Last year, I published my first article about the Lebanese protests in October 2019. It seemed like Lebanon was on the road towards overthrowing a government system that had caused them more woes than wins. The protests were unified across sects, as protesters shouted “Kilun ya3ni Kilun” (English: all means all) identifying all Lebanese politicians as complicit in the country’s dire state of affairs. An Instagram account entitled “Art of Thawra (Revolution)” (@art_of_thawra) was set up to compile the massive amounts of artworks being produced at the time, all capturing the excitement felt by the Lebanese people.
Unfortunately, the situation has gotten significantly bleaker. Protesters were violently attacked, the shuffling of the cabinet after the resignation of ex prime minister Saad Hariri brought little change, and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought even greater stress on the Lebanese economy. The August 4th explosion at the Beirut port was not only a huge blow to Lebanon’s infrastructure, but has also worsened the country’s food and financial crises as well. Nonetheless, these events have not stopped Lebanese artists from producing pieces that provide more nuanced perspectives on how it feels to be Lebanese at this moment.
At the onset of the pandemic, the government imposed a country-wide lockdown, with fairly high compliance. Even those protesting in the streets halted demonstrations, knowing well that their vision for Lebanon couldn’t exist amidst a health crisis. However, the government’s handling of the re-opening of the economy, and the explosion in August have all contributed to a surge in cases. Cases are rising by the day; and the massive influx of citizens to Beirut seeking to provide relief has only worsened the situation. Medical specialists paid in Lebanese pounds are leaving Lebanon in search of better salaries, whilst hospitals damaged in the explosion have tried to accommodate the influx of COVID-19 patients.
A cartoon piece by artist Tony Maalouf (@elmaalouf) depicts a doctor raising his hands at those in quarantine. The text reads as a message of encouragement to doctors, ripe with positivity and hope. However, it was also published on the 30th of March, prior to the surge in COVID cases. Anchal Vohra, contributor for Foreign Policy, writes that “the Beirut port explosion did not just inflict financial costs, but also and perhaps more importantly has crushed the famous Lebanese sense of resilience”. Though this may be a harsh interpretation of the current situation, there are definitely several problems weighing on the minds of Lebanese people.
The debt crisis, which prevented Lebanese citizens from withdrawing American dollars, was one of the main reasons for the initial flare-up of protests. In his piece for The Financial Times, journalist David Gardner asserts that after the civil war, Lebanon was “propped up” by foreign investment, loans, and money coming in from the large Lebanese diaspora. The Lebanese pound was unrealistically pegged, the parliament didn’t pass a budget for 11 years, and the Lebanese central bank did not publish their accounts for 15 years. All of these actions culminated in the current financial crisis because, as Gardner put it, “almost 70 per cent of the assets of the banking system — which has deposits several times the size of the Lebanese economy — were lent to an insolvent state built on a sectarian spoils system”.
The crisis has only gotten worse since October, as shown in this piece by artist Ranim Hariri (@watercolourbyranim). This piece’s depiction of the Lebanese pound as tissue paper speaks to the rapid devaluation of the country’s currency. With the banks trying to gain back their losses through rising inflation, the distrust of the IMF on the part of major Lebanese political actors, and the inability of the parliament to pass a clear policy plan to help get Lebanon back on sturdy financial ground, it seems that Hariri’s work might be foretell an inevitable future. Much like other major issues, the debt crisis is being ignored by the powerful and wealthy politicians in Lebanon.
The World Food Programme identifies two pillars of food security. First, there should be enough food in the country, and, second, the residents should have the purchasing power to buy foodstuffs. Lebanon’s high inflation rates have resulted in the cost of food skyrocketing throughout 2020. Corruption in the agricultural industry led to the country’s reliance on food imports, and the financial crisis has forced food importers to source the American dollars needed to conduct their business from the Black market. The explosion only further complicated matters, as Lebanon’s main port and only grain silo were part of the blast’s carnage.
This reality is depicted in artist Mohamad Kaaki’s (@mohamadkaaki) piece – which showcases images of typically affordable Lebanese foodstuffs in designer packaging. The piece speaks not only to the rise in food prices, but also to an eventual reality where foodstuffs become a luxury and not a basic need. Measures can be taken to curb this dangerous situation, an example being recommendations made by Rola Dashti, the executive secretary for UN Economic and Social Council for Western Asia, to “set a ceiling for food prices and encourage direct sales from local producers to consumers”. These recommendations also require political will, something the Lebanese people have been deprived of for too long.
Journalist Mohamad Bazzi blames the French for Lebanon’s system of governance, which many facetiously argue was built to foster corruption. The confessional system splits the seats of parliament, the political leadership, and all other government positions amongst sects. This system not only caused Lebanon’s twenty year long civil war, but produced a “permanent gridlock” in the parliament. Foreign powers and Lebanon’s political elite all benefit from this system, as both parties frequently liaise to maintain their own power and influence within the country. Political parties maintain their power by being the sole providers of social services for many Lebanese people, as the state itself does little to meet the basic needs of the population.
Mohamed Kaaki’s piece features images of prominent Lebanese politicians in the smoke of an explosion. This image carries a dual meaning, arguing that the politicians are responsible for the blast itself and the desire for their precious political system to simply “explode” that is undoubtedly felt by many Lebanese. The storing of 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in Beirut’s port was the cause of the explosion, and Bazzi asserts that officials have been ignoring the problem since 2013. How the fire was ignited is, for Bazzi, not nearly as alarming as watching Lebanese politicians pass blame around for the explosion without any intention of providing relief to the people amidst the chaos created by the government’s incompetence.
Thawra or not?
A graphic by political cartoonist The Art of Boo (@the.art.of.boo) entitled “Introduction to Lebanese Politics” summarizes much of the content of Bazzi’s article in one image, ripe with negative sentiments towards the government. Page’s like “The Art of Boo” and “Art of Thawra” have thousands of followers, suggesting that the desire for change we saw last October still remains. Protests did flare up after the explosion in August and September, and were met with violent resistance on the part of government forces. It is clear that Lebanese people are frustrated and angry at the political elite. The Lebanese are a people that can turn “war bunkers into nightclubs”, but their resilience has been both their reason for survival and their Achilles heel to any major political changes.
In her piece for The New York Times, journalist Lina Monzer called this resilience “the lie we have been fed and that we continue to tell ourselves in order to keep functioning under a state so corrupt it cannot provide a bare minimum of public or social services”. Monzer also called the protests “evidence that refusing to accept resilience is also a refusal to accept the conditions that made it necessary for us to rely on the idea [of resilience] in the first place”. The artwork produced last October was ripe with excitement, whilst these new pieces speak more to the anger and frustration Lebanese people are feeling as the politicians sit back and watch the country’s demise.
The hope is that this frustration can be turned into action that will bring true political change. Most people familiar with Lebanon—or simply those who have experienced the generosity of Lebanese people firsthand—agree that the country and its people deserve better. Lebanese Arabic is ripe with specific expressions and figures of speech, but one comes to mind as a word of encouragement for a truly resilient people in these seemingly hopeless times: mat5aleehon yekloolek rasek (English: don’t let anyone take advantage of you).
Edited by Olivia Shan.
Photo credits: “Political commentary on the streets of Gemmayzeh, Lebanon” by Brian Wertheim, published 3 August 2017, licensed under Unsplash. No changes were made.