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There’s Little Chance for Change in Lebanon, Except for More Suffering

Photograph Source: Luciana.Luciana – CC BY 2.0

The freezing Mediterranean squalls that slash across downtown Beirut and the seafront to the west may give the impression this week that Lebanon is lapsing back into its favourite pastime: forgetting history and praying for a return to the good old days.

Revolution? Now that the country’s old parliamentary sectarians have gathered to support Hassan Diab’s deeply uninspiring government, it’s hard to see how the wretched system behind this country’s fragile grip on reality can ever change.

True, the graffiti is still there – including the “God is Great” imprecations spray-painted on the walls just down from my home – and the broken windows on downtown offices and the steel shutters of the banks in the city centre and in Hamra. But there’s a bigger storm coming. More inflation, more taxes, more poverty – though I noticed that the parliamentarians who gathered to vote for the new government were literally very well-heeled – is coming in this tempest. A government which tries to alleviate anger by promising yet more economic suffering is a scenario which only Lebanon can invent.

New taxes on fuel and electricity plus a rise in VAT to 15 per cent – a rate still below EU nations, but likely to rise to 20 per cent – will probably hit first. But the revolution may well return among government employees who receive their salaries in Lebanese pounds, and whose income has already fallen by up to 40 per cent. Compared to price increases of 50 per cent. What many non-Lebanese fail to appreciate is that the Lebanese army and its associated military personnel – all 72,000 of them – are among these government employees. Policemen are going to suffer just as much as the civil society whose anger they must confront in order to protect the government.

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or simply dismiss as satire the efforts of Hassan Diab’s cabinet to survive the country’s economic collapse. We all know that Hezbollah’s imprimatur is stamped heavily on the government – those brave symbols of national resistance having long ago decided that their political power is more important than the legions of militia martyrs who died to preserve the independence of the Lebanese civilians, many of whom have protested in downtown Beirut.

Yet around 14 of the 20 newly appointed ministers are said to hold US passports. If this true, don’t tell Donald Trump, although the White House insane asylum probably wouldn’t understand the irony – the US embassy in Beirut still cannot get the State Department to answer all their phone calls – not many people there, it seems. But American diplomats in Beirut have been dubiously putting it about among Lebanese banking officials that far too much US dollar currency is making its way from Lebanon to the regime in Syria.

This lies in the “interesting if true” department. If the Lebanese millionaire circuit can’t get their dollars out of the country, how can they shift them to Damascus? Or is the long-standing contractual friendship between Beirut’s rich and Syria’s rich somehow able to bend these rules? Reader warning, however: there are no such things as rules in Lebanon.

Take the Lebanese pound/US dollar exchange rate. As we all know and loved to remind ourselves after the 1975-1990 civil war, it stood at 1,500 pounds to the dollar. Until the “revolution” last October when the black market rate soared to 2,600. Money changers then patriotically – patriotism being another overcharged word in Lebanon these days – agreed to hold the dollar at 2,000 in the third week of January. But today it’s almost 2,600 and expected to reach 3,000 next week. For those who have dollar accounts, this was great news – although they could not take their cash out of the country (and could only take it out of their accounts in batches of $200 a week). This was a tragedy for those with Lebanese pound accounts who could only watch their savings (or income) collapse by almost 50 per cent. Critically, this does not only include all those soldiers and cops (see above) but an awful lot of pensioned army officers.

Yet a strange irony is occurring. Bankers (anonymous, of course) and financial journalists (also anonymous) are now talking of how the Lebanese economic crisis was caused by the protesters in downtown Beirut – when in fact it was the corruption which created the economic crisis about which the demonstrators first protested. In other words, it’s the poor and the younger, educated generation who demand a modern, non-sectarian Lebanon who are to blame: not the sectarian groups who “control”, albeit rather pitifully, the economy.

The Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, is now maintaining his job with Abu Mazen-type arguments: if I go, Lebanon goes too. The Palestinian president runs the same storyline: if I go, “Palestine” goes – although it’s going rather quickly with him. Hosni Mubarak, we must remember, played the same line in Egypt. And looked what happened to the old boy.

In the meanwhile, the old dream of the protesters continues: only a new constitution can de-confessionalise Lebanon and produce a modern state. The problem is that to end sectarian politics, you need politicians to help you. And all the politicians are sectarian. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader and my favourite nihilist, produced another fantasy this week: get rid of President Michel Aoun. This would almost certainly destroy the career (temporarily, of course) of Gebran Bassil, the former foreign minister who just happens – no nepotism, please – to be the son-in-law of the still-reigning Aoun. Both are Christian Maronites. Of course, they have/had to be Maronites in order to hold their posts.

Aoun’s position was not helped – although his grotesque lack of sensitivity towards his country’s crisis was all too evident – when he celebrated his 85th birthday two days ago with a party, complete with dancing and cake and a song by his followers that changed the words of the national anthem into a paean for the old man.

So maybe Jumblatt has a point. Don’t demand a revolution, just shave away at the edges of sectarianism until only the core is left. Change the constitution in stages – which is not what Jumblatt is actually demanding – and eventually the whole fandango will just whirl away in a series of Lebanese dabke dances. Debate the worth not of sectarian ministers but of sectarianism within the institutions – the duplicated or triplicated sectarian-balanced officials in the Central Bank for example, or among ministry bureaucrats. Then the roots of the Lebanese cedar tree will grow stronger, along with the economy. See how you can get addicted to metaphors here?

Yet all this would need foreign support. You can forget the Arabs, most of whom maintain sectarian governments of monstrous size which make Lebanon’s confessional power bloc look like a very small striped hyena (which does just happen to be the country’s national animal). More seriously, though, take a look at the international reaction to Lebanon’s crisis. The French response has been typical.

France, according to the Quai d’Orsay, “waits for deep and ambitious reforms on the part of the Lebanese authorities, especially economic transparency, economic sustainability and finance, the struggle against corruption and the independence of the judicial system … in the general interest of all Lebanese”. But wait, do you notice what was missing from this Gallic nonsense? There was no demand to develop Lebanon into a modern non-sectarian state. Nor could one expect there to be any such remark since the entire Lebanese sectarian system was set up after the First World War by… the French!

The Lebanese revolution, then, is a real page-turner, at once burlesque and tragic, quiescent in comparison to the regular bloodbaths in Iraq, full of hope and foreboding amid the wall paintings of Beirut’s city centre. Rabelaisian, perhaps.

The freezing Mediterranean squalls that slash across downtown Beirut and the seafront to the west may give the impression this week that Lebanon is lapsing back into its favourite pastime: forgetting history and praying for a return to the good old days.

Revolution? Now that the country’s old parliamentary sectarians have gathered to support Hassan Diab’s deeply uninspiring government, it’s hard to see how the wretched system behind this country’s fragile grip on reality can ever change.

True, the graffiti is still there – including the “God is Great” imprecations spray-painted on the walls just down from my home – and the broken windows on downtown offices and the steel shutters of the banks in the city centre and in Hamra. But there’s a bigger storm coming. More inflation, more taxes, more poverty – though I noticed that the parliamentarians who gathered to vote for the new government were literally very well-heeled – is coming in this tempest. A government which tries to alleviate anger by promising yet more economic suffering is a scenario which only Lebanon can invent.

New taxes on fuel and electricity plus a rise in VAT to 15 per cent – a rate still below EU nations, but likely to rise to 20 per cent – will probably hit first. But the revolution may well return among government employees who receive their salaries in Lebanese pounds, and whose income has already fallen by up to 40 per cent. Compared to price increases of 50 per cent. What many non-Lebanese fail to appreciate is that the Lebanese army and its associated military personnel – all 72,000 of them – are among these government employees. Policemen are going to suffer just as much as the civil society whose anger they must confront in order to protect the government.

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or simply dismiss as satire the efforts of Hassan Diab’s cabinet to survive the country’s economic collapse. We all know that Hezbollah’s imprimatur is stamped heavily on the government – those brave symbols of national resistance having long ago decided that their political power is more important than the legions of militia martyrs who died to preserve the independence of the Lebanese civilians, many of whom have protested in downtown Beirut.

Yet around 14 of the 20 newly appointed ministers are said to hold US passports. If this true, don’t tell Donald Trump, although the White House insane asylum probably wouldn’t understand the irony – the US embassy in Beirut still cannot get the State Department to answer all their phone calls – not many people there, it seems. But American diplomats in Beirut have been dubiously putting it about among Lebanese banking officials that far too much US dollar currency is making its way from Lebanon to the regime in Syria.

This lies in the “interesting if true” department. If the Lebanese millionaire circuit can’t get their dollars out of the country, how can they shift them to Damascus? Or is the long-standing contractual friendship between Beirut’s rich and Syria’s rich somehow able to bend these rules? Reader warning, however: there are no such things as rules in Lebanon.

Take the Lebanese pound/US dollar exchange rate. As we all know and loved to remind ourselves after the 1975-1990 civil war, it stood at 1,500 pounds to the dollar. Until the “revolution” last October when the black market rate soared to 2,600. Money changers then patriotically – patriotism being another overcharged word in Lebanon these days – agreed to hold the dollar at 2,000 in the third week of January. But today it’s almost 2,600 and expected to reach 3,000 next week. For those who have dollar accounts, this was great news – although they could not take their cash out of the country (and could only take it out of their accounts in batches of $200 a week). This was a tragedy for those with Lebanese pound accounts who could only watch their savings (or income) collapse by almost 50 per cent. Critically, this does not only include all those soldiers and cops (see above) but an awful lot of pensioned army officers.

Yet a strange irony is occurring. Bankers (anonymous, of course) and financial journalists (also anonymous) are now talking of how the Lebanese economic crisis was caused by the protesters in downtown Beirut – when in fact it was the corruption which created the economic crisis about which the demonstrators first protested. In other words, it’s the poor and the younger, educated generation who demand a modern, non-sectarian Lebanon who are to blame: not the sectarian groups who “control”, albeit rather pitifully, the economy.

The Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, is now maintaining his job with Abu Mazen-type arguments: if I go, Lebanon goes too. The Palestinian president runs the same storyline: if I go, “Palestine” goes – although it’s going rather quickly with him. Hosni Mubarak, we must remember, played the same line in Egypt. And looked what happened to the old boy.

In the meanwhile, the old dream of the protesters continues: only a new constitution can de-confessionalise Lebanon and produce a modern state. The problem is that to end sectarian politics, you need politicians to help you. And all the politicians are sectarian. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader and my favourite nihilist, produced another fantasy this week: get rid of President Michel Aoun. This would almost certainly destroy the career (temporarily, of course) of Gebran Bassil, the former foreign minister who just happens – no nepotism, please – to be the son-in-law of the still-reigning Aoun. Both are Christian Maronites. Of course, they have/had to be Maronites in order to hold their posts.

Aoun’s position was not helped – although his grotesque lack of sensitivity towards his country’s crisis was all too evident – when he celebrated his 85th birthday two days ago with a party, complete with dancing and cake and a song by his followers that changed the words of the national anthem into a paean for the old man.

So maybe Jumblatt has a point. Don’t demand a revolution, just shave away at the edges of sectarianism until only the core is left. Change the constitution in stages – which is not what Jumblatt is actually demanding – and eventually the whole fandango will just whirl away in a series of Lebanese dabke dances. Debate the worth not of sectarian ministers but of sectarianism within the institutions – the duplicated or triplicated sectarian-balanced officials in the Central Bank for example, or among ministry bureaucrats. Then the roots of the Lebanese cedar tree will grow stronger, along with the economy. See how you can get addicted to metaphors here?

Yet all this would need foreign support. You can forget the Arabs, most of whom maintain sectarian governments of monstrous size which make Lebanon’s confessional power bloc look like a very small striped hyena (which does just happen to be the country’s national animal). More seriously, though, take a look at the international reaction to Lebanon’s crisis. The French response has been typical.

France, according to the Quai d’Orsay, “waits for deep and ambitious reforms on the part of the Lebanese authorities, especially economic transparency, economic sustainability and finance, the struggle against corruption and the independence of the judicial system … in the general interest of all Lebanese”. But wait, do you notice what was missing from this Gallic nonsense? There was no demand to develop Lebanon into a modern non-sectarian state. Nor could one expect there to be any such remark since the entire Lebanese sectarian system was set up after the First World War by… the French!

The Lebanese revolution, then, is a real page-turner, at once burlesque and tragic, quiescent in comparison to the regular bloodbaths in Iraq, full of hope and foreboding amid the wall paintings of Beirut’s city centre. Rabelaisian, perhaps.

 

More articles by:

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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