left from 2020-2021), growing tensions because of an estimated 1.5 million plus Syrian refugees that many fear might alter the balance among the religious communities and give Syria too much sway in local matters, a 70 percent contraction of the gross domestic product in four years, three-digit inflation and no sign of reform one year after the International Monetary Fund laid down the conditions for a $3 billion loan.
But after spending a couple of weeks traveling around the country and talking to government officials, political leaders, United Nations representatives, foreign diplomats, business people and academics, Ive concluded that Lebanon, in fact, has not gone to hell. And that, ironically, is a major obstacle to the shake-up it needs to regain its old prosperity and cultural leadership in the Middle East.
Apart from its peoples fabled resilience, three things have helped Lebanon survive. The first is foreign aid and remittances sent by expatriatesthe latter amounting to some $6 billion annually. The money coming in sustains a certain level of consumption and thereby opens opportunities for part of the business elite to invest with the prospect that there will be some demand for their products or services. Some of these investors are making money, the catastrophic context notwithstanding.
Next, ironically, are the Syrian refugees, who perform necessary tasks the Lebanese are less inclined to perform. And, finally, there is the exodus of so many Lebanese, many of them educated, to the Gulf countries, France and other Western nations. This tragedy has helped to relieve pressure in the short run.
An unexpected turn of events adds to the relative stability of the status quothe international environment. Lebanons political violence has traditionally been fueled by international players whose Lebanese allies seemed more interested in what their foreign patrons wanted than what they wanted for their own country. The enmity between Saudi Arabia and Syria, or between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been a destabilizing factor in recent years, not to mention the confrontation between Israel and both Iran and Syria, with Hezbollah, Irans partner and the most powerful force in Lebanon, led by a ruthless strategist, at the center.
But lately, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran have moved toward rapprochement. Ironically, that has come at some cost to Lebanon. By removing some of the fears and pressure that the main actors of the Lebanese drama normally face, the prospect of a relative détente among the regions power players is paradoxically discouraging this country from pursuing the kinds of reforms that need to be undertaken to liberate the system from sectarian-based economic nationalism, patronage and privilege, which are at the root of Lebanons problems. Not a few Lebanese think that international peace in and of itself will help them get out of the hole.
In 2019, the Lebanese took to the streets in what is known as the October Revolution to denounce a system that had destroyed the middle class. What started as a revolt against a financial crisis brought about by central-bank-induced financial engineering, under which the government had lived beyond its means for too long, turned into a broad insurgence against the collusion of political, financial and business interests.
But four years later, nothing has changed much. Yet the people have survived. For the moment, they seem too busy earning a living to take up the fight again.