Nothing changed and everything did. In Mar Mikhael, one of the areas of Beirut most damaged by the explosion last August, there were more signs of reconstruction than destruction when I visited last month. New glass storefronts were being mounted; inside pubs, furniture was set up for reopening. Across the highway, the remains of the 48-metre-high silos at the port stood charred and desolate.
Traffic jammed the roads: it had picked up again, I was told, because of the holidays. Downtown, most of the stores were still boarded up and the walls covered with expletives, there since the protests that started in October 2019. The scene repeated itself further west at the central bank, and at various other banks, some of which were now permanently closed.
Most days were gorgeously clear and sunny. I spent the afternoons – before a new and stricter lockdown was imposed – in the vast garden of an old house in Hamra, turned into a new branch of a favourite coffeeshop, where seemingly everyone I knew also showed up, the old favourite having closed down during the first wave of the Covid-19 crisis. It was a bubble, but even the bubble had cracked. Almost all the friends I saw were considering leaving the country. They spoke of the indelible memories left by 4 August and of the triggers that brought them back, like the rumbling of thunder or the sound of broken glass being swept.
The currency has collapsed and inflation is rampant. Life savings have been wiped out. Those who are paid in Lebanese liras, including my friends who teach at universities (both public and private), are barely making enough for a basic living. For anyone with ‘fresh’ dollars (i.e. dollars not already sitting in Lebanese banks, which are known as ‘lollars’), on the other hand, which includes anyone who works for an international organisation, everything was suddenly very cheap. You just needed to get used to carrying stacks of the local currency, and to keeping track of the three exchange rates: shops are formally bound by the official rate, but dollars can be exchanged on the black market for six times more, and banks offer their own rate, somewhere in between. You also needed to get used to the guilt of being rich in a country where half the people now live below the poverty line. I had never encountered so many beggars in Beirut in my life.
At night, the city was eerie. Many street lights were not turned on and a few traffic lights didn’t work. Even when they did, cars sometimes drove through red lights anyway. There were many more flies and mosquitoes than is common in winter. Stray cats roamed and moaned sharply in the dark.
A new government was promised for Christmas, but has yet to form. The prime minister designate, Saad Hariri, was the one whose government was ousted by the October 2019 protests. The perceived horizon for change is so remote that hopes are now pinned on the political regime responsible for the country’s financial collapse, as well as last August’s explosion. Or, to put it more precisely, the hope is for an IMF bailout, which requires the opening of the central bank’s books, which in turn requires the consent of all parties comprising the existing regime.
The formation of a government, to be made up of so-called technocrats, is being held up by conflicts over the distribution of cabinet seats among the various parties: a ‘sovereign’ ministry (interior, foreign affairs, finance) is worth up to three ‘services’ ministries (energy, agriculture, health etc.). The power-sharing negotiations have been accompanied by constitutional arguments: about the powers bestowed by a parliamentary majority, the prerogatives of the president in forming a cabinet, and the constitutionality of any party holding the veto known as a ‘blocking third’ in the cabinet. Legal threats and court cases have also been thrown around, with a state prosecutor, the head of the internal security forces and the head of the central bank accusing one another of overstepping the powers granted to them by the law.
The simultaneous operation of these two registers – sectarian politicking and constitutional debate – was in full view recently when a judge charged the caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, and three former ministers with negligence over the port explosion. Diab responded that the judge was acting beyond his legal powers, since political officials are immune to prosecution. He also proclaimed that the case against him amounted to an attack on the highest Sunni position in the land, prompting all Sunni politicians, as well as their followers, to rally around him.
The legal and constitutional debates may look like a façade behind which the real sectarian politics of Lebanon are carried out. But perhaps both registers are real, and operate in tandem. Several years ago, I had to get a residential registration document from the local mukhtar. He already had the identity papers of so-called witnesses ready to include in my application. If he could get away with faking witnesses, I asked myself, why bother with them at all? Similarly, why do you need to go through a driving test when the only way to pass is by bribing the examiner? Some officials may worry about getting caught – there are always a few honest people around. But I think it’s also that many of those who are willing to cheat, officials and citizens alike, are also inclined to follow the rules when they can.
In Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (1999), Lisa Wedeen described the way everyone in the country behaved as if they believed the performances of a regime pretending to protect its people, while everyone knew that no one actually believed it. The situation in Lebanon isn’t quite like that. It isn’t that everyone pretends to be against sectarianism but actually believes in it, or that everyone pretends to follow the law but secretly thinks that only self-interest matters. Structural conditions – the protections afforded by kin groups, the weakness of state institutions, the state’s being shored up by the international community – make it reasonable to wish for a secular state but to turn to one’s sectarian group for protection, to believe in the law but circumvent it as necessary, to long for change but reject all existing alternatives to the status quo.