Plotting their escape - GulfToday

Plotting their escape

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.


Hundreds of Lebanese wait in line for fuel at a gas station near Jbeil, north of Beirut. The situation has gotten rather difficult with people waiting up to six hours to fuel a car. Photo: TNS

My friend Nada is planning her retreat from Beirut. She has renewed her French passport which gives her exile options, vaccinated, and microchipped her cat ahead of their voyage, and asked her neighbours to water her plants. She has made arrangements for a woman to clean her flat once in a while but still has to deal with the logistics of an extended stay outside Lebanon where she has dwelled most of her life.

She plans to stay with her younger daughter in the US and, perhaps, visit her brother in Germany before returning home when she is weary of exile. I have repeatedly invited her to come to me in Cyprus which is closer to home, but she wants to go further afield.

Nada is a Beiruti, who has spent decades working on development projects in the north and south. She is devoted to Lebanon in spite of the grasping politicians and oligarchs who have ruined the country and are driving its citizens to flee. 

Having stepped down from her job, Nada is free to do what she likes. However, one week she is determined to go, the next she hesitates. She has survived Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, Israel’s 1982 invasion and occupation of Beirut, and Israel’s 2006 onslaught. When their house on the airport road was destroyed, Nada and her family moved into a spacious flat in the city belonging to her mother-in-law. She now lives in her own compact, nicely furnished apartment with her books and collection of compact disks, her cat for company.

Electricity from both the government and the building’s generator and piped water are fitful. Her fridge can no longer function. Air conditioning depends mainly on the generator for which fuel prices are rising rapidly. She rarely drives her car so she does not have to join long lines at petrol stations to receive a few litres of over-priced fuel. Her medications were brought from Cyprus by a relative who went on holiday on the island to escape Lebanon for a few days.

Since Nada lives on her building’s seventh floor, she has to time goings and comings on uncertain interludes of electricity. Climbing up and down the stairs in the dark is a daunting proposition. Washing clothes depends on the provision of both power and water to run the machine. She saves run off water from her air conditioners, when they operate, to flush the toilet and wash the floors. Bottled water is scarce since there is no fuel to run the pumps at springs and propel the lorries to deliver it.

Nada’s son and his wife also seek to leave, probably for Paris, if he can find a job. They will take their cat as well if and when they depart and send his wife’s sister’s cat, which they are minding, to Canada, where that family has settled.

Nada tells me on the phone that the politicians simply will not budge from their demand to remain in control. She complains that foreign powers could have intervened in the crisis some time ago and prevented the country’s downward slide towards collapse. “There’s a brain drain — and a general drain... Even the cats are leaving.»

There is hope that the electricity situation could improve once power is transmitted from the Jordanian grid through the Syrian network to Lebanon. Damascus has agreed to allow Egyptian natural gas to transit Syria to Lebanon and to permit Iran to unload a ship’s cargo of fuel to be transported by truck to Lebanon. The US, which sanctions Syria, appears to approve the first two deals and may turn a blind eye to the third. But reducing electricity outages and fuel shortages is not likely to change the minds of Lebanese determined to leave either temporarily or for good.

A report issued by the Crisis Observatory at the American University of Beirut has concluded, “For months, Lebanon has witnessed a noticeable rise in the rates of emigration and those seeking it, which makes us enter the beginning of a mass exodus wave.”

If this report’s findings are borne out this would be the third such wave in Lebanese history. The first took place from the late 19th century through World War I when an estimated 330,000 people emigrated from Mount Lebanon. The second wave took place between Lebanon’s

1975-90 civil war when nearly one million left the country.

According to the report, there are four indicators that Lebanon is entering this emigration wave. First, 77 per cent of Lebanese youth is considering and longing for emigration. This is the highest percentage of youth seeking emigration in all Arab countries. This trend is due to the decline in job opportunities. The World Bank estimates that 20 per cent of Lebanese have lost jobs since the autumn of 2019 and that 61 per cent of Lebanese companies have cut permanent staff by 43 per cent.

Second, due to dramatic reductions in income, there has been a massive exodus of professionals, especially those in the health and educational sectors, notably doctors, nurses, university professors and teachers.

Families are spending on food the equivalent of five times the minimum wage, reduced from $450 a month to $30 by the 90 per cent fall in the value of the Lebanese currency, inflation, and a dramatic rise in food prices over the past two years.

Third, like Nada, most Lebanese believe the country’s multiple and overlapping political, economic, financial, social, and covid crises will be prolonged. If and when a reformist government is installed and Lebanon receives foreign rescue funds, the World Bank predicts that Lebanon needs 12-19 years to return to the level of 2017. 

Fourth, advanced countries are likely to encourage Lebanese emigration, particularly by young professionals and specialists to fill jobs left by retiring seniors. Lebanese immigrants are widely accepted as many are successful in their fields of endeavour in countries where they settle permanently.

Still yearning for their now impossible homeland, many send money home to relatives, others visit in summer or during the holidays, conditions and covid-permitting. Unfortunately, remittances from the diaspora are shrinking because of the covid-driven economic slowdowns around the world.

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