Can an election restore the country after Lebanon’s collapse?

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanese politicians took to the stage to talk about maintaining national sovereignty, fighting corruption and restoring the state. Their leader said he would fight to disarm Hezbollah, the political party that is also Lebanon’s strongest military force.

But those concerns were far from the mind of Mohammed Siblini, 57, who, like many Lebanese, had seen his life crumble over the past two years as the country collapsed.

Due to the free fall of the national currency, his monthly salary from a car rental company had fallen from $2,000 to $115, he said. With no electricity supplied by the state, most of his income went to a generator to keep his lights on. What remained could not cover the small pleasures that until recently were a normal part of life.

“I want meat!” Mr. Siblini yelled at the politicians. “Give us a kilo of meat!”

Lebanon will vote for a new parliament for the first time in four years on Sunday. It’s hard to overstate how much worse life has become for the average citizen during that period, and how little the country’s political elite has done to cushion the blow.

The vote is the public’s first chance to formally respond to the achievements of their leaders, so it’s not just about who wins which seats, but also the greater question of whether Lebanon’s political system is capable of dealing with the many dysfunctions. to help.

Few analysts think so, at least in the short term.

The country’s complex social makeup, with 18 officially recognized religious sects and a history of civil conflict, drives many voters to elect their co-religionists, even if they are corrupt.

And in a country where citizens seek a party boss to cut bureaucracy or give their children government jobs, corruption actually helps established political parties to serve their voters.

But the collapse has put a new strain on that old system.

The crisis began in late 2019, when protests against the political elite spread in the streets of the capital Beirut and other cities.

That exacerbated the pressure on the banks, which had been doing creative accounting with the central bank to support the currency and deliver unsustainable returns for depositors.

Critics have called it a Ponzi scheme and it suddenly failed. The value of the Lebanese pound began a decline that would erase 95 percent of its value, and commercial banks put limits on withdrawals and refused to give people their money because the banks had actually lost it.

The financial turmoil ripped through the economy. Prices rose, companies went bankrupt, unemployment skyrocketed and doctors, nurses and other professionals fled the country for better salaries abroad.

The state, which had never been able to provide electricity 24 hours a day, was so short of cash that it now barely supplies even to power traffic lights.

To make matters worse, a massive explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020, also caused by gross mismanagement, killed more than 200 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Despite losses totaling $72 billion according to the government, none of the banks have gone bankrupt, the central bank chief remains in office, and none of the politicians who supported the policies that led to the collapse have been held accountable. Some of them are running in Sunday’s election and are likely to win.

Many of the candidates are familiar faces who would struggle to see themselves as agents of change.

Among them, Nabih Berri, the 84-year-old Speaker of Parliament, who has held that post continuously for nearly three decades; Ali Hassan Khalil, a former finance minister who worked to obstruct the investigation into the cause of the explosion in Beirut; and Gebran Bassil, the president’s son-in-law, who accuse the United States of corruption and imposed sanctions last year. Mr Bassil denies the allegation.

Hezbollah, which has a sizable bloc in parliament and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries, is drafting a series of candidates. Others are warlords from the Lebanese Civil War, which ended in 1990, or, in some cases, their sons.

Many voters are just fed up and have little confidence that their vote will make a difference.

“Now a candidate comes and says, ‘I will do this and that’, and I say to them, ‘Many went before you and couldn’t change anything,’” said Claudette Mhanna, a seamstress.

She said she would like to vote for a new figure emerging from the 2019 protests, but because of the way the election is going, she has to vote for lists of candidates she hates.

“We’re choking,” she said. “If I push myself to vote, I can’t think of who I would vote for.”

Many of those displaced have ties to the financial system, which, according to Olivier De Schutter, a UN expert on poverty, is partly responsible for the “man-made crisis” in Lebanon that led to human rights violations. .

“Lifelong savings have been wiped out by a reckless banking sector lured by monetary policies that favor their interests,” he wrote in a report published last week. “A whole generation is condemned to poverty.”

On Friday, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reported that a son of the governor of Lebanon’s central bank had transferred more than $6.5 million out of the country at a time when most depositors had lost access to their savings.

Those transactions were carried out by AM Bank, whose chairman, Marwan Kheireddine, bought a Manhattan penthouse for $9.9 million from actress Jennifer Lawrence in August 2020, as Lebanon’s economy plummeted.

Mr Kheireddine has said the purchase was for a company he ran, not for him personally.

Now he’s running for Parliament, telling The New York Times in an interview that he wants to use his experience to help the economy recover.

“I have experience in finance,” he said. “I’m not going to make any promises, but I’ll do my best to work hard to get the savers’ money back.”

For many Lebanese, party loyalty remains strong.

“There is no list that deserves my vote more than Hezbollah,” said Ahmad Zaiter, 22, a university student from Baalbek in eastern Lebanon.

He said Hezbollah’s weapons were needed to defend the country, and that the party had helped its supporters weather the crisis by providing cheap drugs from Syria and Iran.

“If there is a party besides Hezbollah that is offering weapons to the government to bolster it so that we can defend ourselves or offer services, where is it?” he said.

There are also many startups that market themselves as cleaner and closer to the people. According to most forecasts, they will win only a limited number of seats in the 128-member parliament, and analysts expect them to struggle without the infrastructure of a political party.

“I will be the voice of the people in parliament, but I cannot promise to fix the electricity or the infrastructure,” said Asma-Maria Andraos, who works in Beirut. “I cannot say that I will stop the corruption that is deeply rooted in our system.”

Many Lebanese who have the means have already left the country, and many are seeking a way out. A recent poll by the Arab Barometer research group found that 48 percent of Lebanese citizens wanted to emigrate. For those between the ages of 18 and 29, the rate rose to 63 percent, the poll found.

Fares Zouein, who owns a sandwich shop in Beirut, said he planned to vote for his local political boss, whom he declined to name, because the man is using his position to help the neighborhood.

“That’s our problem in Lebanon: if you don’t have anyone to help you, you’re stuck,” said Mr Zouein, 50.

He, too, had little faith that the election would make life any better.

“This is why everyone in Lebanon has three goals in life: get a second passport, open a bank account abroad and send their children to school,” he said.

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