Lebanon: a year after the explosion of Beirut, a failing state grappling with poverty and communitarianism

Twelve months after the terrible explosion of the port of Beirut Thu killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and left around 300 inhabitants homeless, Lebanon's dramatic descent into the economic and political crisis is worsening. The country's economic collapse is so severe that the World Bank classifies it among the three most serious ever observed since the mid-XNUMXth centurye century.

The figures reflect the scale of the humanitarian disaster. More than 900 Lebanese are unable to get enough food and to benefit from basic services because prices increased by 580% since October 2020. Half of the population now lives below the poverty line. the official unemployment rate increased by 35%. And as if the situation were not bad enough, the political leaders of the state did not still failed to form a coalition government.

The immediate causes of this dramatic situation are the banking crisis of 2019, aggravated by the Covid pandemic. The liquidity crisis that consumed the banking sector led to a 90% devaluation of the Lebanese pound and 9,2% drop in GDP in 2020. However, to fully understand the nature of the crisis, it is important to take into account the deadly mix of political sectarianism and neoliberalism that is affecting Lebanon.

The notion of political sectarianism refers to the power-sharing system in force in Lebanon, a system reinvented after the 1975-1990 civil war. The supposed purpose of power sharing is to secure seats in government for representatives of the state's 18 main communities. Power sharing is therefore supposed to ensure that no community can dominate the state to the exclusion of others.

This system has resulted in a situation in which a group of civil war lords and tycoons have used their position as elected community leaders to take over the economic institutions of the state. These personalities draw on the public treasury to enrich their personal fortunes. In the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2020 on Lebanon ranks among the most corrupt states in the world.

These community leaders then use these resources to buy political support. Basic services - healthcare, electricity and gas - are increasingly controlled by private community factions. These services are distributed to members of their communities on the condition that they give their vote to the chiefs. This system makes many citizens dependent on factions for their daily survival.

This is where political sectarianism overlaps with neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is associated with state retrenchment, privatization, tax cuts, and the outsourcing of public works and services (such as garbage collection) to private companies. Postwar Lebanon has been described as an example of "Really existing neoliberalism".

One of the most infamous illustrations of this neoliberalism is the reconstruction of downtown Beirut by Solidere, a private-public company created by former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The transfer of public space to the private sector brought Solidere $ 8 billion (£ 5,7 billion), a quarter of Lebanon's GDP.

Rather than developing public services to foster inclusive citizenship and the legitimacy of power, elites have eroded the key institutions that are the pillars of stability.

Revolution or reform?

Where is Lebanon going? The World Bank has warned that the "brutal and rapid contraction of the Lebanese economy is generally associated with conflicts or wars". The civil war that lasted 15 years in Lebanon has left more than 150 dead and one million displaced. A relapse into this type of all-out civil war is highly unlikely.

On the other hand, a new wave of social unrest is more likely. Protest movements have become a common form of opposition to corrupt community leaders in Lebanon. In 2019, as the banking crisis emerged and punitive taxes were introduced, ordinary Lebanese across the country took to the streets: this episode was called the thawra ("Uprising"). The demonstrators chanted: "All means all", which means that, in their eyes, all community leaders must be ousted.

It is important to note that the thawra gave the floor to a variety of marginalized groups, including women, LGBTQ + citizens, anti-racists and those who support migrant domestic workers.

The community elites deployed all the tricks at their disposal to ensure the survival of the regime, officially in the name of stability. Security forces arrested activists - even for their social media posts - and unleashed their henchmen to beat protesters.

The recent appointment of Najib mikati being prime minister means that once again a billionaire tycoon will hold the reins of power. As a reformer, Mikati is likely to be content with making small adjustments to the status quo, rather than considering the significant transformation of the community system that is needed.

The West has traditionally tried to support Lebanon's failing political system. Today, the West sees Lebanon as a key player in the international refugee regime. In addition to the 200 displaced Palestinians living within the country's borders, Lebanon now hosts around 1,5 million refugees having fled the civil war in neighboring Syria.

France, the region's former colonial power, presented a package of economic and structural reforms aimed at re-establishing a power-sharing government. The French initiative provides for the establishment of a government led by technocrats ready to carry out reforms under the supervision of the International Monetary Fund.

But these efforts to ensure the survival of the regime go against the wishes of many Lebanese citizens. For them, there is no point in reverting to a broken system unable to provide basic services, jobs and human rights. The situation will have to change. The status quo cannot last any longer.

John nagle, Professor in Sociology, Queen's University Belfast

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