Facing the economic crisis with productive realism

A challenge of civility

Photo by Greg Demarque
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It plainly is depressing. Practically every story in this issue of Executive starts—if not with the scary ad-hoc topic of the coronavirus—but with a reference to the dire economic straits that Lebanon is in. And even before the March issue went to the newsstands, the mood among some of our online readers seemed to be correspondingly explosive to this dismal perception: an online-first interview with a banking economist on the eurobond repayment question triggered a handful of instant, nasty, and non-quotable responses when it was posted at the end of February—a far more visceral response than had been garnered by an op-ed published the week prior that laid out opposing views.

That the Lebanese have become more vocally engaged with the country’s pressing economic issues can only be a good thing. But amid the op-eds, interviews, tweets, and blogs there must also be an acknowledgement that the national financial story of Lebanon is complex and at risk of biases on all sides of the debate. Somewhere in the midst of all this economic noise there is a viable path forward for Lebanon. Finding it, however, is proving elusive.

Throughout February there was talk of an economic rescue package from the new government of Hassan Diab. But governmental talk in the public’s eyes these days is not just simply cheap but discounted almost in totality, as any such talk suffers from the distrust that has become entrenched in the populace over a decade or more. Moreover, on the month’s most hotly debated question of macroeconomic concern, the cabinet, needing time to find its footing, proved unable to magically pull a solution for the pressing eurobond question—to pay or not to pay—out of its hat.

Amidst the looming deadline for payment and all the economic uncertainty that has colored the day to day lives of Lebanese for the past few months it is understandable that people are angry, both with the government and with the banks. The fact remains, however, that rage can be destructive but never productive. It needs to be remembered that the people’s civil thawra (revolution) and the national economic mess have sprouted from the same ground of arrogant political corruption and limited economic room for financial action, but that neither was directly causal of the other (whatever narrative to the opposite has been spun). Now is the moment to recognize once and for all—based on the various governmental calls for international help and latest appointments of foreign legal and financial firms on the eurobond and debt restructuring issue—that the mess of the Lebanese public debt has taken on a dimension which neither the state nor the banks appear able to manage out of their own power.

All this means that it is now a time to step back from discussions of local guilt or ideological debates over whether the elites are waging war on the less fortunate or, inversely, the lower classes at the elites. Like we need to substitute imports with local production, the mental striving to improve the situation needs to substitute ultimately pointless talks of blame and ideology with value-added thought—namely with realism, civility, and even a dose of humility.

Humility, through acknowledging that the economic and financial mess of Lebanon is larger than the country’s capacity of autonomous self-healing, should guide the country in dealing as constructively as possible with the international community and the multilateral financial institutions whose support is urgently needed beyond any question and reservation.

Realism will help the thought leaders among protesters and establishment to—hopefully jointly—direct their energies to the search for local solutions such as empowerment of better social safety nets, industry, or crowdsourcing, which might come without guarantees but nonetheless offers infinitely better prospects than remaining in a mode of paralyzed and action-less economic despair.

But the most important virtue to preserve and nurture is civility. As the country’s sustaining asset clearly is neither political prowess nor the ability to manage an impossible economy, civility means that if Lebanon wants to preserve its validity as human habitat and virtuous society, there is no room for any hate speech or violence against outspoken minds, such as that leveled this month against economic journalist Mohammad Zbeeb. Respect for critics as well as proponents of the banking sector must be ascertained in any however passionate discussion over the economic course of action, the paying or restructuring of public debt, or the need of financial market reforms for building a new economic future.

In this period of accelerating difficulties and fears, and with expectations of even greater social troubles in Lebanon, it is time to remember that the outstanding quality of the past four and a half months was the peacefulness of protests, which was maintained against all provocations and in all moments of temptation to turn into belligerent unrest. Maintaining this culture against the pressures of this period is the challenge of preserving civility.

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