The other (ugly) face of Lebanon
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
The dire economic situation in Lebanon and the paralysis of its governing structures trigger an emotional reaction of self-identification among observers and laypeople with a country that has known better days. The mere allusion to Lebanon coxes a smile and a longing for a state of welfare, opulence, and an example of sectarian co-existence unequaled in the Arab and Muslim world, framed by golden beaches, snowy mountains, fancy hotels, and restaurants. In short, the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” when Beirut was the “Paris of the Middle East.”
In fact, “that Lebanon” has existed only in the imagination of most observers. The events that unfolded since October 2019 have revealed the other face of Lebanon: a corrupt state in which politicians and laypeople have plundered the national treasury, and its sectarian regime, which has led to political paralysis.
The black list seems endless:
Suffice it to say that almost a quarter of a million Lebanese have left in the first quarter of 2021 to join a growing diaspora that until now has saved Lebanon through expatriates’ money transfers. Funds transferred to Lebanon after the port explosion of Beirut, which devastated a third of the capital city, have disappeared, and the reconstruction effort is stuck with no end in sight. Lebanese citizens are forbidden to withdraw their money from the national banks and have been allowed to withdraw only small sums at given times. This did not stop the outflow of six billion dollars in less than three months after the decision was made to block all transfers of foreign currency to the outer world!
If this was not enough, politicians from all parties fight relentlessly over the dying corpse of the Lebanese body-politic. The Shiite duo (Hizbullah and Amal,) as they are nicknamed in Lebanon, have chosen to paralyze the government, which has not convened since October 2021, because of the government’s refusal to replace judge Tarek Bitar, the investigator of the mega-explosion of August 4, 2020, in the Beirut port.
Hizbullah behaves in Beirut as if Beirut was the second capital of Iran, with banners bearing the portraits of the notorious Qassem Suleimani and other Shiite “heroes” decorating the main arteries of the capital, especially those leading to the Beirut international airport. In October 2021, armed men affiliated with Hizbullah and Amal marched defiantly through Beirut’s Christian neighborhood of Tayouneh, which almost incited a third civil war. The Shiite militias threatened to deploy 100,000 enlisted and trained men to storm the Christian areas. Seven people were killed and 32 wounded in the clash before the Lebanese Army restored a semblance of order.
This is not surprising in a country where political murders are not investigated. The assassination of prominent Shiite publisher Lokman Slim, a critic of Hizbullah, in February 2021 comes to mind. In Lebanon, militia chiefs refuse to appear before investigatory tribunals, and politicians manipulated their political immunity in order to avoid questioning their role in the Beirut port explosion.
In this lawlessness, it was not surprising to witness the arrival of Iranian oil products to Lebanon after being unloaded in a Syrian port and transported to Lebanon in long convoys through an illegal entry post at the yet undefined border between Syria and Lebanon. The fuel was distributed to Hizbullah and Amal clients first, and what remained was given to their political allies.
Hizbullah has created havoc in the relations between Lebanon, and the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia, which have threatened Lebanese expatriates with expulsion. Significantly, some 350,000 Lebanese dwell in these states, work and annually transfer almost $4.5 billion to their families. Hizbullah’s subversive undertakings and hostile actions against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States include advising the Houthis in the Yemeni war, where Iran’s ambassador was in charge of training and launching ballistic missiles and drones at Saudi installations.
President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Najib Miqati have tried to mend the fences with the Arab states but to no avail – yet. The continued smuggling of Captagon pills by Hizbullah agents in exported fruits and vegetables to the Gulf States has provoked the banning of the import of all Lebanese agricultural products, costing a loss of more than $350 million to the Lebanese economy.
Attempts to mollify the Saudis were apparent in messages by Aoun and by Saudi King Salman. On December 30, 2021, King Salman urged Lebanon to stop “the hegemony of terrorist Hizbullah over the state.” Earlier, on December 27, 2021, President Aoun stated that his government wanted to preserve good ties with the states of the Gulf. He criticized Hizbullah and Amal without explicitly naming them, but the implicit jab at Hizbullah was understood by many observers: “It is true that defending the nation requires cooperation between the army, the people, and the resistance,” Aoun said in his statement. “But the main responsibility is the state’s. The state alone puts in place the defense strategy and attends to its implementation.”
Michel Aoun’s term as president ends in October 2022, when most probably another constitutional crisis will leave Lebanon without a president for an extended period. Aoun’s election occurred after a 29-month vacuum in the office of the head of the state. His son-in-law, Gibran Bassil, has expectations of succeeding Aoun. However, the former energy minister is at the center of an economic meltdown and accused of corruption. Bassil, known in the press as “the most hated man in Lebanon,” stands a poor chance of being elected president. The U.S. Government imposed sanctions on Bassil and froze his assets in November 2020 for “systemic corruption” and ties with Hizbullah, charges that Bassil denied.
The presidential elections are indirect, with the Parliament choosing the president. The legislative elections are scheduled for May 15, 2022. But the chances that these elections take place are slim in the Lebanese reality, thus blocking the president’s selection.
Modern Slavery in Lebanon
The most distressing thing about this so-called modern, western-like, democratic, and open society of Lebanon is that it is xenophobic, apartheid-like, with a racist attitude towards foreigners living within its borders: Palestinians live in 12 refugee camps, one and a half million Syrian refugees survive in tent camps and temporary, dangerous, and overcrowded dwellings in the Bekaa Valley, and almost 300,000 foreign workers from Africa and Asia are employed as housekeepers and servants in private homes, and various risky, dangerous jobs. Moreover, Lebanon has treated its foreign guests in the harshest possible manner, denying them fundamental rights.
Lebanon’s foreign workers are locked in a system called “kafala” (guarantee), a synonym for forced labor, a sort of modern-day slavery. Originating in the Gulf in the 1950s, “kafala” creates a permanent bond which ties migrant workers’ residency in Lebanon to their employer, or kafeel (sponsor). It provides private citizens and companies in Lebanon with almost total control over migrant workers’ employment and immigration status. Passports, IDs, and other official documents are kept by the employer and are given back only when the employer decides to do so. The migrant worker rarely enjoys rest days, defined working hours, or the freedom to switch jobs. A migrant domestic worker cannot simply resign if working conditions are abusive. He or she needs the consent of the employer, who happens to be his or her abuser in such cases.
Since October 2019, thousands of migrant workers have been thrown into the streets, unable to fly back to their countries of origin. In addition, as the economic crisis in Lebanon worsened, there was a significant increase in arbitrary dismissals and the absence of end-of-service compensation as most employers did not apply rights given by the labor regulations and law.
As for the Palestinians, for the first time since their arrival in successive waves beginning in 1948, Lebanon has announced of late, a significant change in labor restrictions allowing for Palestinian refugees to work in trade-union-regulated professions. Accordingly, Palestinians born in Lebanon and officially registered in the records of the Lebanese Interior Ministry would be allowed to work in professions that were generally limited to Lebanese citizens only, such as law, engineering, and medicine, among others. (There was a list of 70 professions forbidden to Palestinians.) Nevertheless, Palestinians born in Lebanon still had to be formally admitted as members of the professional syndicates before being allowed to practice their profession, a condition that seems impossible to meet because of the condescending and hostile attitude of the Lebanese towards the Palestinians.
The Absolute Bottom Rung
Finally, the least fortunate of all are the Syrian refugees who do not enjoy any rights in Lebanon. With the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, thousands of refugees poured into Lebanon. Priorly detested by the Lebanese, who experienced a 30-year military presence and occupation by Syria (1976-2005), the Syrian refugees could not expect any better treatment by the Lebanese. Syrian refugees are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis hitting Lebanon. Thirty percent of school-age children have never attended school, while about 30,000 refugee children were engaged in child labor. The human and sex trafficking of Syrians in Lebanon is rife. One in five girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are married. Nine out of ten refugees live in extreme poverty. In June 2021, almost 50 percent of Syrian refugee families were food insecure.
A flagrant example of such a hostile, racist, and apartheid-like attitude can be found in a decree published by the mayor of Ras Baalbeck on November 10, 2021. According to the decree, the salary of a Syrian worker should be limited to 40,000 Lebanese Liras (one-and-a-half dollars!) for a seven-hour working day. A Syrian woman working in a household would be paid 10,000 Lebanese Liras per hour (about 40 U.S. cents!). Syrians living in the area of the Ras Baalbeck are forbidden to receive at night guests from other areas. Syrian refugees must abide by a curfew from 1900 until 0600 the next day.
The ailing Lebanese society has an inherent racist problem. It has been there for a long time, successively targeting different communities, sects, and religions. The present economic and political crises have exacerbated these social tendencies and are part and parcel of Lebanese society. These dystopic social dynamics are here to stay. The more the country drowns in chaos, the more the fringes, the weakest link of the social infrastructure, will be the target of attacks, discrimination, hostility, abuse, and marginalization. In conclusion, this form of Lebanese racism will survive the political stalemate and continue to be one of the characteristics of Lebanon’s other (ugly) face.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.