Do You Believe in Miracles? Lebanon Needs a Basketful
There are plenty of signs that Lebanon is slipping deeper into chaos and has become a first class catastrophe for its people. While those with access to dollars party and go to clubs, as you’ll see on Instagram and TikTok, the great majority of the Lebanese and the more than 1.5 million refugees suffer from living simultaneously in food, power, medical care, and services deserts. Until recently, I was unfamiliar with the terminology of “desert” being applied to food and other scarce essentials, but now it is a constant label for the quality of life in Lebanon and elsewhere, even in the United States.
Another terminology that has changed is the categorization of a failed state. It now reflects criteria ranking degrees of “fragile and conflicted situations.” Lebanon is in the category of high institutional and social fragility, which is more accurate than calling it a failed state. A “failed state” means that physical conflict exists and the national government no longer controls its borders, although some would argue the degree to which sovereignty exists in Lebanon.
The World Bank rates the situation in Lebanon today worse than the crisis in Greece in 2008 and Argentina in 2001, yet both of those caused major upheavals to the political leadership. The staying power of the ruling elite in Lebanon is attributed to many factors: the enduring sectarian ethos, Hezbollah’s threatening presence, the failure of sectarian political opposition to form a credible alternative free from the same charges of corruption and malfeasance or at least complicity, the pandemic, and the slow pace of developing an effective civil society movement for change.
While much as been written about the oligarchs and Hezbollah (the mafia and the militia), the lack of a mobilized private sector and professional association opposition is clearly a factor in the ongoing inertia and decay. Many of those running the banking, construction, telecommunications, fuel, transportation, waste management, and related sectors all benefit from their interrelated links with the government. These officials and many in the private sector are in lockstep, despite recent changes in leadership in some of the professional and union groups.
Sadly, the latest prognosis is that it may take between 12 and 19 years for Lebanon to recover depending on when and how reforms are instituted. If Lebanon started to undertake credible talks with the IMF and had an action program in place by the fall, it might still rank behind Chile, which took 16 years to recover from its 1926 crisis. And what are the Lebanese and the refugees to do in the meantime?
Pray for a miracle, of course. Or a basketful, starting with increasing bank liquidity without greater inflation. Instituting cash cards would enable more Lebanese to purchase basic goods. Ending the current subsidies regime would remove pricing distortions. Repairing the loss of morale and living standards of the LAF and ISF troops along with their recommitment to protecting civil and human rights. Steps should be taken to curb corruption and recapture funds illegally transferred out of the country. Political reforms are also needed to diminish the power of the ruling elites, while banking reforms should be aimed at consolidation and transparency. Not to mention free and fair elections in 2022. These would make a great start.
No wonder the World Bank says 12 -19 years to recover. “Start the incense, Sitti (my grandmother).” It may be our only salvation.
Let’s pray for those miracles.
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.