While headlines around the world have kept warning that Lebanon is ‘on the brink of’ collapse for over a year now, most Lebanese will tell you that their state has already collapsed.
“Are you going to ask me the usual question?” Tina Jabbour, a strikingly charismatic woman whose sad eyes are the only thing that betrays her age, leers at me in pretend mockery. She then smiles and her demeanour softens.
She’s referring to the fact that I can’t help asking her how she’s doing, even though she always says I already know the answer. I’ve been going to her dekkaneh (cornershop) in working-class Geitawi for years. Even though her shelves are almost empty, she still has loyal customers who spend the little money they have left for essentials.
“We take care of our own here,” Tina says in her trademark raspy voice while anxiously pulling on a cigarette.
Tina was lucky that she did not die in the Beirut Port explosion last August, which is visible from her shop. The explosion razed her apartment to the ground and left her small shop in shambles.
"Before the explosion I had actually managed to quit smoking after almost 40 years. Now it’s the only thing that calms my nerves. I’m going to die anyway, might as well give into my only vice, even though I can barely afford it anymore.”
Survivor's guilt while in survival mode
Even the younger generation seems to have lost all hope that things will get better, with many seeing no other solution than to find a way to leave the country.
Mira Haidar is a 27-year-old architecture graduate. She’s a known presence in the vintage clothing community and a witty presence on social media. However, despite describing herself as a “usually positive and happy” person who encourages herself to chase her big dreams to keep going, she no longer has the mental energy to do so.
“Our dreams are put aside, so is our mental health, so we can concentrate on surviving another day. Now I spend my time crying over strangers I see on the street who seem to be carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, and I wonder how much longer they can go on,” Mira says.
She recently met two girls who are both graduating from university in May. “We talked about the explosion and how with survivor’s guilt we feel too afraid to even be happy because something might happen to us.”
Mira says she struggles to find the right words to convey how the past year has affected her psyche and that of those around her.
“We’re way past the point of being stuck in a dark hole and failing to find hope. For us there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Even leaving this country seems so impossible that we’re living like floating ghosts waiting for something, anything, to either save us or put us out of our misery.”
Slowly dying in a psychological warzone
April 13 marked the 46th anniversary of the start of the devastating Lebanese civil war. Over 100,000 people were killed, and close to 20,000 were kidnapped or disappeared and assumed dead.
Another nearly 100,000 were badly injured, and close to a million people, or two-thirds of the Lebanese population, were displaced. Not to mention a completely shattered infrastructure and a traumatised populace, the remnants and repercussions of which are still visible and felt today.
While some find it hyperbolic and even disrespectful to say that the current situation in Lebanon is as bad as during the civil war, many people of that generation invoke the war to illustrate that, on some level, certain things feel worse now.
Some say, during most of the civil war, many things still resembled normal life in a functioning state, unlike today’s dystopian state of affairs.
“Lebanon is a vicious cycle, and like Einstein said, I think he was the one to say it at least: 'the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again while expecting different results',” says Ziad Mansour, 59, while playing backgammon on a plastic chair outside his favourite manoushe place in Mar Elias, a working-class neighborhood in West Beirut.
Mansour, who was a young teenager when the 1975 war broke out, says that while it’s hard to believe, and to some might even sound macabre, he has many fond memories of the war.
“Playing cards in the bomb shelter with my family and friends by the candlelight, waiting for the shelling to stop so we could run upstairs to the fridge to get some food, while dodging snipers. It was like a game to us.”
Even the destroyed electricity poles would be fixed within a few days, whereas nowadays “we’re constantly at the mercy of the generator mafia.”
“Back then we almost got used to living in a warzone, it was all around us,” he says. “But now, it’s a psychological warzone, one without weapons, yet we are slowly dying. Dying from despair, from shame … and pretty soon from hunger.”
He falls silent and after an earth-shattering sigh, adds: “With weapons, you can physically throw yourself in front of your children to protect them…but how will you protect your kids from hunger and hopelessness?”.
Conscious inaction through 'Darwinian adjustment'
The critical situation Lebanon currently finds itself in is a direct result of what Mohamad Faour, a postdoc fellow in finance and self-described “angry economist” refers to as its feudal economic model, which is a natural outcome of deliberate political inaction by Lebanon’s ruling class.
“They’re leaving the economy to auto-adjust in a very Darwinian way: do nothing and let the economy adjust by itself in the most brutal and inhumane way,” Faour says.
Although the current deliberate political inaction following a string of massive crises is hardly novel in the ruling classes’ bag of tricks, Faour argues even in that context it exists on a whole other level.
“It cannot get any more audacious than the current deliberate and systematic impoverishment of the people. Those who are running the show knew perfectly well that we were moving towards a deep crisis and despite that they were indifferent about it. In fact, they encouraged it,” Faour says.
“And one of the twists of irony is that those very same groups of parties who have done this to the people are claiming to cushion them from the impact of their deliberate actions.”
Referring to the strengthening of clientelist ties by the traditional political parties through targeted assistance and minimal relief, which Faour says happens “all over the political spectrum,” he stresses that the people shouldn’t be blamed for accepting help, especially since the economic meltdown will further exacerbate over time.
Supermarkets turning into hunger games are becoming a weekly sport, with someone even getting killed at a food distribution this week.
While the country’s capital is already firmly held hostage by the ruling class, businesses are now being concentrated more and more in the hands of the politically connected.
Labour has become so cheap that, according to Faour, it will be easier to “buy people off’ and make them dependent on clientelist networks. “Those who used to get $100 during elections will now be content with $10,” he says.
So where do we go from here? Is there even a way out?
“If the political status quo remains as is, I have little hope left that we’re looking at anything but a bottomless pit of despair,” Faour says. “But I do have hope, because I simply have no other choice but to have hope,” he adds.
Faour is a member of the independent opposition party Mouwatinoun wa Mouwatinat fi Dawla (Citizens in a State), which he says saw its membership base increase threefold since the October uprisings.
Faour doesn’t believe it’s possible to achieve radical political change through elections: “Different status quo parties get a different share of the pie but it’s still the same parties.”
Faour says he chose to organise himself within Citizens in a State because “it’s the only party that has a very clear political and economic program. We are literally dealing with a ticking social, economic, financial and humanitarian timebomb and the priority should be to stop this timebomb from detonating.”
According to Faour, Lebanon is in a de facto transitory phase and there will be a remake of the political system “whether we like it or not”. While this could be for better or worse, Faour believes we should be pushing for a government with extraordinary legislative powers. “The only hope we have is tilting the balance of political power in a way that is sufficient enough for us to impose our agenda.”
Despite the fact that the October uprisings instilled in him a glimmer of hope that the Lebanese finally realised they should turn against the ruling class, rather than against each other, Mansour assumes the same old politicians who looted the country into oblivion will once again be voted into office during the next election.
"Most Lebanese are sheep who are still chewing on empty words, not even grass, while they are being brought to the slaughterhouse,” he says. “Forty-six years later we’re still at war. But the biggest war we’re waging is the one with ourselves.”