When Lebanon was on its descent into civil war in 1975, some militia bosses sicced the ‘poor’ upon the ‘rich’, telling their followers to loot the Spinneys store in Ramlet el-Baida. I remember watching the riot from our balcony — the first to drive up to the deserted store were the warlords and their top goons. After they carried off the store’s fine wines, caviar and quality foodstuffs in their luxury cars, they allowed their disheveled band of followers to raid what was left. Only after their departure, poor people from the area were able to pick through the little that the professional looters had left behind. I saw a child that took away a can of dog food.
The warlords had plundered a private business, then left the scraps to the poor. But that was only the beginning. Those same villains began to spread a destructive thought among the Lebanese: that success should be punished and that those who had worked hard did not deserve their riches. That taking was more important than making. We all know what followed.
Today, the private sector — specifically the banks — again finds itself attacked by crooks. To pay for a public sector wage hike, the government needs money from somewhere. But more bank taxes are being mentioned for one reason alone: they’re easy to take. Banks are transparent and profitable. They already pay taxes and must publish a wealth of financial information. Hiding your profits is hard if you’re a bank in Lebanon.
And once again, we hear echoes from Lebanon’s past — from those who would tax bankers out of envy. The idea is the same as it was in the early 1970s: anyone that is successful is one of the bad guys. Although the logic is tortured, it has an implicit populist appeal.
This, however, is a clever misdirection. It is not the bankers who are denying public sector workers a living wage. It is those same corrupt leaders who champion the wage hike, knowing they will never have to pay for it because they never pay taxes. These are the real bad guys, and our country is full of them.
The real bad guys would love for us to point our fingers at anyone but them. And astonishingly, they are succeeding in vilifying the only transparent sector in Lebanon.
We cannot allow such character assassination to take place. But more importantly, we must direct blame where it truly lies: with corrupt leaders and politicians. We must hold them accountable — and the only way to truly do that is through their finances, by making them pay the taxes they owe.
Otherwise, we will all be left with only dog food to eat.