Interview with a comrade in Beirut, Lebanon

This interview was conducted in August – September of 2020

Situation before the port of Beirut explosion of August 2020

Before the explosion, Lebanon experienced a severe economic downturn, including a sovereign debt crisis, and beginning in October 2019, massive social unrest detonated by high unemployment, opposition to the sectarianism of the post-Taif order, corruption, lack of basic services, and planned taxes on gas, tobacco, and WhatsApp calls. Could you begin by talking in general terms about the “crisis before the crisis,” i.e., the pre-explosion crisis?

The structure of the Lebanese economic system is one that is prone to crises. The prominent features of Lebanon’s current economic crisis can be traced back to before the civil war. Historically, the Lebanese economic system has endured a reoccurring balance of trade deficit, whereby its imports are greater than its exports—but this deficit alone does not cause crises like the one Lebanon is experiencing today. Lebanon’s deficit has long been compensated for by tourism, remittances (which finance the consumption of resident families and has historically been a critical vehicle for economic growth), and the inflow of capital and foreign investment concentrated in real estate and banks. These investments are particularly attractive in Lebanon due to the country’s banking secrecy laws that date back to 1956. In fact, in the past, tourism, remittances, and capital inflow have generally led to surpluses rather than deficits in the balance of payments. While Lebanon’s service sector has made up the majority of the country’s GDP (over 70% in 1974, a year before the civil war, and 83% in 2018), the country lacks productive industry. Following the civil war, the government’s debts–borrowed under the pretext of reconstruction–were siphoned off by warlords (as per PM Rafic al-Hariri’s infamous quote: “We had to buy civil peace with money”), embezzled, and invested in mega-real estate projects, basic infrastructure. Since then, servicing this debt (which was borrowed at a 30-40% interest rate at the time) has continued to hinder the development of the country’s productive capacity. In Lebanon, exports of goods and services comprise less than 5% of total output (2018), and its wages and agricultural and industrial industries–apart from construction, electricity, and water–have atrophied and have never majorly contributed to the country’s GDP.

The moment when the contradictions of Lebanon’s economic system came to a head was the 2011 Arab Spring, and in particular during the Syrian Uprising. In 2011 there was, for the first time, a consistent trend of capital flight and what can be considered the beginning stages of the “crisis before the crisis.” Sensitive to national and regional political stability, Lebanon has experienced capital flight at different moments in recent history, e.g., the death of Hariri in 2005, the 2006 War, and the detention of Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Saudi Arabia; however, beginning with the capital flight trend in 2011 the balance of payments also began to record accumulated deficits for several consecutive years for the first time in Lebanon’s history. Following this, Lebanon was unable to service its increasing debt, the majority of which is owned by the Central Bank and local lenders and makes up anywhere between 150% to 170% of its GDP. To give an overview of the exorbitant debt amassed over the years: Lebanon’s total debt increased from 800 million dollars at the end of 1994 to more than 43.5 billion dollars at the end of 2017, including 28 billion dollars in Eurobonds (U.S.-dollar denominated bonds), the majority of which is traded globally on the market. In the government budget (16 billion dollars in 2018), the state spends nearly equal amounts paying the residual interest of the debt it has incurred (32% in 2018) and paying wages and benefits (35% in 2018), most of which is funding the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces (of the 35%, 43% covers the army and 19% covers security forces). With revenues of 11 billion dollars, the Lebanese government is thus facing a double deficit alongside its domestic budget deficit.

Throughout this crisis, the government and the central bank have obscured the total number of losses and pushed for “financial engineering” and austerity measures as a solution to the crisis generated by the oligarchy and 10% of the population that controls more than 55% of the national income, 70% of the total financial and real estate wealth, and 90% of bank deposits. While the ruling class smuggled 6 billion dollars out of Lebanon since October 2019, small and medium depositors remain unable to access their deposits, which have lost (at the time of writing) around 80% of their value. The government’s “financial engineering”–aimed at fulfilling IMF requirements and maintaining eligibility for further borrowing–includes privatizing state assets and imposing austerity measures focused on public spending, ranging from eliminating subsidies on electricity and fuel to cutting public sector employment and curbing public sector wages. To the Lebanese state, central and local banks, and the IMF, the key to rehabilitating the economy is improving “debt sustainability,” whereby Lebanon can continue to service its debts. As taxes on interest profits, corporate profits, and real estate profits remain minimal, the middle and working classes are forced to pay the cost of the economic crisis and continue to bear the brunt of the crisis with rising unemployment, decreasing wages, and deteriorating living conditions.

As an aside: There are great similarities to the crisis Lebanon is experiencing today and to the politico-economic situation in the stages leading up to the Lebanese Civil War, but this would lead us outside the question posed above.

How would you compare the 2019-20 protests to the 2005 Cedar “revolution” and the 2015-16 protests – in terms of the aims of the protesters, the composition of the protest camp, and those leading the struggle?

Neither the 2005 Cedar “revolution,” nor the 2015 protests had an explicit economic character.[1] Indeed, there is not much in common between the 2005 and 2015 protests, either. The 2005 protests came in the wake of the assassination of former prime minister Rafic al-Hariri, and in defiance of Syrian military presence in Lebanon, particularly given that the Syrian regime was the primary suspect in the assassination of Hariri and of a dozen other anti-Syrian politicians and intellectuals. Of course, the protestors were motivated by the demand for a non-corrupt, free state that would undo the atrocities of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, which is an undercurrent that would reappear in 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring when protests for the overthrow of the sectarian regime would emerge, and later in 2015 in response to the garbage crisis in Beirut.

What marks the difference between today’s movement and the movement in 2015 is the absence of established sectarian parties in the league of the opposition, which is now represented by various heterogeneous groups on the ground. Ultimately, the 2015 protests, except forsome moments of wide generality and popularity, were dominated by NGO-driven discourse and activists, even if the role of leftist groups was undeniable. In contradistinction with all previous waves of protests that either called for the building of a “true” state (2005), an overall symbolic call for the overthrow of the regime (2011), or the reformation of the regime (2015), the 2019 uprising appears as the first true expression of wide, radical oppositional politics that aims to uproot the whole regime, irrespective of its various components, and achieve a break with an accumulating past that dates to the very establishment of Lebanon in order to create what many refer to as a “new social contract.” Yet, due to equally widespread suspicion of party-driven politics–an attitude that people have been inevitably led to after decades of failed, bloody, and illusory party politics–the 2019 uprising lacked an organizational heritage on which it could stand. And while many fragmented attempts at organizing are in the making, their success remains unlikely and unpredictable, particularly given the stark polarization of people around a dozen issues (including disarming Hezbollah) that cannot be easily translated into class politics. Perhaps due to the absence of a sizable and sociologically recognizable “working class”, the class composition of the  protests and the different inclinations within a class remain obscure.

Nevertheless, the northern city of Tripoli became the “capital” of the 2019 uprising. With a predominantly working class, poor, and Sunni population, their mass protests were a further testament to the withering away of support for Hariri’s Future Movement (contrast this with the Shia support for Hezbollah, which remains relatively solid even today). However, it must be emphasized that at the beginning of the 2019 uprising, young men–nicknamed the “motorcycle brigade” because they joined the protests on their motorcycles–who were supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, were on the frontlines of the protests and the most antagonistic with the Internal Security Forces. This moment was fleeting and, following General Secretary of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah’s many speeches openly calling for protesters to abandon the streets and claiming that protesters were foreign-funded and US-backed, the antagonism between protesters and these groups widened. At the surface, there are various groups, both on the left and the right, that saturate the public sphere, but their representability is highly contested, even if they can be credited for their seriousness and involvement.

How did the character of both the protests and the government response change after the Hariri government collapsed and the “March 8 Alliance” government of Hassan Diab took over?[2]

Hariri’s resignation came early on when protests and roadblocks were widespread and the momentum had been at its highest. Following the resignation, the protests somewhat receded. Those who were not appeased by the Diab appointment found it difficult to continue protesting, lacking organizational bases and a shared strategy for the “next step” among the protesters. Many were satisfied with the resignation and took their task to be simply maintaining pressure for the formation of a technocratic, “apolitical,” competent government. Among Sunni communities, some considered the unilateral resignation of the highest Sunni position in the state as an imbalanced “sacrifice” by the Sunni sect. As a result, incompatible calls for the resignation of the two other heads of the state (the Shi’a Head of Parliament and the Maronite President of the Republic), on the one hand, and the reappointment of Hariri as the Prime Minister, on the other, were voiced.

The heterogeneous rebellion revealed its weaknesses. A few days after October 17, the General Secretary of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, called upon his many followers to abandon the squares, and Hezbollah supporters began a campaign of intimidation and harassment against protesters. By the time that Hassan Diab, the “technocrat,” was appointed, the momentum was gone. On the other hand, those protestors who remained became increasingly defiant. This stage saw the burning of many Banks, violent confrontations in front of the Central Bank, and an escalation of violence in front of the well-protected parliament. These protests were mostly organized by leftist groups, some of which are affiliated with the Lebanese Communist Party. Soon after the appointment of Hassan Diab, the country went into lockdown due to fear of the spread of Covid-19. Effectively, however, the momentum was already gone before the lockdown, except for some skirmishes here and there, and local protests from time to time. The only significant progressive change is the fact that those who remained mistrustful of the prospect of change raised the bar for “tolerable” protest, and perhaps for the first time in a nation traumatized by a long history of violent conflicts, the wider public was sympathetic to these tactics. In turn, however, the protests no longer mobilized as many people, particularly given the increased violence used by the state’s police apparatus against protestors.

Even before the explosion, Lebanon’s hospitals were overwhelmed by the Covid-19 crisis. What was the public sentiment regarding the handling of the pandemic? What is the nature of the health system in Lebanon generally in recent years?

Following the civil war (1975–1990), the health care system in Lebanon became unrestrictedly privatized with the Ministry of Public Health outsourcing public funds to private hospitals. In 1970, the Ministry of Public Health allocated around 10% of its budget for the funding of private hospitals; by the late 1990s and until today, this percentage swelled up to around 80%. During the coronavirus pandemic, the predominantly private health care system in Lebanon, as well as the economic crisis, have had detrimental effects on the capacities of public hospitals, on the importing of medical supplies and medication by medical suppliers, and on those who are unable to afford and access necessary health services. In the first stages of the pandemic, the Ministry of Public Health provided a list of 15 hospitals, which were predominantly public hospitals, that were qualified to conduct PCR tests, with only one hospital that provides free PCR testing. Since the explosion in early August, several of these hospitals were destroyed. In these underfunded and understaffed hospitals, health care and hospital workers–working in unsafe working environments and exposed to the virus without proper PPE–are overworked, underpaid, and, at times, even unpaid. Even prior to the pandemic, nurses were working either without pay or for half of their salaries, which are paid in the ever-depreciating Lebanese lira. In Lebanon, we are entering into a new stage of the coronavirus, with an exponential rise of cases. While public hospitals become more strained, private hospitals have only recently begun to accept coronavirus patients. Previously, private hospitals refused to accept coronavirus patients because they had not been reimbursed $1.3 billion by the Ministry of Public Health and the National Social Security Fund for patients treated in the past that were covered by social security and military health accounts (though it must be mentioned that public hospitals have yet to be reimbursed by the MoP and NSSF as well). Though some private hospitals are now accepting coronavirus patients, the majority of people living in Lebanon, among them Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, and migrant communities, cannot afford the costs of being diagnosed and treated in a private hospital, with PCR tests, scans, and consultations totaling well over $600. For the 47% of Lebanese citizens with health insurance, contracts between several private hospitals and insurance companies state that pandemics are not included in their coverage.

In regard to the public’s sentiment regarding the government’s handling of the pandemic: at first, there was a general adherence to the government’s curfews and general lockdown. With the more recent spike in coronavirus cases, the government renewed the lockdown. However, this renewal followed the explosion, and businesses and store owners announced that they would collectively defy the lockdown, as they are not receiving financial aid from the government and would not be able to withstand closures during the economic crisis. At this point, the state’s loss of political legitimacy due to the economic crisis and the most recent explosion has led to apathy among people, despite the real risks involved.

The Post-Explosion Situation

Did the character of the protests following the explosion change in comparison to the protests last year and earlier this year?

  • If so, did any new actors take to the streets?
  • What are the different discontented sections of society that make up the current camp of protesters?
  • What role has the revolutionary socialist left played in the protests?

Many have made the point that the explosion almost comes as a symbolic embodiment of what the current structure stands for. Already since October 17th of last year, large sectors of the population have been disenchanted with their parties. As many argue, this is particularly true of the ruling Maronite party, the Free Patriotic Movement, which enjoyed widespread support in the previous election. Perhaps the explosion further aggravated the disconnect between the Free Patriotic Movement and its Christian base due both to the fact that the most damaged parts of the city are predominantly Christian (e.g., Geitawi, Mar Mikhael), and that the main suspect in the port explosion, Badri Daher, the Customs chief, is appointed and protected by the Free Patriotic Movement.

The explosion ignited rounds of violent confrontations in front of the Parliament, which also saw the use of live ammunition by the Head of Parliament paramilitary, “the Parliament’s guards,” which is a public yet legally ambiguous military group that takes orders from the Head of the Parliament. Since these confrontations, there has been a state of paralysis. To put it simply, perhaps even if crudely, people understand that without forming a militant resistance movement, this regime is going nowhere. All that being said, fears of another round of civil conflict loom as the tensions between the sectarian ruling parties rise, and a suspension of subsidies on basic products, like bread, medicine, and fuel, is anticipated to happen in the next few months.

In this state of affairs, the role of the revolutionary socialist left remains minuscule. The reasons behind this weakness are too complex to summarize here. It can be noted, however, that if the 1975 civil war marked the beginning of a revolutionary project that ultimately failed in the complex social reality of the amalgamation of local, regional and international politics, the looming next round of civil strife will lack any revolutionary orientation if things continue to stand as they are today. The Lebanese crisis, in this sense, marks the impasse of revolutionary politics and not its possibility. The development of such politics, if conditions allow, will take years to form.

It is striking that the 2019-20 protests began following a failure of the government to extinguish fires in Chouf and other places. What has been the government response to the crisis of the explosion? How has the recent state of emergency impacted the protest movement?

On the day of the explosion, the government announced Beirut a “devastated city” and announced a state of emergency under which the powers of the army are widened. In the devastated neighborhoods, the state was virtually absent. The roads and homes were cleaned by thousands of volunteers, many of whom were active participants in the uprising. The government also initiated an investigation into the explosion with a five-day deadline to uncover what happened. Since then, there remains no official narrative on the causes of the explosion. The investigation and arrests continue, but the public has no faith in these investigations, particularly given that the culprit, Customs Chief Badri Daher, and the judge, Fadi Sawwan, belong to the same network of ruling elites and are linked to President Aoun’s political party, the Free Patriotic Movement. Days after the explosion, the government resigned due to both pressures from the furious protests and the ruling class conspiring against its own government as a scapegoat. Until now, the ruling parties have not been able to form a new government, the workings of which are sponsored by the French President, Emmanuel Macron.

Because of the absence of any materialization of the “state of emergency” on the ground, many warned that this move comes out of fear of another round of widespread protests. A day before the state of emergency announcements, protests in front of the parliament were raging. Though it is hard to tell whether the announcement played a role in the demise of protests and the paralysis of oppositional forces, it is certain that if protests had continued to exert pressure, the violence of the army would have increased and would be legally protected under the terms of the state of emergency.

Can you tell us about the character of the neighborhoods around the port and which sections of Lebanese society were most directly affected by the explosion? In particular, what has been the effect on refugees, both Syrian (many undocumented and living near the port) and Palestinian?

The neighborhoods near the port (e.g., Karantina) are working-class neighborhoods made up of Lebanese, Armenians, Palestinian refugees, Syrian refugees, and migrant workers. Out of 200 people who were killed during the explosion, nearly 50 victims were Syrians and, more than a dozen were migrant workers. In the official count of deceased and missing persons, non-Lebanese people were not included. After the explosion, humanitarian assistance was divided and unequal. On the ground, aid and assistance were provided by Lebanese government agencies, local and international NGOs, foreign governments, and religious groups. Working class neighborhoods, such as Karantina, did not receive the same amount of support as middle class neighborhoods. In fact, post-explosion recovery was concentrated in middle- and upper-class Lebanese neighborhoods, such as Geitawi, Mar Mikhael, and Achrafieh. There have been incidents where Syrian and Palestinian refugees and Sri Lankan, Bengali, and Ethiopian migrant workers have been denied aid, a precarious situation for these populations given the majority do not have jobs, health care, and at times, legal residency.

How has the verdict in the Rafiq Hariri 2005 assassination case contributed to the current crisis, if at all?

The results of the verdict were already public since Der Spiegel published leaks from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon a few years ago. While many feared civil strife, the verdict almost went unnoticed. Moreover, Hezbollah’s hegemony was somewhat immune to the ruling of the Special Tribunal, as many are suspicious of its operations. What undermined Hezbollah’s hegemony is its increasing interventional role in the unfolding crisis and its defense of the existing political structure. Furthermore, the political bloc that petitioned and worked to make the Special Tribunal possible have long come to terms with Hezbollah, forged alliances with it in elections, and are de facto in harmony as to how to respond to the uprising, notwithstanding the tensions between them.

The inter-imperialist “division” of the Middle East has shifted dramatically in recent years towards the Russia-China axis, with Russia’s client victorious in Syria and a major strategic agreement recently signed by China and Iran. On the other side, the US has been in retreat, essentially withdrawing to Israel and the Gulf States – a retreat cemented by the recent Israel-UAE accord. As we saw with Macron’s visit, Europe was among the first powers to insert itself into Lebanon’s crisis. Post-explosion Lebanon will now be a battleground in the rivalry between imperialist camps. How have you seen the inter-imperialist struggle play out in post-explosion Beirut, e.g., in terms of reconstruction funds and expertise?

During his first visit days after the explosion, Macron was accompanied by a representative of CMA CGM, a French container, transportation, and shipping company. The company already has contracts in partnership with former PM and billionaire Najib Mikati for operating the container terminal in Lebanon’s second biggest city, Tripoli. Moreover, the current nominated candidate for forming the new government and heading it, Mustapha Adib, is a consultant for Mikati who lobbied with his brother, the billionaire Taha Mikati, in France for the nomination of Adib. Hence, French interest in Lebanon is not hard to uncover, and if the new, French-sponsored government is successfully formed, the presence of French interests in Lebanon will only increase in the form of “private-public partnerships.”

Tensions between the US and France are also taking place, as we see the US imposed more sanctions on Hezbollah-affiliated personnel and organizations, and the latter responded by blocking the French initiative. As of yet, it remains unclear how the differing orientations between the supposedly allied US and France would translate in terms of the forming of the government, and also regarding the initiation of French-sponsored “reforms” and plans of reconstruction. Through Hezbollah, Iran is also part of this international struggle over Lebanon, and the deviation between the US and France’s policy towards Iran only makes the situation more complex.

[1] The 2005 Cedar “revolution” was a sequence of protests in Lebanon in reaction to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri, who was assassinated in a car bomb attack on February 14, 2005. The primary demands of the protests were for the withdrawal of the Syrian military (which at the time totaled 14,000 soldiers and intelligence agents); the ousting of the pro-Syrian government; early parliamentary elections; and an independent investigation into the assassination. On March 8th, 2005, Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, called for counter-protests in support of Syria and accused the United States and Israel of interfering in Lebanese affairs. Notably, Hezbollah feared that the withdrawal of Syrian forces would lead to its disarmament, especially given that five months before the assassination, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1559, which was co-authored by France and the United States, calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces and the disbanding and disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. On April 27, 2005, the Syrian government conceded and completely withdrew its troops.

[2] The March 8th and March 14th Alliances are two opposing coalitions that were established in the aftermath of Rafic al-Hariri’s assassination. The March 14th Alliance was an alliance united by an anti-Syrian position spearheaded by Future Movement, which was led by Sa’ad al-Hariri, son of Rafic al-Hariri. In opposition, the March 8th Alliance was established and, at the time, was the ruling coalition in the government. Led by Hezbollah, the March 8th Alliance attempted to maintain the privileges secured by Syria’s military occupation of Lebanon for itself and its constituent parties, as well as to protect Hezbollah’s arms.