Opinion

Lebanon on fire

Lebanon on fire

Both in a metaphorical and a real sense. When everything seems to go wrong for someone, the punishments say that they have a circus and they grow dwarfs, and that is precisely what seems to happen to Lebanon, which is in the throes of an existential crisis where no less than 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate have just been blown up, a highly inflammable material that has been stored for years in the port without the slightest safety precautions. That this has happened is another symptom of the ineffectiveness of a State that has been in the water for years. The destruction in terms of deaths and injuries is enormous, a large part of Beirut has been destroyed and some 300 000 people have lost their homes. The explosion was so loud that it was heard in Cyprus, 150 miles away. 

Lebanon is a French invention. When the Great War ended and the Ottoman Empire disappeared, France and the United Kingdom divided up their spoils in the Middle East with the famous Sykes-Picot Line that was drawn on a map from E of Acre to K of Kirkuk. The east with the oil for the British and the west for France, the Greater Syria from which Lebanon was torn apart to give a homeland to the Maronite Christians. Created in 1920, it achieved independence in 1943, becoming in a short time a cultural (the Lebanese make very good movies, for example), commercial and tourist center of the first order. The Corniche of Beirut was the place of solace, rest and dissipation for all the rich people of the Middle East who were suffocated under the strict moral laws of Islam. The problem is that Damascus never accepted this independence and it was the Syrian interference that in good measure explains the civil war that ravaged the country between 1975 and 1990, playing on the religious loyalties of the population. Because what was initially a Christian country has left them in a minority as a result of the growth of the Sunni and Shiite communities, not to mention the Druze mountain minorities. This denominational reality has been imposed in a constitution that divides the posts according to religion: the president has to be Christian, the prime minister is Sunni and the president of the parliament is Shiite. Palestinian emigration and Israel's neighbourhood have then given rise to the birth of the Shiite Party of God, Hezbollah, which is like a state within a state and has more powerful and better armed militias (by Iran) than the same Lebanese regular army. 

With these ingredients it is not easy to guess that governing Lebanon is a little less than impossible task that becomes even more complicated with the frequent interference of foreign powers like Israel (which still occupies Lebanese territory in the Sheba's Farms, on a border guarded by UN troops with important Spanish participation), Iran (which uses Hezbollah as a tool at its service in Syria and against Israel), France (a former colonial power that believes itself to have historical rights and duties that it no longer has the capacity to materialize), Saudi Arabia (which seeks to put and remove presidents and whose economic influence is dominant), the United States (which with the recent Caesar Act prohibits trade with Syria), and the same although very weakened Syria. Worse still because, as if all the above were not enough, Lebanon does not stop receiving refugees. First those displaced from Palestine by the creation of the State of Israel (and then expelled from Beirut with Arafat at the head after Sharon's invasion in 1982), and now one and a half million refugees from the Syrian war, who are an enormous burden for a country that does not have 7 million inhabitants because it is one refugee for every four Lebanese. 

With these wicks, it is not surprising that the economy has taken a dive and that the growing unrest has materialised in increasingly massive and less peaceful demonstrations since last year, including a change of government. These protests are very understandable given the increase in unemployment, the devaluation of the pound, the increase in the price of basic products, the "informal dollarization" of the economy, the constant power cuts, the collapse of the middle class, inflation, and a debt that now reaches 150% of the GDP, growing inequalities (1% of the population has 40% of the income), degraded public services, rampant corruption, political fights that leave the country without resolute governments for a long time, an opaque budget, a banking system in crisis...and it could go on. All this is leading the country into an existential crisis because it is at once economic, social, institutional, financial, denominational and identity-based. 

But its ills do not end there because this terrifying scenario is now being dealt with by the coronavirus crisis that is affecting Lebanon in at least three ways: as a health emergency in a country with overflowing hospitals, and as an economic disaster aggravated by the disappearance of tourism, remittances from migrants abroad have been greatly reduced and on top of that, trade to Europe has fallen, which was the favourite occupation of the descendants of the Phoenicians and Carthaginians who were already outstanding in this field two thousand years ago. The ruin is total and now this ammonium nitrate deposit, which nowhere else in the world would have been stored for six years and without guarantees in an urban centre, has exploded in another proof of the prevailing disorder and misgovernment. 

Beirut is - or has been - one of the most beautiful and ancient cities in the Mediterranean, which visited and portrayed Eça de Queiroz after attending the inauguration of the Suez Canal. Today the country and its industrious people deserve better luck and that requires changing an overflowing political system from top to bottom, one that has been overtaken by the march of time. It will be more difficult to change its other big problem which is an unfortunate geographical location in the middle of a convulsed region and with ambitious and bigger neighbours. Personally, I have visited Lebanon on several occasions, during the hard times of the civil war and at other more pleasant times afterwards. I am very saddened by what is happening and I think that perhaps what has happened now is the impetus it needs to embark on a process of modernisation that seems to me to be inevitable. I hope that countries will try and let him do so, which up to now have not stopped bothering him in one way or another. Inch-Allah! would be the best gift to celebrate with hope the centenary of his birth next September 1st.