A ghost state, an economy in ruins ... Lebanon has still not recovered from the explosion at the port of Beirut a little over three years ago. With war looming on its southern border, the country teeters near total collapse.
BEIRUT — “Go to Place de l’Etoile, you'll find me there.” At the appointed time that morning, the square where the Lebanese Parliament is located is deserted. The silence of an abandoned city reigns, like in a Hitchcock scene, broken only by the raspy meows of two furious cats. Since the explosion at the port of Beirut on August 8, 2020, the surroundings of the building have been the image of a ghostly power. Vacant.
On the facades of elegant buildings reminiscent of a Lebanon glowing with activity, the windows without panes are like open vents revealing only darkness inside, with electricity long cut off. On the corner, the Häagen-Dazs window is a pile of glass. A mess of overturned chairs suggests the hasty departure of customers, who haven't returned for three years.
“Look, there’s no one here! Our political class is barricading itself, it is afraid of the people!," declares Melhem Khalaf. This member of Parliament from Beirut receives people seated at a small table that he set up himself on the sidewalk, a stone's throw from the steps of Parliament.
It looks like another movie scene. At the end of the lifeless artery, one of the Lebanese army's roadblocks filters the rare entries into this protected enclave in the heart of the capital.
Khalaf is one of the dozen deputies elected during the May 2022 legislative elections without being affiliated with one of the religious communities that have long hung over Lebanese political life. With a group of lawyers, this president of the national bar association is fighting so that the investigation into the port explosion, so disturbing for Hezbollah, the militia party in control of the area, will one day be properly carried out.
Who still believes in justice, in politics, in the rule of law in this Lebanon shattered by decades of civil war and crisis?
“I have come here every day since my election 269 days ago,” declares the deputy. "It’s a constitutional duty."
It's rare that anyone listens to his speeches. A meticulous jurist, this Don Quixote lists the articles requiring deputies to sit continuously until a president has been elected, provisions that only one other deputy respected until finally throwing in the towel as well recently.
Khalaf is the last one to cling to the shreds of the Lebanese Constitution …
This political theater would be a farce if the very existence of the country were not threatened. “The war is upon us, Lebanon risks disappearing,” sighs Walid Jumblatt, the venerable Druze leader who receives visitors at his home in Beirut, a large residence camouflaged at the end of a small street lined with trees and blocked by 10 heavily armed militiamen.
How would Beirut cope with an influx of the same magnitude?
At the invitation of a suspicious butler, we walk through a series of majestic, elegantly furnished rooms to arrive at a home library with modern shelves climbing up to the ceiling, filled with works in Arabic and English.
“For 50 years, I have had the impression of having always known war," Jumblatt says. "But there, with the explosion of the port and the financial crisis, the Lebanese are really at the end of their rope.”
On the wall hang portraits of him and his father Kamal, assassinated in 1977 by the Syrian secret services. “We would not recover from a new war like in 2006.”
At the time, the 30-day conflict in the south of the country between Hezbollah and the Israeli army had pushed nearly one million inhabitants to find refuge further north. But today all wonder how the country and Beirut in particular would cope with an influx of the same magnitude .
Beirut port, three years after the explosion
Palace without a president
Because since then, the decline of the State has worsened considerably, the coffers are empty and the leaders are avoiding their responsibilities. On October 31, it was exactly one year since the end of the six-year term of President Michel Aoun (a leader of the country's Christian community), but Parliament has still not agreed on the name of a successor.
Aged 90, the outgoing president, officially commander in chief of the armed forces, deserted the presidential palace of Baabda, on the heights of Beirut. Only two soldiers who nonchalantly monitor the access road maintain a functioning state fiction.
While 20,000 inhabitants have already started to flee the south of the country , the government of Prime Minister Nagib Mikati (a Sunni politician) is handling current affairs. Some of his ministers no longer even bother to show up, but are carefully holding on to their seats: “The Constitution gives them total immunity, no one can prosecute them for anything,” noted a senior Treasury official.
What remains of legitimate power is in the hands of the President of Parliament, Nabih Berry (a Shiite), incapable of resolving the situation to the point that one wonders if he really wants to.
Dreams of revolution
The spark had been a “WhatsApp tax” that the government wanted to introduce on communications. He could not have found anything better to unite the Lebanese, all faiths combined! “Everyone was in the street, it was crazy,” says a young theater actress of Shiite faith who hides from her mother that she is in a relationship with a woman. "There were people from Hezbollah mixed with Christian students or NGO activists…”
This communion did not last long and the hopes of a turning point quickly faded. “We believed it for two weeks,” admits Charbel Nahas, a major intellectual figure from Beirut involved in politics. In his spacious office cluttered with old books, smoking cigarette after cigarette, this university professor says that “Lebanon is a 'community non-state'. And the communities certainly do not want to call this into question. However, the October 17 movement represented a threat to the system. The five or six community leaders who dominate the country nipped the protest in the bud to save the status quo and preserve their interests..."
In such a system where everyone agrees to defend their own interests, few people are left who believe in politics. Neemat Frem is one of them. In his stronghold of Jounieh, one of the most beautiful bays in the Mediterranean, this boss of a large industrial group employing nearly 12,000 people explains why he decided to run for the presidency. “I can no longer bear to see the country I love in such a state. The boat has a hole. I'm entering politics to prevent it from sinking.”
Clashes in the wake of anti-government protests in Beirut in October 2019
The disappeared state
“The State no longer exists, it’s lamentable,” said Omar Sabra, a young entrepreneur who dreams of revolution and devotes his free time to trying to unite all those who can no longer stand the “system.”
If Beirut is bombed, I would rather have him with me than on the other side of the city
He said he's busy creating unions of students, engineers, doctors, lawyers: “So that civil society mobilizes.”
Founded by his sister, the start-up where he works, a sort of Lebanese Amazon, is a hive of 20 and 30-somethings, who speak three languages, Arabic, English and French. Lebanon in all its glory!
The raw concrete premises open onto a generous central room where an open kitchen and relaxation areas have been fitted out. On the corner, an office has been transformed into a nursery with playmats to accommodate the employees' eight babies, including that of the founder, a 14-month-old boy.
“If Beirut is bombed, I would rather have him with me than on the other side of the city,” she says.
Omar adds: “We all dream of a normal life, of a country without corruption, without schemes, regardless of religion.” Many like him believed in “thawra”, a movement born on October 17, 2019 when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against a discredited political class. That day, Place de l'Etoile was packed with people and the doors of Parliament shook. The whiff of revolution... Which is part of why the neighborhood has been sealed off ever since.
The temptation of exodus
His chances of being elected are slim, but unlike the other contenders, he has drawn up a detailed program to turn the country around. And the success of the family business he runs gives him certain credit. After the Beirut port explosion, Frem resigned from his post as deputy to protest against the corruption of the political class who he views as responsible for the disaster. “The Lebanese state is dying, but that’s a good thing. We have to rebuild everything!”
Not a single one of my students wants to stay in Lebanon
“Too late,” responded many Lebanese who prefer to try their luck elsewhere. A loss of hundreds of thousands emigrants, while 80% of the population who remain now lives below the poverty line. “Not a single one of my students wants to stay in Lebanon,” regrets Charbel Nahas.
A young soldier on duty in front of a building in the center of the capital says it in his own way: “As soon as I can, I'm going to the Gulf,” he says. "Because here, there's nothing left to gain. Even the army doesn't pay."
He says that in this great chaos that Lebanon has become: “there are always people who take advantage.” And they only want one thing: to maintain the status quo.