‘Ifound it dirty and coarse,’ the Lebanese scholar Edward Atiyah wrote of Beirut at the end of the First World War. ‘Rubbish heaps stank in the streets; the gutters looked as though they hadn’t been cleaned since my childhood … Dead rats!’ Nearly a century later, in 2004, the journalist Hazim Saghie would say of Beirut in the 1980s: ‘I only recall darkness … the roar of electricity generators … while the garbage was mounting everywhere, spreading its putrid smell day after day after day.’

Both Atiyah and Saghie were remembering a dark past at a moment when prospects looked brighter. Atiyah was writing in 1946, as the French army was departing from newly independent Lebanon; Saghie in the early 2000s when Beirut was being rebuilt after fifteen years of civil war. Both imagined the worst was over, when it wasn’t, when it wasn’t likely to be. Now, in 2023, the rubbish is back and has been for several years. Political stasis and corruption have consigned Beirut to another dark age. A future in which any Lebanese can reflect on bad memories from a time of safety seems unimaginable.

It is fifty years since I went to live in Beirut for the first of several periods of residence, initially as a graduate student and then as a journalist recording Lebanon’s many deaths and resurrections. I arrived in a garbage-free year, 1972, when the country was experiencing both prosperity and revolutionary ferment. For me, Beirut unravelled 21 years of indoctrination at the hands of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, the Society of Jesus, the plutocrat-funded University of Southern California, Hollywood and Madison Avenue. The violence that my country employed to adjust the world to its requirements, which I had not questioned, looked different on the receiving end. I saw what a two-thousand-pound American high-explosive bomb, dropped from an Israeli jet, could do to a school in the Ain el-Helweh refugee camp, where my closest friend’s brothers and sisters studied. I abandoned the masters degree at the American University of Beirut, but I got an education.

Local public relations wizards called Beirut ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ and Lebanon ‘the Switzerland of the Orient’. Although I hadn’t been to either Paris or Switzerland – or anywhere else beyond the Pacific Coast between British Columbia and Mexico – even I smelled a rat, and not one of Atiya’s dead ones. It was the same boosterism I knew from Los Angeles, which lured the hicks out west to buy real estate on credit and to work, not for the movie studios of their imaginings, but in the tuna canneries of Long Beach and the arms factories of Culver City.

Beirut lacked Paris’s sophistication and cultural self-regard. Mount Lebanon didn’t match the Swiss Alps for grandeur, and its mixture of communities – parliamentary seats were guaranteed for each of its many Christian and Muslim denominations – was more fragile and bellicose than Switzerland’s. Yet Beirut was more exciting than the City of Light, Lebanon more compelling than the land of the cuckoo clock. The early 1970s was a revolutionary time in a city clinging to the past. The remains of Ottoman Lebanon lingered in the meandering souks, the yellowing stone mansions, the old men in tarbooshes, Maronite and Druze peasants in baggy shalwar trousers, fruit and vegetable vendors pushing barrows on cobbled streets and the crumbling brothels in the Souk al-Sharameet, the prostitutes’ market, behind the Gemayel Brothers Pharmacy downtown. The central square, called alternately Place des Canons and Place des Martyrs, united Beirut around a vast rectangular park teeming with traffic. Ottoman and French structures on the east side faced ragged marketplaces on the west. I didn’t know it, but the square also marked the point where the city divided into its Christian and Muslim halves.

It was a city for the international jet set, who anchored their yachts in St George Bay, as well as for revolutionary tourists, in town to show solidarity with the Palestinian commandos who had made Beirut their headquarters following their expulsion from Jordan by King Hussein after the Black September fighting of 1970. Miss Universe 1971 was a Lebanese Christian ingenue, Georgina Rizk, who brought some bikini glamour to progressive politics by marrying Ali Hassan Salameh, the PLO’s security chief. Throw in the spies and journalists swapping rumours at the St George Hotel bar (Kim Philby had been a regular), and you had a city that was never dull.

Younger Lebanese, in that era of the Vietcong, the soixante-huitards and America’s anti-war protesters, were impatient for change. The governing system was archaic, based on sectarian identities: hereditary chieftains ruled their communities and shared power among themselves. Tearing it down threatened to destroy everything, which no one wanted. Even so, the desperation of the homeless, both the half-million refugees expelled from Palestine and the internal exiles driven north by the Israeli-Palestinian war, inspired dissidence. The revolutionary-minded sought not a utopian future so much as a return to an idealised past before French colonial disfigurement and Israel’s seizure of Palestine.

Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims and Druze latched onto the Palestinian armed struggle, a fruitless enterprise, as leverage against the other communities. The inevitable clash brought the country to civil war in 1975 and led to Syria’s military occupation of the north and east the following year. But Israel’s occupation of the south from 1978, and its cataclysmic invasion of 1982, put an end to all that. The Palestinian revolution died, and disarmed Palestinians became invisible in their refugee encampments. Buildings were restored, services reinstated – and the garbage was collected.

The optimism was short-lived. Fighting resumed. Maronites relying on Israel’s strength provoked the Druze, by then deprived of their Palestinian alliance, and sparked a war that resulted in the deaths and expulsion of most of the Maronites in the Shouf hills east of Beirut. The misguided policies of Lebanon’s Phalangist president Amine Gemayel, who arrested and tortured his Muslim adversaries in the belief he had American support, led to the collapse of the Lebanese army and the emasculation of the state. That brought the long night of despair that Saghie remembered. Violent resistance, led largely by Hezbollah, Iran’s local surrogate, expelled the Israeli army from South Lebanon in 2000. Syria withdrew in 2005, after the assassination of the popular Sunni prime minister, Rafic Hariri. Freed from foreign occupation at last, Lebanon should have enjoyed a renaissance. It didn’t.

When I returned last year, the garbage was piled so high on the pavements that pedestrians had to compete with lunatic drivers for right of way. The private electricity generators that Saghie remembered in the 1980s were mostly quiet – few can afford the fuel needed to run them. The Ponzi scheme that the Lebanese central bank had been running for years, paying commercial banks suspiciously high rates of interest on dollar deposits, along with unfunded government subsidies for electricity and bread, caused the private banks to collapse in 2019. Last month, European prosecutors arrived in Lebanon to determine whether Riad Salameh, who has been governor of the central bank for thirty years, is guilty, along with his brother, of having embezzled more than $300 million from the state. The evidence so far has been sufficiently compelling that the authorities in France have seized the Salameh brothers’ assets there. Salameh refuses to answer questions from European or Lebanese investigators. One of his former deputies tells me that leading politicians who have shared his good fortune have protected him in office. Yet he has just announced that he will retire when his latest term ends in July, forcing the power-brokers to agree on his successor. Meanwhile, the Lebanese pound has lost 98 per cent of its value since 2019 and bank depositors can’t access their money, though a few daring Robin Hoods have taken back their savings at gunpoint. This time, the Lebanese don’t blame the French, the Palestinians, the Israelis or the Syrians. They blame themselves. A headline in the business magazine Lebanon Opportunities captured the mood: ‘A Time for Suicide’.

The system that has locked the populace in penury is underpinned by the power of the only remaining armed militia, Hezbollah, and behind it the greater power of Iran. Hezbollah has succeeded the Palestinian fedayeen as the country’s dominant force, in collusion with the recently departed Maronite president, the doddering former general Michel Aoun. Aoun supported Hezbollah’s insistence on retaining its armoury. The other militias, Christian and Muslim, surrendered their weapons in line with the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the civil war. Hezbollah’s leader, the mercurial Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, insisted that his party would use its weapons to fight Israeli aggression but not other Lebanese. That held true until 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized Sunni neighbourhoods in Beirut over a dispute involving responsibility for security at Beirut Airport. Everyone in Lebanon knows that Hezbollah will use its arsenal to preserve its prerogatives, a situation certain to prevail until the mullahs in Tehran are overthrown.

Hezbollah’s advocates argue that the state army, the Lebanese Armed Forces, is incapable of defending Lebanon from another Israeli invasion. Hezbollah provoked the last one, in 2006, when it captured two Israeli soldiers on Israel’s side of the border. Israel bombed Lebanon’s bridges, power stations, communications towers and factories. Hezbollah soundly defeated the land assault, without help from the LAF. ‘The LAF is like the Palestinian Authority,’ a professor at the American University of Beirut suggested – meaning it’s an American-supported police force that can’t prevent Israel from doing anything it likes on Lebanese territory. The LAF has no air force, apart from a few helicopters, some of them from the Vietnam era, and no anti-aircraft batteries to prevent regular Israeli Air Force violations of Lebanese airspace. The professor reminded me that Nasrallah offered to surrender Hezbollah’s weapons once the army was equipped to defend the country, admitting: ‘He knows that’s not going to happen.’ US sanctions against Hezbollah and its allies compound Lebanon’s economic difficulties, as does the presence of around 1.5 million refugees from the war in Syria.

Uncollected rubbish is the most obvious, not to say noxious, manifestation of the crisis in a system that no longer functions. ‘If it no longer functions,’ said Charbel Nahas, head of the reformist movement Citizens in a State, ‘it no longer has legitimacy.’ Its illegitimacy hasn’t been sufficient to dislodge it, despite heavily repressed street protests and near universal contempt for the half-dozen or so leaders who sustain it. One election organiser who spent months trying to persuade people to vote in last May’s parliamentary elections put it this way: ‘It’s hard to convince them when we don’t believe it ourselves.’ In any other country, the many reformist candidates for parliament would have swept into office. In Lebanon, they didn’t. A few squeezed through, but mostly the same old faces were back in the Chamber of Deputies to forestall the changes that the majority of Lebanese demand.

Hezbollah and its fellow Shiite ally, the Amal Movement, took all 27 Shiite seats, and Druze voters returned all but one of Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party candidates. President Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement won sixteen seats, including one for the president’s son-in-law, the egregiously rich Gebran Bassil, who has been under American economic sanctions for corruption since November 2020 and is said to be the most unpopular man in the country. A local saying goes: ‘Most countries have a mafia. In Lebanon, the mafia has a country.’

The reformists’ failure stems from the social contract which has been in place since independence. National leaders do not emerge on the strength of their policy platforms. Instead, politicians must be chosen on the basis of their religious sect and regional base. The Electoral Law of 2018 entrenches sectarian leaders in their regions; a complicated system of proportional representation prevents significant changes to the old power structure. If you are a Sunni in Beirut or Tripoli, you must vote for a local Sunni. The same goes for other communities and localities. In Zgharta, where my grandmother was born, and the twin Maronite mountain village of Ehden, most of my friends and relations are fed up with the system. One woman, a paediatrician, complained to me about the traditional leaders in a voice so harsh I felt as though I were a boy again, being scolded by my grandmother: ‘Why should we vote for them? They robbed us, and then we have to beg them for our own money. If we need medical care, we have to ask them. If we need help to pay for our children, we ask them. They control everything.’ Political analysts said that the voters in Zgharta would ‘throw the rascals out’. They didn’t.

Although two of the three seats in the district went to nominally oppositional candidates in the parliamentary elections, they were from traditional families and won with non-Maronite votes from adjoining areas. The biggest vote-winner in the village was the son of the area’s acknowledged power-broker, Suleiman Frangieh. Suleiman is the grandson of a former president, after whom he is named, and is himself a contender for the presidency following the expiration of Michel Aoun’s term in October last year. Since then, there have been eleven rounds of voting in parliament to decide Aoun’s successor; the most recent was on 19 January. No candidate has yet secured nearly enough votes to win. The president must be a Maronite, just as the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament must be Shiite. Syria and Hezbollah tend to favour Frangieh, but others, including the hardline Maronite former warlords, oppose him. Many expect the army chief, General Joseph Aoun (no relation), to announce his candidacy, but he hasn’t done so yet.

The longest odds are on the only woman in the race, Tracy Chamoun. The former ambassador to Jordan is the granddaughter of a former president, Camille Chamoun, and daughter of the politician Dany Chamoun. Dany was murdered in 1990 by another candidate in the currentcontest, Samir Geagea of the party Lebanese Forces; he was sentenced to life imprisonment but served only eleven years. It wasn’t Geagea’s first offence: in 1978, as a member of the Phalangist Kataeb Regulatory Forces militia, he was involved in the murder of his now rival candidate Suleiman Frangieh’s father, Tony, along with Tony’s wife and their three-year-old daughter.

In the meantime, no one seems to mind that the country has no president. So strong is the pull of family that, if I were a citizen, I would probably vote for the Frangiehs, just as I’d vote for the Jumblatts if I lived in the Shouf. I can’t justify or explain it, but there it is. Along with the garbage.

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