Here’s a piece I wrote during the Lebanese heat wave of late August. I have been promising some of you to publish it as soon as I left the country. It is a stream-of-consciousness rant which pretty much encompasses my experiences living in Lebanon for three years. I was in a lousy mood, so the negative aspects prevail. Soon I hope to write a positive counter-rant about all the things I loved about living here – but meanwhile, here goes:
‘Forgive me if I’m ranting. In the course of the three years I have been writing this blog, I have usually reported on local and regional politics, as well as social and cultural issues, as a more or less disinterested and objective, detached observer. At least that has been the ideal – and like any ideal it is unattainable even while you strive to approach it as closely as possible. But even so, objectivity does not necessarily equal neutrality, and like anyone else I have developed sympathies and dislikes by being a close observer and a ‘privileged witness’. But after three years in this country, in which I have evolved from the comfortable position of an outsider just-passing-through to a long-term resident getting ever more integrated in the fabric of Lebanese society, there are a few things I need to get off my chest.
Contrary to what you might conclude from reading the international press, the issue currently occupying the minds and raising intense emotions among the Lebanese (and residing foreigners) is not the coming indictment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon or the possible cut-off of military aid by US Congress – it is a much more basic and important issue. Demonstrations are taking place all over Lebanon, some of them turning violent, to protest… the lack of electricity. Power cuts are ubiquitous all over Lebanon. Even in the best of times, most parts of Beirut experience power cuts of three hours a day, poorer parts of the city spend six to twelve hours a day without electricity and outside Beirut many parts of the country get a mere six hours a day of supply. In the present heatwave, this is insufferable, and it is severely compounded by the fact that Electricite du Liban (EDL) announced a few weeks ago – just like that, without even bothering with an excuse or a reason – that electricity would be rationed even more. The reasons for this are many and, like everything else in Lebanon, mired in a web of corruption, cronyism and party politics as inextricable as the bunches of electrical wires you can see all over the country dangling across the streets. The power infrastructure is hopelessly inadequate and antiquated, and no government has invested in it for decades, apart from some ad hoc repairs after the 2006 war. Electricity is stolen on a large scale, and contrary to what some M14 figures like to repeat like a mantra, definitely not only in ‘opposition areas’ (never mind that the ‘opposition’ is actually part of the national unity government now – for those wrongly insisting to see themselves are ‘the majority’, M8 remain ‘the opposition’). Neither are these ‘opposition’ areas, like Dahiyyeh, the ones that ‘refuse to pay their electricity bills’ – or at least not more than any other areas. In fact, both electricity theft and non-payment of bills are largely confined to the political and business elites of this country and their proteges, the same corrupt wheeler-dealers who never experience power cuts in their luxurious villas and tasteless palaces. Not coincidentally, they also control the generator mafia that benefits from the cuts and protect the thieves that cause the chronic shortage of money of EDL – to the point where ministries run by those benefiting from the generator mafia actually refuse to pay the fuel bills for EDL, thus augmenting their own income. Anyone living close to even a minor politician’s house anywhere in the country will confirm that they are mysteriously free from power cuts. Beirut areas like Quraytem (where Hariri’s palace is) or Clemenceau (where Junblatt has his town house) of course never experience power cuts and neither does the Grand Serail in downtown (the government’s HQ). Anyone else might as well be living in blockaded Gaza or post-US Iraq.
In truth, the images the international media so much like to project – ad nauseam – of scantily clad girls in beach clubs and rich kids showing off daddy’s Porsche Carrera in the bars of Gemmayzeh are not a true reflection of the life of the large majority of the Lebanese population, which is actually desperately poor and living largely on remittances from family members working in the GCC countries, Europe, North and South America and even Africa, with some occasional handouts of whatever sectarian politician they are paid to vote for. This large majority of Lebanese – at least 90% – no matter whose side they are on politically, is permanently hit by power cuts – which actually cost you three times: first you have to pay the regular EDL bill for having power part of the time, then you have to pay the local generator mafioso to have electricity for the rest of the time (usually that bill is higher than the EDL bill even though typically you only get a measly 5 amp, not even enough to run an AC or washing machine), and then you pay again when you have to replace your fridge, AC, TV, laptop etcetera much more often because the daily power cuts destroy them in the long run… Oh, and of course you have to buy that equipment from dealers who have a monopoly license to import them – i.e. it again benefits the corrupt cronies who refuse to provide proper services. It is the same story with the crap roads full of potholes destroying cars at an unnecessarily high rate, and who holds the import licences for the car brands? You got it…
Typical for the total lack of interest politicians show in the well-being of their electorate, neither parliament nor the government bothered to hold an emergency session to try and solve the electricity problem, even while tyres were being burnt, roads blocked and police forces attacked by outraged demonstrators from Akkar in the north to Sour (Tyre) in the south. For all their ‘Lebanon First’ sloganeering and despite the few hundred dollar bribes they give you at election time, for all their rhetoric of protecting whatever sect they pretend to represent and despite all their promises, they just don’t give a fuck about you, my Lebanese friends…
Another issue, while we’re at it, is the impossibly high cost of mobile and international calls in this country – mobile phone calls here are the most expensive in the world in absolute terms, let alone relative to the local wages. Lebanon is the only country in the entire world, to my knowledge, where people are forced to communicate using missed calls because their prepaid credit runs out in a matter of – literally – minutes. There are only two mobile providers licensed in Lebanon, Alfa and MTC, who cartel the prices between them and thereby provide an incredible quarter of the annual government income. The protection racket goes so far and is so blatant that parliament recently tried to pass a law criminalising and blocking Skype and other internet telephone software just to safeguard the ridiculously high prices monopoly landline provider Ogero (owned by – who else – PM Hariri!) charges for international calls. This in a country where every family has to send some of its sons and daughters abroad to earn an income which can actually sustain the family, as Lebanon offers only scarce and ridiculously underpaid jobs, no social security to speak of, a systematically underfunded public education and health system and private hospitals which routinely leave people to die in front of their doors who don’t have either health insurance coverage or enough cash on them.
All this makes Lebanon the worst possible combination between capitalism and communism: you pay capitalist prices for communist (or worse) services… In essence, all these are manifestations of one and the same problem that affects this country in many different ways: the state, as far as it even exists, is not actually there to provide services to the citizens and guarantee their rights. And we are not just talking the south or the Bekaa here, we are talking about the entire country. It is not just Hezbollah who have set up a ‘state within the state’, these set-ups exist all over the country: every sect, feudal landlord, ‘former’ civil war militia and ‘political party’ runs their own. The actual national ‘state’ is only there to fill the pockets of the political elites and their cronies and protect their interests. That is why even major highways are full of potholes and unlit at night. That is why there is still no broadband available here, even though the slow and unreliable internet ruins the economy and stops many businesses from expanding. That is why in the one Middle Eastern country with plentiful water resources, the population suffers semi-permanent water shortages in their houses, while broken pipes are flooding the streets for days on end elsewhere. That is why the police rarely show up when you call them and are uncooperative and uninterested when they do, yet refuse you entry to their office when you show up wearing flipflops or shorts in the middle of a heatwave, because it shows ‘lack of respect’ for this institution that does nothing to deserve it. That is why bureaucrats can arbitrarily deny you any papers you are legally entitled to when you don’t want – or can’t afford – to bribe them. That is why Lebanese pay twice the price for their passport than Belgians, even while their average income is only a quarter of that in Belgium – and then the bureaucrats have the nerve to open a criminal case against you for ‘negligence’ when your passport gets damaged and you simply apply for a new one – at full cost of course. Incredibly, if you are found to have been ‘negligent’, you will be denied a new passport for six months – an illegal proposition even by Lebanon’s own defunct laws! That is why there is an army which has never protected the country from any foreign invasion or attack, yet insists on putting up roadblocks all over the country creating even more traffic jams than the crap roads already do, then mans them with soldiers who rarely bother to check anything more than the decolletes of women drivers and passengers. That is why any and all shopkeepers, taxi drivers, car mechanics, internet providers or satellite TV pirateers can rip you off at will with crap services and expired products sold at extortionate prices while you can get no redress anywhere because the police and the courts are as corrupt as the elite circles they serve or belong to and who will at all times protect each other at the expense of ordinary citizens.
I guess all this is pretty much the essence of what is meant by the expression ‘the third world’. Because however much the Lebanese bourgeoisie and political elites try to project the image of Lebanon as modern, developed and democratic, it is none of these. In actual reality it is a corrupt, underdeveloped, backward fief of feudal landlords and former warlords masquerading as parliamentarians while running what passes for the ‘state’ as their personal cash cow. It is a country where women count for nothing and can’t even pass on their nationality to their children, let alone their husbands. It is a country where theocrats rule, civil marriage is non-existent and the personal life of even the most secular and atheist Lebanese is governed by medieval church laws or the sharia. It is a country where the large majority lives in crushing poverty and counts for nothing, while suffering a tiny rich elite to flaunt their ridiculous unearned wealth in their faces. It is a country where appearance and external form means everything and actual meaningful content is buried and neglected. It is a country where foreign maids are routinely kept as slaves by many families and just as routinely commit suicide because it is the only way out of their misery. If they try to run away, they are chased by the police (ah! here is one thing the police actually does!) and either returned to their ‘owners’ or locked up in inhumane conditions under a highway bridge in Adliyeh. It is a country where Palestinian refugees are treated only marginally better than they are in Israel. It is a country where every newspaper, magazine and TV station is owned by one political party or another and they all toe the party line with incredibly biased and dishonest reporting. The rest are vanity publishers in the pay of some Gulf prince or other. It is a country where the few independent journalists who actually do their job are arrested for digging up corruption scandals and where the president sues ordinary citizens who criticise him on their facebook pages. It is a country where the CEO of a major bank (SGBL) has an opponent shot openly in a nightclub and then simply flies his private jet to Milan undisturbed. It is a country where your car gets stolen in Beirut and you can buy it back in one particular village in the Bekaa valley which everybody knows but which never gets disturbed by the police. It is a country which exports large amounts of hash and heroin to large parts of the world yet locks its own citizens away for years when they smoke a spliff. It is a country where something as simple as actually using an existing parking garage to relieve a neighbourhood of desperate parking problems takes a decade of tow-tugging between businessmen, local and national authorities about how to divide the loot of the potential parking fees. It is a country whose politicians routinely crow about sovereignty and pose as nationalists while taking money from foreign governments to keep the country underdeveloped and subservient to the highest bidder. It is a country which sells out and wastes its scarce natural resources and destroys its environment on a massive scale to enrich the few while making life a misery for everybody else. Its capital is given over to Saudi and Emirati project developers who destroy the wonderful old architecture and the social fabric of the community for greed, building more luxury holiday flats that are empty for eleven months a year, while rents become unaffordable and over a million Beirutis have to drive miles out of the city to find something vaguely resembling a park or a green spot. No wonder the majority of Lebanese prefer to flee their native land and live abroad. I will soon follow their example.’