Welcome to Hell
An ode to Lebanon’s resilience & to its people’s rebellion.
My home country is mostly perceived by Westerners as a land of war and desolation. That‘s not totally out of place: for 15 years, Lebanon was plunged in one of the most disastrous civil war in recent history.
100 000 people lost their lives, close to a million — or two-thirds of the population at the time — experienced displacement, and the country’s infrastructures were shattered.
My parents’ generation began their adult life ducking under snipers’ sight, hiding in shelters, avoiding deadly checkpoints and rationing food. To this day I can still feel their behavior being heavily affected by the long and traumatizing experience they went through: one does not experience the total collapse of his home, family, and country unaffected.
That ended in 1989, the year I was born. My generation — unlike my parents’ — was lucky enough to avoid the profound trauma of death, war, desolation, and misery. While I’m truly grateful for that, there’s unfortunately something else people my age or younger will never get to experience: the prosperous, peaceful and cosmopolitan pre-civil war Lebanon that’s often bragged about.
In the 60s, Beirut was known for its vibrant intellectual scene and its quasi-legendary status of glamour and elegance. Dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East”, it was regarded as an example of cross-sectarian coexistence in the region.
With its lavish hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs it enjoyed a reputation as a playground for the world’s most affluent tourists and celebrities: Marlon Brando, Brigitte Bardot, Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, King Farouk and many more came to visit the flourishing cultural and financial center. The American University of Beirut also served an intellectual hub with local cafes abuzz with fast-talking, chain-smoking students.
Far from that postal card depiction is the Lebanon I’ve always known: after the 60s “golden days” and the 70s/80s “war days”; came the 90s & 00s “it’s-all-about-the-money days”.
Since the end of the civil war 30 years ago, the country has been run by a handful of corrupted warlords and religious leaders. In accumulating vast amounts of wealth, they’ve run the country in dramatic political failures:
- Corruption crisis
- Electricity crisis
- Garbage crisis
- Legal crisis
- Refugees crisis
- Economic crisis
Let’s dig into them.
40% of voters report vote-buying incidents.
20% of companies admit to having paid a bribe.
Lebanon is the 138 least corrupt nation out of 175 countries, according to the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International. In other words, only 37 countries in the world are perceived as more corrupted. Similarly, the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) places Lebanon in the lowest quarter of the percentile ranks, with a score of 12/100, in terms of control of corruption.
To understand how corruption occurs in Lebanon, it is necessary to dig into the country’s recent history and political situation.
Since its declaration of independence in 1943, Lebanon has been ruled according to confessional power-sharing agreements that divided power between the nation’s 18 recognized religious sects, effectively institutionalizing corruption, with each group able to dole out government jobs, contracts, favors, and social services to its followers.
The confessional power-sharing arrangement runs through all levels of government and society in Lebanon. It created a rigid political system based on the search for compromise between political elites that use the patronage networks resulting from the consociational structure to advance their own interests.
This sectarian power-sharing system is inherently incompatible with the notion of collective interest and is directly responsible for the weakness of the state:
- Sectarian allocation of resources
In Lebanon, belonging to a sect can have tangible benefits as political offices and administrative posts are allotted along sectarian lines. In a country with a notoriously weak state, resources tend to flow through faith- and clan-based channels, which are often tied to outside political and financial forces.
Vote buying is a common practice in Lebanon, where 40% of voters report incidents of vote-buying in their neighborhoods and 20% acknowledge personal receipt of handouts. To no surprise, constituents who are most affected by this practice have low socioeconomic status, few political connections, and a strong sectarian identity.
- No transparency or whistleblower protection
Lebanon does not have any laws for reporting corruption and the protection of whistleblowers. Neither are there any mechanisms in place to facilitate the process. Also, we don’t have a law guaranteeing the right of access to information and some of the regulations governing the public administrations are even restricting disclosure.
- Lack of political party financing regulation
The Ottoman Associations Law of 1909 governing political parties does not contain any provisions regulating the funding of political parties nor does it limit the contribution they receive. There is no requirement for the disclosure of donations to political parties.
- Burdensome, ineffective and under-financed public administration
According to the WEF Global Competitiveness Index, inefficient government bureaucracy is the second most important obstacle for doing business in the country, which encourages the use of bribery to speed up or “grease” processes.
- Conflicts of interest in public procurement procedures
According to a World Bank/IFC Enterprise survey, 19% of surveyed companies admitted to having paid a bribe or been expected to pay a bribe to secure a government contract. Procurement regulations are inadequate and the system is opaque. There are no provisions against conflicts of interest for public procurement officials and political powers often interfere in contract attributions to promote their interests. No mechanism allows for the monitoring of the assets of procurement officials and unsuccessful bidders can’t investigate decisions.
- Money laundering
Lebanon has one of the most sophisticated banking systems in the region, which makes it an important banking and financial center. The country has criminalized money-laundering in 2001 and terrorism financing in 2003 but still faces significant risks of occurrence of both phenomena. The Tax Justice Network Financial Secrecy Index ranks Lebanon among the world’s most secretive financial systems
3 to 12 hours of daily power cuts.
No improvement since the end of the civil war, 30 years ago.
The Lebanese civil war ended in 1990 and left a country in ruins. Since then, nobody living in Lebanon ever had a full day of public electricity…
To workaround the 3 to 14 hours of daily power cuts, Lebanese pay two electricity bills: one for state-owned electricity and the other for privately-owned neighborhood generators (who charge hefty fees). The beep of uninterruptible power supplies, the background roar of fuel oil generators, and the sudden trip of circuit breakers are all part of Lebanese daily life.
Electricity production is an old, mature & simple technology that pretty much every state manages to efficiently run or delegate. So what is so special in Lebanon?
- Insufficient production capacity
The country’s power generation capacity is approximately 2,050 megawatts (MW) while the demand is estimated at 3,500 MW.
- Oil fuel instead of natural gas
The country relies on heavy fuel oil and diesel oil, unlike the rest of the Middle East where natural gas, a much cleaner & cheaper alternative is used.
- Flawed distribution and revenue collection.
The state power firm Electricite du Liban (EDL) collects payments for only half the power it produces: some power is lost through creaking transmission network and the other is siphoned off the system through unauthorized cables.
- Subsidized price
Consumer power prices have not changed since 1996 when oil cost only $23 a barrel. Since crude now trades near $65, EDL is largely unprofitable, with a yearly deficit of roughly $1.5 billion. In other words, a quarter of the Lebanese state yearly deficit is spent buying fuel oil for outdated and inefficient power plants.
- “Generator mafia”
Neighborhood power suppliers are the only beneficiaries of this situation. Their business is unregulated, illegal and responsible for the web of cables scattering most Lebanese cities. Their direct ties with the political class have prevented any potential reform thus keeping them alive.
85% of Lebanon’s waste goes to open dumps or landfills.
0% is recycled or properly incinerated.
Since 1990, Lebanon is -literally- drowning in its own waste.
Following the 15-year civil war, Lebanese governments all failed to establish a national strategy to handle waste. The result is a country dotted with hundreds of landfills and dumpsites, without any recycling policy or infrastructure.
The blond-sand beaches are now scarred with plastic bottles and the mountain streams befouled by open dumps. Sprawling rubbish has covered roadsides, beaches, city neighborhoods, and villages by the tons…
We could all see it coming as this so-called “garbage crisis” did not happen overnight: decades of poor government planning, corruption, misplaced priorities, mismanagement, quick-fixes, political gridlock, overuse of landfills, and a lack of transparency and long-term planning all led to the disastrous situation we’re currently in.
So how do we handle waste in Lebanon? Pretty much like in the Dark Ages: we burn it, bury it or throw it in the sea.
- Land reclamation
A lot of government-backed landfill projects were launched in Lebanon. Upon completion, they will extend hundreds of meters into the sea and have a total surface area of approximately 600,000 square meters.
The thing is, a lot of those projects conveniently use trash taken from dumpsites as the fill material for creating new land.
“Basically, what they’re doing here is taking a pretty undesirable landfill site and turning it into an even less desirable landfill site — which is destined ultimately to act as a big source of marine pollution.”
— Dr Paul Johnston, Honorary Research Fellow at Greenpeace Research Laboratories
- Throwing in the sea
The country’s three major, overworked dumps — Costa Brava, Bourj Hammoud, and Naameh — are right by the sea. Despite the lack of official case studies or government documentation, numerous local media reports and eyewitness accounts suggest that garbage is being swept directly from the coastal landfills into the sea, particularly during periods of heavy rainfall.
“Literally 90% of Lebanon’s wastewater goes untreated to the sea.”
— Ziad Abichaker, environmental engineer specialised in waste management.
- Waste burning
The dysfunctional central government has left municipalities with no financial or technical resources to deal with waste management. What they do is simply accumulate mountains of garbage in wild dumpsites and regularly burn the shit out of it. Mandatory penalties for open dumping and waste burning are not being imposed and residents of numerous villages and towns across Lebanon suffer from exposure to open-air waste burning and heavy smoke.
- Absence of regulation
In Lebanon, there’s no public driven conversation about recycling or single-use plastic. We drink in plastic bottles, we shop in plastic bags, we pipe in hookah tips: we use plastic all day, every day without any remorse.
15 separate religion-based personal status laws.
No judicial independence.
In Lebanon, all matters of personal status — marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance — are governed by religious codes, of which there are 15 recognized by the state. Each religious sect follows a distinct set of personal state laws. By shunting citizens into religious communities, the personal status laws fracture the country’s four-million-strong population along sectarian lines in an intimate, personal way.
- Women face institutionalized discrimination
The 15 different sets of religious laws all converge on one issue: discrimination against women. Women suffer from inequality in access to divorce, child custody, and property rights. Also, women cannot pass their citizenship to their children and foreign spouses.
- Child marriage and marital rape are legal
Lebanon has no minimum age for marriage for all its citizens. Instead, religious courts set the age based on the religion-based personal status laws, some of which allow girls younger than 15 to marry.
- Adultery and same-sex relations are criminalized
Articles 487–489 of the penal code punish a woman who commits adultery with a prison sentence from three months to two years.
Article 534 punishes “any sexual intercourse contrary to the order of nature” with up to one year in prison.
- Individuals are detained and charged for criticizing gov. officials
Lebanese authorities continue to prosecute individuals for peaceful speech, police and soldiers have beaten protesters, and detainees continue to report torture by security forces. Internal Security Forces regularly summons activists for interrogations for social media posts criticizing officials and compels them to sign commitments to cease their criticisms.
35% of people living in Lebanon are refugees.
It is, by far, the highest proportion in the world.
For the last six years, Lebanon has been at the forefront of one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Despite increasing economic, social, demographic, political, and security challenges, Lebanon has welcomed around 1.5 million refugees fleeing war-torn Syria. With its own population of just over 4 million, this mass influx has given Lebanon the highest ratio of refugees to native population in the world.
Lebanese communities have opened their schools, clinics, and homes to hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have fled their country and in many cases lost everything. But the presence of such a large refugee population, in a small country struggling to maintain its delicate demographic balance and regain its pre-crisis economic growth, is increasingly affecting the protection space and influencing calls for, and measures geared towards a speedier return of the refugees to Syria.
Even academics sympathetic to the plight of the Syrians admit that the influx worsened the already dilapidated civic infrastructure and placed a burden on Lebanon’s public finances. According to the World Bank, almost 200,000 Lebanese have been pushed into poverty, and 250,000 are estimated to have become unemployed because of the Syrian crisis. However, it’s unclear whether this is the result of a reduction of exports to Syria and a decline in tourism or if it’s directly because of the presence of Syrian refugees pressuring down wages.
30% of Lebanese are considered poor, living on less than 4$/day.
17% of children under 5 years old are stunted.
Lebanon, like most developing countries, suffers from economic inequality. Since it is very small and densely populated, the sharp contrast between citizens’ living conditions is easily noticeable. On a typical day in Beirut, you can spot luxury cars roaming alongside rolling wrecks, skyscrapers overlooking slums and picture-perfect private beaches surrounded by dumps and landfills.
While situations like these are pretty common in poor countries, things have gotten extreme in Lebanon. In fact, recently published data showed that it’s one of the most unequal countries in the World alongside Brazil, Colombia, Russia, and South Africa.
3 indicators demonstrate how skewed the Lebanese income distribution is:
- Extreme concentration of wealth at the top
Top 1% of the population owns 25% of the total national income
- Starving middle class
Middle 40% of the population owns 30% of the total national income
- Large-scale poverty
Bottom 50% of the population owns 10% of the total national income
This is the result of a very specific and deliberate neoliberal political economy, adopted since the end of the civil war:
- Systematic adoption of laissez-faire economic policies
The 1989 Taif Agreement states that marginal rates on corporate profits and labor incomes are capped to 10%, that incomes from movable capital are taxed at 5% and that capital gains from financial activities (such as withholding interests on bank deposits or treasury bonds) or from built properties are completely exonerated from taxes. This hasn’t changed much since then.
- Crony capitalism based on rental activities.
The confessional system of governance enables sectarian elites to capture and redistribute most of the resources through communal clientelism. For instance, as much as 18 out of the 20 biggest commercial banks have major shareholders linked to political elites, and 43% of assets in the sector can be attributed to political control.
This total absence of a welfare state or redistributive policies leads to major and durable socio-economic disparities. To better appreciate the extent of these income gaps, it is interesting to compare the average income within each group in Lebanon versus Western Europe:
Until the top 1%, the average income is systematically smaller in Lebanon, representing 40% of the corresponding average in Western Europe for the bottom 50% and 90% for the top 1%. Within top groups, the ratio reverses to reach 140% within the top 0.01% and even 190% within the top 0.001%.
In other words, in Lebanon the richest are as rich or richer than their counterparts in Western Europe, while the poorest are way poorer.
— Lydia Assouad, Harvard Research Fellow
Not only is rebellion legitimate; it’s the only way out.
The goal of this article is not to languish and complain but to provide a fact-based recap of the woes affecting Lebanon. Writing it has helped me put words on a sense of sadness and discomfort I’ve been experiencing every time I come back to Beirut.
Since October this year, a massively popular protest movement is shaking the country. A reaction against sectarian rule, stagnant economy, unemployment, endemic corruption, and flawed public services; those protests are a rare glimpse of hope for the Lebanese population.
This trans-sectarian national awakening is a rare opportunity to mobilize movements along new ideational orientations. If it wants to catalyze people’s anger into something constructive, the rebellion shouldn’t stay leaderless or apolitical as the civil society needs to structure and mobilize itself further. To challenge our rotting elite, indignation is not enough: we need a nationwide political project that is properly embodied by an efficient structure.
The man said: “Get up, stand up”
If you want to get actively involved in the future of Lebanon, here are a couple of amazing projects you could contribute to.
- Beirut Madinati
— Civil, non-sectarian political movement that seeks to build an alternative political project.
- Daleel Thawra
— Online directory of all initiatives & resources providing support, food, and donations for Lebanon’s revolution.
- Legal Agenda
— Non-profit whose goal is to make lawmaking understood and scrutinized by ordinary citizens.
- Lebanon Corruption Facts
— Instagram account dedicated to highlighting the extent of systemic corruption occurring in Lebanon through fact-driven numbers.
- Lebanon Protests
— Info & data platform on Lebanese protests sourced from public Twitter conversations.
- Lebanon Support
— NGO that fosters social change through innovative uses of social science, digital technologies, and publication and exchange of knowledge.
— Shared platform that encourages all Lebanese around the world to support each other and drive positive change.
- Megaphone News
— Independent online media platform that produces in-depth analyses and fact-check local news using innovative formats, in an attempt to promote critical thinking, transparency, and accountability.
- National Bloc
— Trans-confessional reform party that brings Lebanese together over a renewed way of practicing politics.
- Recycle Lebanon
— Social change hub with a holistic 4 program approach focusing on data visualization, access to circular living, education and prevention and legislation.
- Sakker el Dekkene
— NGO that collects data about the various forms of corruption spread across public administration in Lebanon.
- The Triangle
— Think-tank that bridges the divide between policy making, empirical research, and media to produce lasting results.
— Grassroots anti-corruption movement.
Insightful sources and references.
Facts and figures presented in this article are all sourced from these reports & websites. If you wish to learn more or make your own opinion, they might be a good starting point.
- The Limits of Laissez-faire: a Political economy of Lebanon, 1948–2002
— Written by Toufic Gaspard.
— Published in December 2003 by Brill.
- The Extreme Concentration of Income and Wealth in Lebanon, 2005–2014
— Written by Lydia Assouad.
— Published in September 2018 by the World Inequality Database.
- I’ve Got the Power: Mapping Connections Between Lebanon’s Banking Sector and the Ruling Class
— Written by Jad Chaaban.
— Published in October 2016 by the Economic Research Forum.
- Social Classes and Political Power in Lebanon
— Written by Fawwaz Traboulsi.
— Published in 2014 by the Heinrich Boll Foundation.
- Assessing Labor Income Inequality in Lebanon’s Private Sector
— Written by Edwin Saliba, Walid Sayegh, and Talal F. Salman.
— Published in February 2017 by the Lebanese Ministry of Finance.
- Poverty, Inequality and Social Protection in Lebanon
— Written by Nupur Kukrety & Sarah Al Jamal.
— Published in 2016 by the American University of Beirut.
- Lebanon’s Financial House of Cards: How Politicians and Banks Constructed a Regulated Ponzi Scheme That Ran The Country’s Economy Into The Ground
— Written by Sami Halabi & Jacob Boswall.
— Published in November 2019 by The Triangle.
- Financial Secrecy Index Narrative Report on Lebanon
— Published in February 2018 by the Tax Justice Network.
- Executive Economy Roadmap
— Written by Yasser Akkaoui.
— Published in December 2019 by Executive Magazine
- “As If You’re Inhaling Death”: The Health Risks of Burning Waste in Lebanon
— Written by Bassam Khawaja.
— Published in December 2017 by Human Rights Watch.
- Lebanon is Drowning In Its Own Waste
— Written by Sophia Smith Galer.
— Published in March 2018 by the BBC.
- Environmentalists Warn of Pollution From Lebanon Land Reclamation
— Written by Ruth Sherlock.
— Published in January 2018 by the NPR.
- Lebanon’s Mounting Garbage: A 21st Century Clean Up
— Written by Saltanat Berdikeeva.
— Published in November 2018 by Inside Arabia.
- Unequal & Unprotected: Women’s Rights Under Lebanese Personal Status Laws
— Published in 2019 by Human Rights Watch.
- Lebanon: Gender Justice & The Law
— Published in 2018 by the UN Development Programme.
- Lebanon Crisis Respons Plan: 2017–2020
— Published in January 2017 by the United Nations & the Lebanese Govt.
- Worldwide Governance Indicators
— Written by Daniel Kauffman & Aart Kraay.
— Published by the World Bank.
- UN Lebanon 2018 Annual Report
— Published in 2019 by the United Nations.
- Overview of corruption and anti-corruption in Lebanon
— Written by Sofia Wickberg.
— Published in October 2012 by Transparency Int’l.
- Voter Turnout and Vote Buying in the 2018 Parliamentary Elections
— Written by Jana Mourad and Daniel Garrote Sanchez.
— Published in February 2019 by The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
- World Justice Project 2018–2019 Rule of Law Index
— Published by the World Justice Project in 2019.
- Women in Personal Status Laws: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine & Syria
— Written by Gihane Tabet.
— Published in July 2005 by the Unesco.
- Fixing Lebanon’s Ruinous Electricity Crisis
— Written by Angus McDowall.
— Published in March 2019 by Reuters.