Being Lost and Not Found in Beirut

Sunday, February 21, 2021
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

I am constantly amazed at the hubris of the political elite in Lebanon who display little compassion for those suffering from the triple tragedies of a failed economy, pandemic, and the Beirut blast aftermath. Are these representatives of the people, or rather political parties tied to sects tied to warlords, even in touch with popular sentiment?

Let’s calculate their concern for the people. Have they visited the overcrowded hospitals where overflow patients – in winter – are being treated in parking lots and in tents? Have they stopped by bakeries to see the lines of people waiting for handouts or discounted day-old loaves when they can find them? Have they visited the refugee camps to witness the freezing and soggy grounds where children and families have to endure desperate conditions fearing for their lives from horrors of starvation and the cold? Yet they attend their churches and their mosques and ignore the teachings of compassion, community, and kindness that are found throughout their holy texts.

It’s at times like these that I don’t regret burying my father in the US rather than in his family plot in our village. He would not recognize the betrayal of the country by its leadership. The government of Lebanon has turned its back on the pain of the people, arguing over vaccine allotments and payments, bickering over the distribution of humanitarian assistance, making a mockery of any attempts to implement reform legislation, and showing the world that Lebanon, as Rami Khouri writes, “has become just another pauperized and increasingly militarized Arab country whose citizens rebel against state authorities.”

What has happened to Lebanon is an indication of what happens when political compromise debilitates the very strengths that could have led to recovery. Tunisia, on the other hand, which many call the first real Arab democracy, still can’t claim to be a “functioning democracy.” Despite its challenges, it has avoided military rule, has strong personalities vying peacefully for power, and still seeks a modus vivendi for adopting reforms while retaining an elite that does not have democracy foremost in their thoughts… But at least many of the leaders are still trying.

Lebanon’s military, the LAF, is wrestling with its own challenges – politically, and from Hezbollah and terrorist groups, – doesn’t even entertain the notion of getting into politics. Some are calling for a shadow government to help define and organize the resistance; others emigrate rather than face continued erosion of their livelihoods; while still others pray, the historic Lebanese response to calamities, trusting in God for relief, ‘Allah Kareem.’

The latest hurt is the news that the Ministry of Finance will be taxing humanitarian assistance received by people. They probably consider it a luxury tax! Could be that it’s a ruse to enact progressive taxation on the rich, but I don’t think so. Shades of the WhatsApp levy that led to the 2019 demonstrations.

And the drama continues. The latest $246 million loan from the World Bank, was originally $600 million when negotiations took place between 2011 and 2020, is hung up in Parliament. According to the Arab News, “The World Bank had comments related to monitoring due to mismanagement, noting that Lebanon does not have clear surveys that show the poverty rate.” MPs have lodged multiple concerns about the loan which it has to approve. Fair enough. But what are they concerned about? Several MPs also raised this concern that there was no clarity around who would receive it and how.

The story goes on, “The World Bank cash assistance is aimed at setting up a stronger social safety net for 800,000 of Lebanon’s most vulnerable citizens amid an economic and health crisis that has left up to half the country’s population facing growing deprivation.” To help with identifying qualified recipients, the funds would also upgrade and modernize the social safety net database to give a more accurate listing of those vulnerable families, now estimated at some 841,000 facing food shortages with 1.7 million Lebanese living in poverty and close to 25% in extreme poverty; and the debates continue.

As the MPs argued over the exchange rate for the loan dollars to the local currency, the lira fell even further, reportedly to over 9500 to the dollar at one point. It is ironic that this is a project that all politicians can take credit for, but the Lebanese zero-sum game of winner take all continues. There should only be one winner now, the people in need.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.