Lebanese citizens have little confidence that change is on the horizon with the newly-elected billionaire prime minister, Nijab Mikati.

One would think that residents of a collapsed country would rejoice in the formation of a government after 13 months of a stalemate – while the myriad of issues plaguing the country kept accumulating and worsening – most Lebanese, however, have welcomed the news with thinly veiled cynicism and exasperated shrugs.

The late comedian George Carlin famously said “Inside every cynical person, there’s a disappointed idealist.” In Lebanon, where cynicism has become a way of life, you could easily replace the latter with ‘resigned realist’.

“How do you feel about the fact that we have a new government?” I ask Jad, who owns a hole-in-the-wall manoushe place in Bachoura, a charmingly multi-layered neighborhood in East Beirut.

He looks at me, or rather through me, and responds with a mixture of mockery and despair. “Really, we have a new government? I haven’t noticed,” as he vaguely gestures around.

We both chuckle.

“First of all, it’s not a new government. It’s the same one. It’s always the same one. And secondly, with or without a government, our lives will remain the same. At least, if we’re lucky enough that they won’t get even worse.”

Jad is far from the only Lebanese who seems unperturbed by what should’ve been a first step out of the everyday misery of what constitutes the life of an average citizen.

While much maligned billionaire Nijab Mikati’s government, which won the parliament’s confidence vote on September 20 with 85-15 votes, vowed to swiftly resume International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout talks and get cracking on a host of reforms to lift the country out of its worsening economic crisis, there seems to be little to no confidence that any fundamental change is on the horizon.

In a scene that could have come straight out of a sardonic Ziad Rahbani play, the vote of confidence session began nearly an hour late thanks to power cuts that perpetually plague the public.

Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri later asked Mikati not to read the entire statement, for fear the power would go out again. In his statement, which was seen by many as tone-deaf, Mikati seemed to intentionally include a metaphor that alluded to the literal darkness that the population has been forced to accept as a daily reality.

“Our government emerged to light a candle in this deep darkness and spark a torch of hope and determination that we are able to combine our sincerest efforts for this beloved country.”

Clearly, it's not just ordinary citizens who have little faith that the new government is able or even willing to deliver on what are widely regarded as empty promises.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati speaks during a parliament session to confirm Lebanon's new government in Beirut on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati speaks during a parliament session to confirm Lebanon's new government in Beirut on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (Bilal Hussein / AP)

‘A professional doomsayer’

“I’m becoming a professional doomsayer,” Heiko Wimmen, Iraq, Syria & Lebanon Crisis Group director told TRT World. “I don’t hear anything good from anybody.”

While there are immediate steps that could be taken to at least somewhat alleviate the endless list of intertwined crises plaguing the country, Wimmen believes that any of the steps necessary would be politically costly and of little benefit to the political elite.

“It’s a prisoner’s dilemma to them. Nobody is interested in taking the first step and so nobody does it. Kicking the can down the road is in the end the least costly and least risky option for them.”

While some have argued that at least a new government would allow for new negotiations with the IMF, Wimmen says that, although those funds are sorely needed, the beleaguered country simply does not have time to wait for that option.

“Forget the IMF now, it’s going to take a lot of time. What Lebanon needs now is an emergency stabilisation program, to ensure that when the IMF program starts there is still a country left at all.”

Sectarian tensions, always simmering just beneath and sometimes above the surface, have intensified in the past months. With the flames being fanned by openly malicious rhetoric, and no hope on the horizon, some find themselves retreating into their own communities. There’s also a clear split between which outside players people think should come to Lebanon’s aid.

Trucks carrying Iranian fuel, brought in by Hezbollah, received a heroes welcome by many, who referred to the occasion as “breaking the siege”, a turn of phrase used by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah which refers to US sanctions that almost exclusively target Hezbollah and its allies rather than the entirety of the Lebanese political class which ran the country into the ground with its deliberate dysfunction and institutionalised corruption.

Others sneered at what they saw as nothing but a calculated power move by Hezbollah to challenge the US, send a message to their political opponents and appease their base. However, some say, as long as Hezbollah fulfills its promise to provide ailing state hospitals and other struggling institutions like the Red Cross and water distributors with fuel, they don’t even have the energy let alone the luxury to think about where it comes from.

“I honestly don’t care where the fuel comes from at this point,” says Diana, an esthetician who lives and works in the Achrafieh district. “All of these crooks are in cahoots and no-one cares about us anyway. Who cares if fuel comes from Iran or Egypt or wherever? Will it somehow smell sweeter or burn slower? Nothing is worse than this humiliation.”

On the other side of Beirut, in the Mar Elias neighborhood, Jamal, a young mechanic, says he’d rather be without fuel than accept anything brought in by Hezbollah. “They can take anything from me, except my dignity. It’s all most of us have left these days.”

His friend Bilal, mocks him, playfully. “Dignity? You can’t run your car on dignity. You can’t feed your kids with dignity.” They continue to bicker a bit while they wait for the electricity to switch back on and get back to work.

A convoy of tanker trucks carrying Iranian diesel crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon, arrives at the eastern town of el-Ain, Lebanon, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021.
A convoy of tanker trucks carrying Iranian diesel crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon, arrives at the eastern town of el-Ain, Lebanon, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. (Bilal Hussein / AP)

Boiling the frog

Despite the overwhelming cynicism with which the new government has been (un)welcomed, there are some who hope that it might at least lead to a breakthrough in negotiations with the IMF, potentially unlocking billions of dollars in aid. However, the litany of causes for why this aid has been sitting idly while the population of Lebanon sinks deeper and deeper into the abyss, will not change anytime soon.

In a clear signal to the international community, Mikati vowed to tackle the cycle of rampant corruption and combat wasteful government spending. But it will be hard to find anyone who will believe that those in government, and those pulling the string behind the curtains, are capable or even willing to change. Many of those in power have accumulated wealth and power by engaging in those very acts.

“Before Hariri pulled out, the (government) plan put forward, which to my knowledge hasn’t fundamentally changed, was to consolidate all available options like SDRs, the social security program [the ration card scheme for the most vulnerable families], previously unused loans from the World Bank and possibly some checks from other countries to allow some spending to allow the currency to appreciate a bit and slightly dampen the effects of the subsidy cuts,” Wimmen says.

“A cynical but plausible tactic to muddle through until the parliamentary elections. It’s what they’ve been doing for the past two years: stretching out the pain over the longest period possible to get people used to it, the image of slowly boiling the frog.”

Beirut remains in darkness during a power outage as the sun sets. Lebanon has had electricity cuts for decades but in recent weeks the small nation suffered severe power cuts over lack of fuel.
Beirut remains in darkness during a power outage as the sun sets. Lebanon has had electricity cuts for decades but in recent weeks the small nation suffered severe power cuts over lack of fuel. (Hassan Ammar / AP)

Elections will merely reproduce the ‘mafia’

The upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for May 22 but rumored to take place in March, ostensibly to avoid them taking place during Ramadan (at the time of writing this hadn’t been confirmed yet), do not seem to inspire hope as a catalyst for even the slightest of positive change.

“The next elections, just like this new government, will be nothing more than yet another skillful reproduction of the sectarian system under the ruling mafia,” says Mona Harb, professor of Urban Studies and Politics at the American University of Beirut.

“It doesn’t exist to serve the Lebanese people, but merely to consolidate the interests of the main political elites and their networks which includes the banks, the private sector, all the oil and gas mafiosi, the pharmaceutical industry … basically the whole political economy.”

Wimmen believes that if the parliamentary elections take place next year, any discussions about government formation will inevitably roll into the presidential elections, which are scheduled to take place in October. “So it’s all going to be extended until October at which point Lebanon will be in the same place with even less cash in the box, with all these additional sources exhausted and wasted away for no good purpose,” he says.

As for who people will vote for, Wimmen says that the brain drain – currently more akin to a brain hemorrhage – that Lebanon is experiencing only serves the ruling class. “Those who are left after this they will be much easier to rule, less educated, less demanding and less independent to do anything and far more dependent on what the zuama (political leaders) have to offer, Wimmen says.

“While, in a situation of scarcity the absolute value of what you can get through clientelism becomes much less, the relative value greatly increases. Those left behind will be much more dependent on while the number of people who are independent and can afford not to support these clientelist systems is going to be far less,” he adds.

When asked whether she at least thinks the unlocking of IMF funds might relieve some of the pressure, Harb lets out an almost exasperated sigh. “Like all the agreements that happened before in Doha, in Taef, the next one will also benefit all the powerful groups including the donors. For me it’s not like the donors are the good guys that are going to salvage us."

Even if this government, or the next, manages to convince the IMF to unlock its massive aid package, Harb has little hope that it will end up in the right hands. “The IMF will ultimately embolden the mafia as they’ll always find ways to spare themselves by scapegoating a few people. Lebanon has been receiving aid since 1992 and donors know that part of this aid is not being disbursed and very little of it will trickle down,” she says with a hint of fury in her voice.

Harb’s thoughts on outside help and interference are still echoed around the neighbourhoods that were hit the hardest after the devastating port blast of August 2020.

“Who’s going to help us? The countries that helped those crooks stay in power?” says Dina, rolling her eyes while she lets out a wry laugh. She’s scrutinising the prices at a supermarket with half-empty shelves while trying to figure out which meals to cook that won’t go bad when there’s no electricity for half the day.

“Why should we trust them? Why should we trust anyone anymore? My only hope is that my children get a chance to leave. Imagine praying for a life without your own children next to you. This is what it has come to.”

Source: TRT World