The untold story of the last 12 months

The conflicted great idea of Lebanon

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Lebanon is not a country by any easy definition. Whatever your preference
in terminology, when talking about a community of people in terms
of country or nation there are classic denominators involved that are either geographic, or social and cultural, but always framed as coherent and continuous. But Lebanon? Territorially, linguistically, historically, religiously, ethnically, even in terms of plant-life and climate – this assembly of ancient, sea-hugging, city-states, mystical valleys, hillside villages and once-forested mountain tops – is certainly not one thing: congruous.

The Lebanese idea nonetheless, for more than a century, has had such
staying power that foreign visitors and locals alike have latched onto it.
Even in today’s hyper-fragile context, people often reference Lebanon’s inherent contradiction between its paradise- like environment and profound social assets with its many struggles – joking that the abundance of diverse human talent and real natural treasures had to be compensated by the inclement geopolitical neighborhood and, in the words of veteran US-Lebanon diplomat, Jeffrey Feltman, “vexed relations with its neighbors”.

Although the country has received about as much international media attention in the past few months as it did in the 14 years since the war between Israel and Hezbollah, there is an untold story in the nauseatingly repeated tale of Lebanon’s woes and tribulations of the past 12 months.

On the headline layer, this is the period that started with the initial dysfunctions of the banks’ dollar machines in September 2019, and the politicians’ stupidities in designing their state revenue plans with its
“WhatsApp” levy in the following month. The politicians are now marking
the thawra’s first anniversary by missing yet another opportunity for
political governance. One more in a truly mind-boggling series of failures.
But beneath the popular veneer of financial errors and elite-induced
governance-failures, is this astounding story: that the country has not completely disintegrated in the past twelve months.

How can a technically bankrupt state still show any – albeit stupendously incompetent – signs of governance- life today? How can it be, wonders the sceptic on human goodness, that what is dumbly described as “ordinary people” (as opposed to celebrities and demigods?) have shown so much solidarity, compassion and practical human investment to fellow humans and communities over many months, when conventional cynics predicted an overburden of mayhem?

How could this people – professionals already suffering from economic losses, students with no visible job prospects, neighbors whose homes had been blown to shreds – show so much solidarity and compassion in the weeks after the Beirut port explosion?

This is the mystery tale. Lebanon has actually managed to survive the past twelve months, despite all doom that so many a talking-head, conspiracy theorist, and opinionator predicted would figuratively kill the country, gut all its banks and enterprises, and literally kill scores of people by starvation, crime, inter and intra-communal violence.

This version of the Lebanon 2020 tale reminds of another timeless story, the one of what many see as President John F Kennedy’s world-defining moment, in a speech he gave to emphasize US support for West Germany.

In 1963, JFK stepped in front of the Rathaus Schöneberg and told the people of Berlin, Germany, and the world, that the proudest statement one could make in the politically coldest days of the Cold War was to declare, “Ich bin ein Berliner” – “I am a Berliner”.

What worked back then as an emotive and stimulating message to a post-WWII public might not work in addressing a social media spoiled and intellectually keen Lebanese youth of 2020. But this does not detract from the fact that Kennedy’s solidarity declaration roused immense enthusiasm from the Berlin people and had a deep impact on the course of the Cold War.

Beirut today is the frontline of humanitarianism, of solidarity, of fighting fear and poverty, the frontier of the people, and the peaceful arena of their justified demand that in systemic, political change for a failed regime, all means all – kellon ya’ane kellon. In this sense, Executive editors reckon that instead of coming across as an almost-derogatory statement of inferiority, Ana min Beirut could be the most underrated affirmation of human talent today.

But. There are a few caveats, the problems are horrendous. Despite the spirit of the people, and the astonishing fact of mere survival, one cannot predict if Lebanon will survive until tomorrow, next week or the month thereafter. The economic spiral is so far from virtuous that it is ridiculous to predict any positive turn. It has thus been extremely testing to investigate the nexus of poverty and job destruction, which is a main theme of this issue, along with questions on the role of the diaspora. Talking about poverty in Lebanon in so many learned ways can be depressing because of the onslaught of numbers and definitions (see poverty special report) and the crucial cross-linkage between curbing poverty and preserving jobs (see labor report).

Most disastrously for the country’s state of mind, however, is that Lebanon’s political pyromaniacs, pirates and brigands are still sitting in their palaces.

What can you do with a pyromaniac? If you have to deal with such an afflicted individual, you may classify him or her as a person with environmentally induced sociopathy or some form of personal psychopathy. You may compassionately regard her or him as worthy of your pity, someone who is suffering from an “impulse control disorder”. But however sympathetically you think of pyromaniacs, these people, just as kleptomaniacs, are criminally insane. You need to protect society from them and you need to protect them from themselves.

Now such disorders of the soul are very rare (pyromaniacs and kleptomaniacs exist mainly in the minds of paperback novelists and yellow journalists) and there is no reason to believe that Lebanon has an outside the- bell-curve high percentage of pyromaniac citizens or elites.

But given the evidence of insane political behaviors on individual and
group levels in Lebanese political these past 12 months – the vicious
cycle of October 2019 closes itself and only one conclusion remains:
this country is confronted with dangerous individuals and groups that
are as politically powerful as they are delusional and unable to learn
or change their behavior. And this makes Lebanon on the first anniversary
of the thawra sadly look like the stage of a movie, satirizing the ugly downside of the human condition instead of a showroom of human goodness that it could be.

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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