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Existential warfare: The year of truth and shock

Forgive us, we are alive

by Thomas Schellen

Sadly, but also realistically, one could not blame an economic analyst for pronouncing Lebanon a lost cause in 2020. The numbers are not only disturbing, but unrestrainedly disastrous. Moreover, these numbers not only exist in arcane accountancy details, but they prevail wherever one cares to look, whether that is the macro-economy or fiscal realities. And the reforms are talked about. They go round and round, these reform promises, like a little white elephant on a dream-like carousel.

Yet even in the depths of the deepest currency troubles, one can postulate an upside. Hyperinflation, for example, was but a moment in July. The rest was severe, but technically, regular inflation. Note, remittances to developing countries are down globally, according to international estimates, but not by as much as had been feared earlier this year. In the context of contracted GDP and the exchange rate, the contribution of diaspora remittances to GDP is now thought to be above 30 percent. 

Additionally, not every producer of foodstuff in Lebanon was shamelessly extorting every last lira from their customers’ pockets, or pressing the blood out of their employees’ emaciated bodies. Not even landlords, or digital landlords – publishers and editors – are fated to be that cruel. Neither do local producers, traders and retailers rob their customers blind, nor hike prices beyond any moral restraint and enlightened self-interest. 

About the self-interest of our servants – the politicians – we can only say that they didn’t even successfully slip into Santa costumes this year, to bring the people tidings of their new incarnation into a cabinet for Christmas. Anyhow, despite their best efforts, the Lebanese people have prevailed as a not totally dysfunctional society. 

Forgive us, we are alive

In short, Lebanon as a society has survived this year where an assembly of economic men and economic women would have practiced perfectly rational self-extermination. This does not mean that the economic numbers and social realities are not depressing. They are even more depressing, because one can rail for months against the walls of this numerical economic prison, but cannot change the warden. Executive editors pray you to look for the numbers yourself, and analyze them. We have done it at the turn of every virtual and physical page of our magazine not just this year, but for more than 20 years.

 What we ask of you now is that after having chosen your numbers and analyzed them, choose the concrete measures to change Lebanon’s realities, one step at a time, as they famously say. To assist you in picking the solutions that have meaning, might appeal most to you and make you take up your weapons of truth and justice, we have reviewed the Executive Roadmap. For our 4.0 edition of this collaborative and consultative effort, Executive editors have selected 36 milestones, or targets, for you to pick from and invest your personal energy in, in 2021. We need to achieve those milestones. Lebanon needs to implement as many of the targets as we can push for. 

The historic perspective

History is perception. From a perception of Lebanese attitudes and experiences in the pivotal years of 2019 and 2020, one can call 2019 the year of delusion and protests, but also the year of righteous calls for the dream of a new society. 2020 was the year of despair and tragedy, but also the year of finally and inescapably accepting reality. The reality that this society has lost almost 30 years to inner corruption and external power plays. It is self-explanatory from the numbers that 2021 will be the year of economic pain and sacrifice. But will it also be the year of fairer opportunities and new endeavors in economy and society? We, the people, are the building blocks for this. Will we exert our will to be what we hope for? 

“If we believe that most people are decent and kind, everything changes,” writes contemporary Dutch historian Rutger Bregman. His reasoning is that fake addictions to cultural nocebos (opposite of placebo), veneer theories, and assumptions of human inadequacies, have prevented us from taking a realistic view. A view that simply says, we are not that bad, neither collectively nor individually. 

The realistic picture of Lebanese people in this sense is that they are amazing, and have proven themselves as a more coherent society than could have been expected throughout the trials of 2020. As true representative of the Lebanese spirit, former first lady Nayla Mouawad said in a quiet conversation in October about the development after the port explosion, “We can be unhappy with everything in this country, but not with the young Lebanese people.”

What we can predict with certainty for 2021 is that Lebanon will not fix itself. It cannot. We have been living off our reserves this year, many consumables – in the allegory of a car for example, our tires, battery, windshield wipers, brake fluids, and shock absorbers – have not been replaced. If our windshield showed a crack, it was not replaced, if our brake pads were run down, we let it ride and screech. The modern economy has its advantages, one of them that we have accumulated many things. But we cannot run on the reserves and neglect the replacement of wear and tear parts or the maintenance of society for any number of years. The risks of doing so are cumulative. We, the decent people, need to build a decent society in a decent state and we need to start today, not next year.  

Ceterum censeo (existential warfare)

In closing, one of history’s larger than life figures was the Roman military man, farmer and political leader, Marcus Porcius Cato. Of him, whose oratory skill and fame outshone even the presidential Lebanese orators of this generation, it is well known that he ended every speech with his core conviction: the demand that the enemy of Rome, Carthage must be eliminated. His oratory phrase went down in literary and political history as his, “ceterum censeo”. 

Our ceterum censeo at the end of 2020 is that the enemies of Lebanon’s democracy, the corruption and political self-interest of the country’s most powerful, have to be eliminated. Executive has repeated this often, not quite in every editorial and opinion leader, but time and again since its first issue went to print in the late 1990s. We are saying it again as this pivotal year of 2020 is drawing to a shameful close. Shameful because the only thing that this country, over the past 12 months, has seen that has been more severe than inflation and cost of living, has been vile and empty rhetoric and insincere promises of reform, whether it be political structural, or fiscal.

Reform is our right. We want reform now. 

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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