7 August 2020
A FRIEND WRITES FROM LEBANON:
There’s a blind rage in the streets. I’ve seen nothing like it, Tariq. Not in Pakistan, not in Sri Lanka, not in Turkey, not even in Tunisia when I was there in 2011. I was in Martyrs’ Square yesterday, and there were young people everywhere just looking for something to break. They didn’t care if they would get infected with COVID-19, knowing that the hospitals have collapsed and wouldn’t be able to take care of them. They didn’t fear the security forces arrayed around A, who fired multiple rounds of tear gas first, then rubber bullets, then live ammunition in an abortive attempt to scatter their ranks. ‘They’ll run out of tear gas and bullets soon,’ one protestor told me, noting how everything is in short supply in Lebanon these days. ‘Then what will they do to us?’ It’s extraordinary.
The protestors sacked four ministries yesterday, taking with them documents from the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The people want accountability. They want to find a way to punish their rulers. They’re done asking politely or registering a charter of demands, as they did during the protests last October. Now, they just want them gone. The day after the blasts a popular WhatsApp message was in wide circulation: ‘Today, we mourn. Tomorrow, we clean. The day after, we hang them.’ I’ve been astonished to see the number of progressives and leftists – people who used to campaign against the death penalty elsewhere in the Middle East – proudly brandishing nooses in the square last night. I guess when people are denied justice, they turn to vengeance.
It’s striking that the explosions hit the wealthiest, predominantly Christian neighbourhoods in Achrafieh. There was, sadly, the silly spectacle of Macron parading through the streets as some kind of saviour. The French have been the principal backers of the venal economic and political order that has starved and suffocated Lebanon all these years. And, as we saw from the tear gas canisters yesterday, a major supply of ‘riot control’ equipment. But when people are desperate, they’ll turn to anyone. The danger is that this becomes, like so much in Lebanon, a sectarian-tinged tragedy – where the Christians feel they were under attack this time. The effect, of course, is on the whole country – the port was where food arrived, most of which Lebanon imports. The grain silos – the only ones it has – were the first buildings destroyed. But it will be a struggle for people to maintain a sense of unity around this fact.
Something has to give, but it’s not clear what – or how. The protestors are well-organised, and very clear-eyed about the neoliberal system that plunged them in this predicament, but they lack a political programme. They know what they are against: the sectarian economic and political order that carves the spoils between different sectarian leaders, who then create a dependency on their constituencies by doling out patronage. They don’t know what they’re for though. For a politically engaged citizenry, there’s a lot of apolitical talk: for the establishment of a technocratic system, or for the military to take over, or even among the nutty, obsequious Francophiles, a return to the Mandate system!
Macron cleverly created an opening for himself where Lebanon’s other patrons don’t want to tread. The Saudis lost trust in Hariri when they kidnapped him to try and force him to break with Hezbollah. The Iranians are tamed by U.S. sanctions, while Hezbollah is stuck: they are a key part of the political order, tainted by the same corruption allegations that have utterly discredited their closest allies, the Christian president Michel Aoun and the Shi’a speaker Nabih Berri. The U.S. seems similarly obsessed with Iranian influence, with Trump trying to find some Hezbollah connection to the explosions. Amusingly, Hezbollah leapt to Israel’s defence – saying they had nothing to do with the Beirut explosions, and for good reason, I guess: an Israeli attack would have meant Hezbollah made the city a target by storing the explosives there.
Before the explosions, the situation was so desperate here: people were stealing food to feed their children, apologising for their acts of desperation. Half the country, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees, are living in poverty. That number will rise now. The health system was already overwhelmed with Corona patients, now they are treating thousands of wounded people without a regular supply of electricity, with power outages now lasting longer than they did in Pakistan in 2013, at the peak of the crisis there. There is international assistance coming in now. So sad it takes a tragedy of this scale to draw any attention. The clown Foreign Minister and son-in-law of President Aoun, Gebran Basseel, has been reduced to threatening European leaders with the prospect of refugees turning up at their borders.
I’m not a pessimist, but I can’t see Lebanon coming out of this anytime soon. The protestors are admirable in their resolve, but lack any clear direction and are vulnerable to deep internal divisions. There are no political formations to rival those of the established crooks currently in power. There are going to be fresh elections in two months, which may just restore the same parties to power with a few different faces. The place needs a complete overhaul, but there’s no one here to do it.
Republished with permission from Tariq Ali, to whom the letter is addressed.