A dire situation - GulfToday

A dire situation

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Beirut-750

In Lebanon Electricity outages are multiplying, fuel for vehicles and electricity generators is in short supply, essential medicines are not available, food prices are soaring, unemployment is rising, and crimes are increasing. Photo: TNS

As Lebanon continued its tragic slide toward economic collapse, the World Bank reported the crisis could be among the world’s three worst since the middle of the 19th century. Since 2019, Lebanon’s economy has shrunk dramatically, its currency has lost 90 per cent of its value against the US dollar, the import-dependent country cannot access foreign food, medicine and fuel, and 55 per cent of its population has been plunged into poverty.

Electricity outages are multiplying, fuel for vehicles and electricity generators is in short supply, essential medicines are not available for hospitals and individuals, food prices are soaring, unemployment is rising, and crimes are increasing. The Lebanese army is so desperate for hard cash to pay and feed soldiers that it is offering tourists helicopter flights over the country at $150 a trip.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that Lebanon’s children are “bearing the brunt” of three interlocking crises — recession, political deadlock and covid contagion. These “mutually reinforcing crises... have left families and children in Lebanon in a dire situation, affecting just about every aspect of their lives,” UNICEF said.

“More children than ever before are going to bed hungry,” stated UNICEF’s Beirut representative Yukie Moko. Children’s futures are blighted. They are forced to work in hazardous jobs, teenage girls are married off and families are selling belongings. Children face physical abuse and mental anguish due to privation and uncertainty.

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Picture used for illustrative purpose only.

According to a recent UNICEF survey, 30 per cent of children skipped meals or went to bed hungry in June, 77 per cent of households have little money for sufficient food, and 60 per cent borrow to buy food or rely on credit. One-third of children receives no primary health care while 15 per cent no longer goes to school. Syrian refugee children are worse off than Lebanese children. UNICEF is preparing to launch a child grant, called “Hadi,” to reach all impoverished children.

While parliament has approved $556 million in monthly cash payments of $93.00 for 500,000 poor families, this sum falls far short as at least 2,475,000 of 4.5 million Lebanese who suffer from need. This number, which does not include Syrian and Palestinian refugees, is growing as the middle class descends into poverty. Furthermore, cash-strapped Beirut has not raised funds for the hand-out and Lebanese consulted by Gulf Today dismiss the scheme, arguing that the money will be swallowed by corruption.

During 11 crucial months since a blast devastated Beirut port and nearby neighbourhoods, killing 211 and rendering tens of thousands homeless, the politicians have been unable and unwilling to form the national salvation government required by international donors to secure $21 billion to prop up the economy.

Unless such a government is in place and provides proof that it will tackle the mismanagement and graft that has plagued Lebanon for decades, there will be no major rescue funds. Nevertheless, the politicians continue to reject the roadmap put forward last September by French President Emannuel Macron who has spearheaded the international campaign to save Lebanon. France is trying to create a mechanism to deliver aid without involving the government while the International Monetary Fund is considering a $900 million injection of funds to boost the depleted reserves of the ailing central bank. To put pressure on the obdurate politicians France has sanctioned some politicians by denying them visas and has threatened other measures while the European Union debates punishments but takes no action.

LebanonPicture used for illustrative purpose only.

Perhaps Macron feels guilty over the misdeeds committed by the French colonial regime imposed after World War I when Lebanon was severed from Greater Syria, which also fell under French rule. Paris is, at least, partly responsible for Lebanon’s plight because when it became independent in 1943, France bequeathed a destructive sectarian power-sharing political system. This allocated the presidency to a Maronite Catholic Christian, the prime ministry to a Sunni Muslim, the parliamentary speakership to a Shia Muslim, and shared out other top positions among the country’s main religious communities.

This system divided religious communities and undermined the development of Lebanese nationhood and the feeling among its citizens that they owe allegiance to the country. Lebanon became prey to manipulation by foreign actors which played determining roles in the country’s two civil wars (1958 and 1975-90). Meanwhile the broken system continues to empower the deeply entrenched and self-serving political elite which has blocked the appointment of a government of experts to enact reforms needed to rescue the country from ruin.

Little wonder that in October 2019, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese from all backgrounds and walks of life poured into the streets and squares of the country’s cities, towns and villages to demand the resignation of the politicians and regime change which would end the sectarian system. This terrified the politicians who have clung desperately to power since then, thereby allowing the country to descend into its worse crisis since the famine of 1915-18 which took place during World War I when the Ottoman Empire was allied to Germany and Lebanon was blockaded by France. While about half the population of Mount Lebanon alone died of starvation, hunger gripped the entire country.

A Lebanese friend told this correspondent many years ago that at that time his older siblings used to walk along Bliss street in front of the American University of Beirut to collect grains of rice which had fallen from leaking bags piled on delivery vans. While the current situation has not approached full-scale famine, families are going without meals or depend on food from charitable agencies which offer a partial safety net in the absence of the state. Malnourishment could very well stunt thousands of hapless children caught up in the malestrom of Lebanon’s economic and political melt-down.


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