Saturday, October 16

‘This is the end of time’: Lebanon struggles to find a political path through its crisis | Lebanon

TThe lights dimmed further in Lebanon last month when two giant barges that had powered its power grid went out. The result was six hours less power a day for most households, or more need for generator fuel for those who could afford it.

However, fuel is also in short supply in the crisis-hit nation. Giant lines clog the roads near gas stations and refills are limited to 20 liters, making most trips precarious.

Over the weekend, troops deployed to the northern city of Tripoli, surrounding key state institutions after a night of protests and riots against worsening living conditions, left several protesters and 10 soldiers injured. Medicines and medical supplies are also in short supply, and many acute illnesses go untreated.

According to many Lebanese, these now include the rot in the heart of the state, which 18 months after the first signs of economic crisis remains as potent as ever. As Lebanon disintegrates, diplomats, aid chiefs, world officials and even some local leaders are pondering the very viability of a state that refuses to reform even to save itself.

A tangle of elevated power lines along a street in a Beirut suburb
A tangle of overhead power lines along a street in a Beirut suburb. Photograph: Joseph Eid / AFP / Getty Images

Almost 11 months after the catastrophic explosion in the port of Beirut last August, there has been no progress in attempts to form a government, even as hyperinflation and a broken banking system destroy savings, food insecurity skyrockets and accelerates. the brain drain.

“The explosion … has sped up a lot of things, that’s for sure,” Najat Rochdi said, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon. “The economic crisis, the devaluation of the currency, as well as the governance vacuum, have meant a collapse of public services at a time when they are most needed.”

Across Lebanon, extreme poverty has tripled since the first signs nearly two years ago that the economy was approaching a cliff. For many households, basic services such as health, electricity, water, internet and education are almost out of reach, but this has had little impact on politicians trying to protect a system of patronage that runs along sectarian lines that has undermined the competent governance for decades.

The country’s politicians remain unable to commit to cabinet portfolios and quotas, and their intransigence serves as a reality check on hopes that ministries may function as institutions rather than fiefdoms in the future.

But where global bodies and international governments had been more or less willing to support Lebanon during past, much less severe crises, this time the catastrophe is seen to be largely avoidable, more of a governance issue than a humanitarian issue.

Protesters move a garbage container to block a main road in Beirut
Protesters use rubbish bins to block a main road in Beirut during a protest against rising prices for consumer goods and the collapse of the local currency. Photograph: APAImages / Rex / Shutterstock

“The development of Lebanon is the responsibility of the Lebanese,” said Rochdi. “The development of Lebanon is not the responsibility of the international community.”

Such frankness has been hard to digest for the civil war leaders and their loyalists who still dominate the country’s affairs. France, a long-term benefactor of Lebanon, has repeatedly told senior officials that aid will only start flowing after reforms are introduced, such as transparency and a central bank audit.

“They still believe a rescue is coming,” said a Lebanese acting minister. “Because they see the global community as secular humanists who will not allow us to drown. What if they are wrong? We all go down with the ship and the villains take a life raft to France?

Even that seems increasingly unlikely. As the Lebanese pound reaches record levels of nearly 16,000 to the dollar (it was 1,500 to the dollar 18 months ago) and reserves held at the country’s central bank fall to near-critical levels, there is more available in both Lebanon and the United States. foreigner to examine the system that paved the way for such a mess.

Particular attention has been paid to schemes that lined the pockets of the political class and a variety of other untouchables, including some security chiefs. Among the main sources of corruption are Lebanon’s essential contracts, covering fuel imports, electricity generation, telecommunications, biometrics and passports.

“Lately, it has become the sale of subsidized goods [by the central bank] to Syria, especially fuel and medicines, ”said the minister. “Everything is happening in plain sight.”

A European diplomat described the fuel crisis as a scam. “There is no shortage of fuel. It is kept on ships by local suppliers as a way to increase margins and it is shipped to Syria, where it is sold at higher prices than they could fetch in local markets. All kinds of players are taking the margins ”.

The scene of the explosion in the port of Beirut, in a photo taken in May
The site of the explosion in the port of Beirut, in a photo taken last month. Photograph: Dylan Collins / AFP / Getty Images

“The very systems and people that led us down this path are the ones that are supposed to get us out of it. But they don’t want to. You can’t fix a problem that refuses to fix. “

Some Lebanese politicians, including Samy Gemayel, who resigned from parliament after the explosion at the port, have called for the administrative decentralization of Lebanon and a review of the country’s parliament and electoral laws. “If we hold on to the past and don’t learn the lessons of history, we are broke,” he said. “We have huge challenges across the board and it is time to tackle them.”

While the political quagmire has yet to cause change, there are signs that the country’s leaders are beginning to feel the pressure. The United States imposed sanctions on former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who is a potential candidate to replace his aging father-in-law, Michel Aoun, as president. France and the European Union have hinted that they may do the same with other leaders, including central bank director Riad Salameh.

“Until now they have covered each other,” said the minister. “Everyone knows which corrupt deals have enriched which clans, and they know each other’s vulnerabilities. It has been an omertà code until now. “

However, in May, a judge loyal to Bassil raided a finance house working on behalf of Salameh, which is close to Lebanon’s powerful parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri. Several weeks later, a judge loyal to Berri opened a corruption investigation into a contract between a Turkish company responsible for electric barges and the Ministry of Energy, which had been led by Bassil. The lights were later turned off, with the company claiming it was owed nearly $ 200 million in arrears and a financial prosecutor alleged widespread wrongdoing over many years.

“There was a time when we Lebanese said that as long as the country continues to function, we will look the other way,” said Suhaib Zogibi, a merchant from Beirut. “But this is the end of time, and if anything can come out of this, it has to be the end of impunity.”

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