Lebanese people must rise to country’s many challenges
On the 22nd day of each month, thousands of Lebanese Christians ascend the mountain above Jbeil, historic Byblos, to the cedar tomb of Mar Charbel at the monastery of St. Maron. The image of this 19th-century saint bestrides many buildings in the area, his adherents convinced that he performed miraculous healings. More than one such pilgrim has admitted to me that they have invoked Mar Charbel, pleading with him to cure Lebanon’s ills.
Ever since the Syria crisis kicked off more than eight years ago, mountains of speculation have centered on how Lebanon would survive the buffeting of regional forces and how much spillover this small state would endure. Lebanon is sadly used to being mired in regional storms, whether the Arab-Israeli conflict, tensions with Iran or the wars on Iraq. The latest round of Israel-Hezbollah tensions is another timely reminder of just how fragile Lebanon’s security environment is.
On one level, Lebanon has coped and is a success not to be sniffed at. The ethnic and sectarian divisions that deluged Syria in cataclysmic war and strife did not engulf Lebanon, even if they strained relations between every community. Lebanon welcomed and has hosted well over a million Syrian refugees, making up a fifth of its entire population. It still has more refugees per capita than any country in the world, straining every fiber of the Lebanese state and infrastructure. Few countries would have coped, but somehow Lebanon has so far. Outside help is still sorely needed if this is to continue.
Increasingly, Lebanese political leaders are demanding that the Syrian refugees return to their country; that somehow it is safe for them to do so. It is a politically sensitive issue to state that any return of refugees to Syria must be voluntary, as stipulated in international law. More and more Syrian refugees are being forced back to Syria. The demolition of illegally built Syrian refugee homes by the Lebanese army in Arsal, in the northern Beqaa, has escalated these tensions further. Raids on Syrian-owned businesses have increased. The bottom line is that life will, in all likelihood, only get tougher for refugees, not least as Lebanon lurches headlong into ever deeper economic crisis. The calls to “protect” Lebanese jobs grow louder.
How much the Syrian refugee crisis has hurt the Lebanese economy is hard to define. It certainly has had an impact and surely is one of the contributing factors to a debt that is now 150 percent of the country’s gross domestic product at more than $80 billion. Paying off that debt consumes almost half of the country’s budget. Poverty is on the rise because a third of the population survives on less than $1.90 a day — the international poverty line. The trouble is that investment from the Gulf has largely dried up and remittances from the sizeable Lebanese diaspora are no longer sufficient.
These economic ills could be addressed, not least if the government were able to carry out the tough reforms demanded at the April 2018 donor conference, where $11 billion was conditionally pledged. This might be easier but for Lebanon’s own domestic political dilemmas. It took all of eight months to finally form a government in February. It is shaky at best and hardly in a position to take the tough decisions the country requires. Austerity budgets are hardly the stuff to warm Lebanese hearts. Stopgap measures will not cut it.
If funds were available, Lebanon might be able to address its huge infrastructure problems. Areas of Syria have more power per day than some in Lebanon. Power cuts are common and the Lebanese cannot wait until addition power generation comes online. On a positive note, Lebanon aims to source 12 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The country also has a great tourist offering, but not when the roads in and out of Beirut are clogged up for hours or visitors have to face the three to four-hour queues at the airport during the high season.
Lebanon has one of the most incredible environments of any country in the region. But this is at risk courtesy of the never-ending garbage crisis, which includes the burning of toxic waste and swollen coastal landfill sites that seep into the Mediterranean.
The government is shaky at best and hardly in a position to take the tough decisions the country requires.
But, perhaps most importantly, corruption can no longer be ignored. The chairman of the foreign relations committee in the Lebanese Parliament, Yassine Jaber, told me: “Panadol does not work anymore. You need surgery.” Other politicians echo the same mantra but the challenge is to find out how to get a serious anti-corruption drive going when so many communities feel their interests are dependent on the status quo. If offshore gas resources do come to the rescue of the Lebanese economy, one can only hope that all revenues are better protected from waste than in the past.
Skill and talent abound among the Lebanese people. One has to trust that they will once again rise to the challenges their country faces.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech