“There’s a saying about the local middle class: it buys gifts it doesn’t like, with money it doesn’t have, to give them to others who hate them,” Sari Hanafi tells us on the phone from Lebanon. Today, he adds, “the middle class doesn’t have any money for those gifts anymore. The economic crisis is pushing many families who had enough income for a quiet life down into the abyss of poverty every day.”
A professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut, Hanafi is a supporter of the popular protests that have been rocking Lebanon since last October. Since a few days ago, as the lockdown due to the coronavirus was partly lifted, the protests are spreading through the country once again. Hanafi is not only pointing out the most visible evils: corruption, high cost of living, bad governance, nepotism and discrimination according to religious groups. He is also calling for reflection on the consumerist and neoliberal model that is dominant in the country.
“[The sociologist] Pierre Bourdieu,” he stresses, “would have a lot to say about the significant quantity of useless and luxurious objects that the middle class, and even low-income social categories in Lebanon, are surrounding themselves with.” He adds: “The tragedy, both economic and health-related, that we are facing offers us a perhaps unique opportunity to rethink our model.”
However, Hanafi’s proposal to launch a debate on a different socio-economic system is unlikely to reach those who do not have a job or find it hard to get food to eat every day. And the Lebanese left—what remains of it—does not have the strength to channel the protests towards transformation. Last week, the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab approved an economic rescue plan and called for more support from the International Monetary Fund. Some of the proposed measures appear plausible, but the magnitude of public debt (170% of GDP) and foreign debt ($83 billion), rising unemployment, especially among young people, and the collapse of the national currency are leaving the Lebanese skeptical of the possibility of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
In Lebanon, hunger is a more frightening specter than COVID-19. The devaluation of the lira against the dollar, which has reached levels not seen for decades on the black market, has thrown thousands of families into despair. Many in Beirut and urban centers have had to forego buying products that cost two to three times more than they did a few months ago. A pack of diapers from a well-known brand costs as much as €40, and the price of a can of tuna in some supermarkets has reached €4, as reported a few days ago by a local online newspaper.
“45% of Lebanese people live in poverty and 22% in extreme poverty,” reports Chiara Calabrese, a researcher at the Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris who has been living in Beirut for years. “It’s not surprising that protest marches have resumed in Tripoli,” she continues. “It is one of the poorest cities, despite the fact that some of the country’s most prosperous entrepreneurs are among its inhabitants. Tripoli has been abandoned, and politics has focused more on subsidies than on promoting investment and development.”
It is not without significance that poverty is often concentrated in Sunni-majority population centers. This confirms that the neoliberal economic policies pursued by the Sunni leader Rafik Hariri (assassinated in 2005) and his son Saad Hariri—unbridled housing development, large debt, finance and banking put in the hands of a few—have only enriched the elite and have proven disastrous in those very areas where the population believed they were protected by the power and wealth of the Hariri family.
On the other hand, the welfare state set up by the Hezbollah Shiite movement in the districts under its control seems to have better protected the weaker sections of the Shiite community. Since October, Hezbollah has been under high pressure. A part of those taking part in the rallies and demonstrations (including Shiites) are blaming Hezbollah—with some justification—for the economic disaster and are accusing it of subordinating Lebanon to the interests of Iran.
However, the movement has only been part of the Lebanese governments since 2011, while the crisis started much further back. “Some parties,” Chiara Calabrese explains, “like Hariri’s Mustaqbal and the Lebanese Forces (right-wing), are trying to exploit the revolt and cast themselves as revolutionary movements when they have been in power for years.”
At the same time, the researcher concludes, “while taking into account that some protesters may be used by certain parties, the protest was and remains a real one, because there is truly great suffering among the Lebanese.”