Lebanon is Burning

Lebanon is going through its worst economic crisis. Currency has lost its value, there is hyperinflation and basic services aren’t being provided. Zeina and Jana- two Lebanese women closely narrate their own experiences amidst the crisis. Read in detail to know more! 

“My thoughts mainly revolve around anxiety that once I graduate university I won’t be able to find employment, will slowly buckle under the weight of failure, and live in absolute poverty for the rest of my life. I want to leave but my parents are insistent that we stay because it’s so difficult to uproot our lives and leave,” Jana Khaled, a Lebanese girl says to DU Beat

Jana Khaled is a 16-year-old girl who has been residing in Lebanon for a long time. However, the thought of leaving the country has been striking her mind for the past few months. Why is it so? 

Well, while the world is grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, Lebanon is, unfortunately, facing huge twin disasters. The Mediterranean country has reached the ultimate stage of economic recession complemented with political instability. The entire economic crisis in Lebanon for the past few 8-9 months has questioned the foundational system of the nation.

Background of the crisis and some Economics

To pinpoint a suitable day or date on which the crisis started would be highly inappropriate. The reason is that Lebanon has a trajectory of its own and the present situation is a culmination of periods of mismanagement. However, by going with what International media is saying, the Economic Crisis started around August-October 2019, when there was a sudden shortage of foreign currency (Dollars) in the country. 

“Most of the population is unemployed, the local currency’s exchange rate changes every day, and as result inflation has skyrocketed so much we can barely buy anything anymore, even people who were well off before are only just staying afloat, so imagine what it’s like for those who were already living in poverty/unemployment,” Jana Khaled to DU Beat.

In Macroeconomics, most global currencies are pegged to dollars and their value depends on the availability of dollars. Lebanon has been following the fixed exchange rate, in which the value of the domestic currency is dependent on the others’ value. As soon as the number of dollars decreased, its demand for imports and exports increased. Now, whenever any currency or product becomes much in demand, its value is bound to rise. This phenomenon put the Lebanese National currency- Pounds, also called Lira, under strain and gave rise to the recession.

         A timeline of the Lebanon crisis

August 2019: Sudden shortage of foreign dollars owing to “Ponzi Scheme” of Government

October 2019: After a series of protests, the Prime Minister -Saad Hariri resigns.

January 2020: Formation of a new cabinet and Hassan Diab becomes new Prime Minister.

March 2020:  COVID 19 hits Lebanon amidst the ongoing economic crisis. Lockdown imposed.

April 2020: Violent protests in Tripoli in which a young man is shot dead by soldiers.

May 2020: Food prices double, the situation is worsening

 It is alleged that the previous Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was removed from power in October 2019, was behind the dollar shortage by operating a Ponzi scheme. 

The Ponzi scheme is an Economic concept in which fraud is carried out by luring investors through the promise of high returns. Under the coalition government by Hariri, the Central bank and commercial banks promised high-interest rates to investors within and outside the country. As more and more investors came up, the banks were supposed to pay them appropriate returns. Yet nothing was done. The banking sector did gain profits out of it, but it put the country under severe losses and debt. 

A pictorial explanation of the Ponzi scheme.

“Address the issue as an individual one”

“I think it’s strange how when anything happens in one Arab country, the international community will lump it up with all the other Arab countries and their problems, instead of addressing each issue as an individual one. People have tended towards understanding a problem in a country that is part of the Arab world through terms of past issues that may or may not be similar in some regards. Yes, history is important to take into consideration when analysing a present problem, but Lebanon needs to be analyzed based on who is responsible and what factors have accelerated the existing issues,” said Jana Khaled to DU Beat.

Jana believes that people tend to club all individual issues of different countries in the Middle East into one and don’t focus on the individual problem. Well, that’s an absolutely true scenario. What the people who don’t reside in Lebanon believe is that its press economic crisis is also part of the Middle East history. Our tendency is to think that the Middle East is always in a crisis and there’s nothing new in it. But that’s completely incorrect.

Lebanon is altogether a peaceful nation and has been a refuge for umpteen migrants since times immemorial(for example the Palestinians). The Lebanese also do have enough freedom of speech. It’s just that the high amount of International Interference in the region presses domestic issues to get sidelined. Also, some faults in the political structure of Lebanon like segregating of political office are to be blamed. 

Lebanon has people of 4 principal faiths- Muslims, Christians, Druze and Jews. And shockingly, this segregation is visible in the political office of Lebanon too.

    President: Reserved for Maronite Christians     

   Prime Minister: Reserved for Sunni Muslims

   Speaker: Reserved for Shia Muslims

Though the reason behind segregating the political office was equal representation of all communities, yet I believe the system has done more wrongs. It has now created very rigid divisions among the communities. And the division presses leaders to gain more money and power than the other community, which only vanishes important civilian and economic issues from their sight. Some media houses did claim that protestors are now transcending boundaries. Well that is definitely true as far as common people are concerned. But when it’s the larger political power scenario, divisive politics is still in play. 

Thus, Jana is correct when she says that the economic crisis should be addressed individually, irrespective of any biases or stereotypes about the region. 

 Lebanese narrate their sufferings

 “It’s very scary like you do not know what to expect. The fear of not having enough food or medicine is hitting now, prices are very high like crazy. The fear of our kids growing up in such situations is hectic. Seriously thinking of leaving the country for good,” said Zeina Bitar, a resident of Lebanon to DU Beat.

DU Beat also spoke to Zeina Bitar, who is a mother of 3 kids and has been residing in Lebanon for quite a long time. Zeina threw light on how the common people of the country were traumatized by the rising prices. Though Zeina’s own husband works in the United Nations and they have fortunately managed to survive, the condition is grim when it comes to other common folks. They all are starving, bread is out of stock and with that comes the added pressure of not catching Coronavirus.

“It’s very scary like you do not know what to expect, the fear of not having enough food or medicine is hitting now, prices are very high like crazy. The fear of our kids growing up in such situations is hectic. Seriously thinking of leaving the country for good,” said Zeina Bitar to DU Beat.

 It was reported by the BBC that around last year, the unemployment rate in Lebanon was around 25%. And today, Lebanon is the 3rd ranking country in the World in terms of highest debt. Besides this, there is a complete violation of basic rights of the people. There are prolonged power cuts which have even pressed International Media houses to exclusively call it “Lebanon’s Electricity Crisis”. 

“I just exist in perpetual frustration at the injustice of this country that has never been anything but a throne…….. and the fact that I’ll be stuck here forever, like a prisoner. A lot of us here try to think “well, most of us won’t starve, we’ll just have to stop eating meat” or “well, once the economy collapses entirely and the Lebanese pound loses all it’s value completely, we’ll be able to rebuild, like with the Great Depression in America,” said Jana Khaled to DU Beat.

Besides electricity, other common facilities like safe and clean drinking water, healthcare and internet connection are also not fully available. While the sufferings of people are aggravating, the government has been implementing new taxes on tobacco, petrol and WhatsApp. This has made it even more difficult for people to call their loved ones who are trapped in Lebanon. DU Beat spoke to another person named Edmund Justin, who is Zeina’s brother- in- law. 

“My wife’s family is there. It is so sad and there’s nothing we can do to get them out. I am terrified of them,” said Edmund Justin to DU Beat.    

Amidst the crisis that has lowered Lebanon’s pound value by almost 80%, we need to ask certain questions. Is this crisis just about money? Also, is it just about Lebanon or a hint to all nations that their downfall can come through economic means too? 

As the Lebanon crisis worsens, what does the future hold?

Are we witnessing a new Arab Spring?

“In some ways, I suppose, but not so much in others. The Arab Spring was focused on open rebellion against oppression and lack of freedom of expression. The political state of Lebanon right now is a result of a different problem entirely, the government’s corruption and theft, which created a form of oppression as a byproduct instead of oppression being the principal reason for the uprising,” said Jana Khaled to DU Beat.

When asked about whether the present Crisis and protests make her remind of the Arab Spring that came in 2010, Jana answers in a mid-air way. Arab Spring as the name suggests was a series of uprisings in the Middle East starting from Tunisia. The Arab Spring was aimed to reform the Arab political system and civil rights scenario targeting countries like Syria, Egypt, Lebanon etc. But the reason Jana says that present Lebanon crisis isn’t like the Arab Spring is because of the way in which the problems behind it are different. According to Jana, the present Crisis is more about theft and corruption on part of the government, than freedom of expression. 

“The Lebanese, for example, can say whatever they want about the government, they have free speech. The root problem, I’d say, is that the leaders that spearhead the government are illegally and secretly pocketing the money that the government should be used to focus on Lebanese infrastructure, safety, healthcare….. There’s also the fact that Coronavirus is another factor making the situation worse,” stated Jana Khaled to DU Beat.

In my opinion, Arab Spring was a more spontaneous uprising and saw people from all backgrounds participating as one. Also, the Arab Spring was expansive in nature and covered most of the Middle East. But this time, the crisis is unique to Lebanon. While other Middle East nations are busy containing the Coronavirus, Lebanon has to exclusively deal with an economic crisis too. 

What to do now?

Lebanon seriously lacks proper infrastructure to carry out basic online education as compared to India. Besides that, while in India, government teachers are still being paid, it’s not the case in Lebanon. Countries like France, its Colonial power, has come to Lebanon’s aid but they have adopted the policy of “Give and Take”. Though Lebanon negotiated with International Monetary Fund ( IMF) for a $10 billion aid, yet it’s put on hold. 

Saying that things will get resolved soon would be a lie. That’s because Lebanon doesn’t really receive the kind of humanitarian attention it should. What is needed is a coordinated ground-level action because the International community at this point is itself busy to tackle COVID 19. The present government of Hassan Diab should immediately implement economic recovery measures. And of course, organisations like IMF should pull up their socks too and just don’t do lip service.

 Many like Zeina are stuck with their families there, they are missing their homes. While some like Jana need to attend their university. Lebanon needs peace and rest! 

Feature Image Credits: CNN

Navneet Kaur