Rola el-Husseini is a researcher at CMES and Department of Political science. Tell us more about the situation!
There have been some events just lately that analysts consider expressions of impunity. Can you give us some examples of this?
–The Lebanese political elite is composed mainly of former warlords who have entered formal political life after the peace agreement that heralded the end of the civil war in 1989. They have since behaved with impunity, using a combination of corruption and clientelism in addition to the performance of elections to hide any impression of latitude to the outside world. Of course, the Lebanese were well aware of this.
– Most recently, the lack of accountability after the major explosion in the Beirut port in August 2020, the fact that there has been no real progress in the investigation, shows the extent of the elites’ feeling of being above the law. Perhaps the most egregious example of elite impunity is to be found in the decision of some parliamentarians to jump the vaccination lines and get the COVID 19 vaccine before they were entitled to it.
– In addition to the inability of the ruling elite, after six months of negotiations, to come to an agreement and form a government to help save a country shows how careless they are about the future of Lebanon - especially as the country is suffering from several concomitant crises (economic/financial, political and social).
The World Bank calls the crisis a "deliberate depression". Why do they use this expression and can you give us a short description of the declining economy and how ordinary people´s lives are affected?
– In its fall 2020 economic report for Lebanon, the World Bank said the country is in “deliberate depression”. The compounded crises are due to decades of mismanagement and corruption, in addition to the impact of the war in Syria (now in its tenth year) on its smaller neighbor. In March 2020 the government defaulted on its Eurobond debt, and ever since the economy has been in free fall. Informal capital controls which have mainly affected the middle class (as the rich were able to send their money overseas) have been implemented by the banks.
– And the local currency has lost about 85 percent of its value and the price of food staples, mainly imported in hard currency, has therefore increased. The price of bread has been raised for the third time in less than a year, while the price of meat has increased by 110 percent within a year and the price of chicken rose 65 percent. Poverty is increasing and people are unable to meet their basic needs.
It is difficult to imagine a more unequal society than the Lebanese one, says economist Lydia Assouad. Can you give us some examples of these inequalities?
– I think you are referring to Lydia Assouad’s January 2021 piece for Carnegie Middle East center. I think do not agree with this assessment; Lebanon is typical of many developing and unequal countries as it has a wide schism between the very rich and the very poor. She rightfully points out that “the richest 1 percent of the population receives, on average, 25 percent of national income, while the poorest half receives less than 10 percent” and that “the richest 10 percent of the population owns almost 70 percent of total wealth,” but I don’t think that is very different from countries such as Brazil.
– This income inequality is probably best exemplified by the lavish weddings the rich throw which cost millions of dollars while the poor have barely enough money to subsist. The income inequality has been exacerbated by the current economic and financial crises which have driven more than half the population into poverty.
What has been the aftermath of the Beirut explosion so far? How is the government dealing with the families of the victims, for example?
– The government has not adequately dealt with the explosion. While the world has offered its support and expressed its condolences, and there were popular commemorations, memorials, and mourning, I don’t believe any Lebanese politician gave official condolences to the families of the 211 victims, nor was an official day of commemoration or mourning.
– In addition, the government removed the judge in charge of the investigation in February 2021 after he accused two former ministers of criminal negligence and they asked for his recusal. The families of the victims protested his removal as it would delay the investigation, but to no avail. A new judge was appointed a few days later; he is fortunately young and competent. But Lebanon has a history of criminal investigations that lead nowhere, witness the assassination of former PM Rashid Karameh, of Mufti Hassan Khaled (killed in the 1980s) or most recently and famously of the assassination of former PM Rafiq Hariri in February 2005.
A common perception is that Lebanon is an unusually sustainable and unwavering Middle Eastern country, but given the current situation should we now start talking about a collapsed state? Why or why not?
– Lebanon has traditionally been a weak state with a strong society, to paraphrase Joel Migdal.
– Some have called it a penetrated state; others a failed state or even a battered state. I call it a resilient state, one that so far has managed to survive despite a civil war, and domestic, regional and international interference. In fact, during the 1975-1990 civil war, basic services such as tax collection, civil service, and courts were maintained, and presidential elections took place more regularly than they did in the post war period. Whether Lebanon will continue to survive now that it has received economic, social and political blows, and what shape the state will take is a different question.
– Some are talking about the possibility of a total state breakdown and new civil war, but I don’t believe that will happen. At least not in the near future. The international community is starting a new approach in Lebanon called 3RF (Reform, Recovery and Reconstruction Framework) and while some are skeptical about the plan, I hope that the geostrategic interests of the US, the EU and the regional players (especially Iran and Saudi Arabia) will forestall this collapse.
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