Since the beginning of March, the main roads in Lebanon have been blocked by demonstrators. Barricades, burnt tires, slogans… Trucks get stuck, truck drivers trying to reach Beirut get stuck. Present to exchange with these angry men and women, the members of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient try to understand how this region comes to this: sclerotic and in rage at the same time; they seek to know how an educated, refined people, living in a land which was one called "the Switzerland of the East" come to cry out their distress, to destroy, to stop the cars, to prevent those who still have a job to work ...
Why these manifestations of despair? Why these acts? Why this despair? Why jam the country?
Fate seems to have hung over the little country. For many years, Lebanon has survived but in recent times, we have witnessed a terrible acceleration and a combination of catastrophes. All the difficulties are concentrated: economic crisis, political crisis, health crisis, all multiplied by a new crisis, that of the explosion of the port of Beirut.
Appalling as an explosion, the economic crisis came to light during the summer of 2019 when the country suffered a shortage of foreign currency: an extremely serious problem for Lebanon, a mainly importing country. It's August 29th and everything gets worse: the US Treasury sanctions Jammal Trust Bank for providing financial services to Lebanese political party Hezbollah. The establishment, which has been operating in Lebanon for several decades, can therefore no longer deal with its correspondent banks. At that time, the Bank of Lebanon is doing everything to reassure Institutions and savers about the impact of the US decision on the country’s economy, in vain. Lebanese banks are already starting to restrict savers' access to their currencies.
The imposition of capital controls exacerbated the economic crisis preventing the majority of Lebanese from withdrawing their money from the banks. "Have I worked my whole life so that I couldn't touch my money? They are thieves!” A protester lashes out on the tarmac of the Tripoli-Beirut axis in March 2021.
The first large-scale demonstrations are starting, we are in October 2019. The famous “Saoura” (= revolution in Arabic) is winning in the streets.
Thousands of Lebanese decide to take to the streets to express their despair. This is the first time that we have seen so many Lebanese flags in the hands of demonstrators (until now we were more used to flags of political parties). "It is the interests of all Lebanese that we want to defend today. The crisis does not strike one community in particular but all of us"; “Christians and Muslims: same fight!" This is the message of the October Revolution that we heard in the streets.
Then followed the resignation of the Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, on October 29, 2019. And in January 2020 a new government was appointed with Hassan Diab at its head, but it is already too late, the country declares to be in bankruptcy, a default is announced. The crisis is indeed real. The leaders have no choice: they must ask for help from the International Monetary Fund. But again, obstacles are there. The IMF responded to the call, but on one condition: Lebanon must put in place drastic and effective structural reforms, otherwise aid cannot be provided. "Help us to help you" said the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian to the Lebanese leaders. Months later, the Lebanese authorities are still negotiating with the International Monetary Institute ...
The deterioration of the situation does not end there. Another serious problem is shaking the Lebanese portfolio: the creation of several exchange rates with the dollar. There is the official rate, 1,507 Lebanese pounds (LBP) = $ 1; the so-called “market” rate for exchange offices and certain businesses ($ 1 = LBP 3,900); and finally the black market rate, which changes from day to day and even hour to hour. In March 2021, $1 = 14,000 LBP. It’s an unnamed disaster, the Lebanese currency is almost worthless. All Lebanese savings and salaries are almost wiped out.
We see it every day with our Lebanese friends. "I find myself practically selling at a loss, how do you expect me to live? The money I get is no longer worth anything and I can no longer order foreign countries in dollars. I'm not going to be able to get out of this,” explains Rabih, owner of a neighborhood mini-market. "Look at the prices, it's maddening! No one can afford these imported products. "
To this economic crisis must obviously be added the health crisis that Lebanon is undergoing. The daily figures are alarming, especially in the wake of the port explosion. Despite severe government measures on lockdowns and curfews, the virus continues to spread. Hospitals are running out of steam and no longer have room to take in the sick. Those infected in Beirut are forced to be hospitalized in other cities of the country: in Byblos, Zahle or Saida, when there is room ...
The President of the French Republic then decides to react and to go to Lebanon, recalling the importance and the urgency of launching far-reaching reforms in this country friendly to France.
On September 21, 2020, the President of the Lebanese Republic, Michel Aoun, believes that Lebanon is currently heading "to hell" due to the deterioration of social and economic conditions. 5 days later, it was Mustapha Adib, newly appointed prime minister, to resign, without even having been able to appoint a government.
It is in this context, 6 months later, that the demonstrations resumed in Lebanon. The black market rate of 10,000 LBP to $ 1 was the straw that broke the camel's back. Jal El Dib, Daora, Hamra, Martyrs Square, Ain Remmeneh, Mazraa, etc, all districts of Beirut and around are igniting. Whenever the association’s volunteers go on duty, they see the smoke from the burnt tires, closing the roads from afar.
The anger is very present. "I have to pay for my children's schooling this year and I don't have a dime, how am I going to do it?" explains Georges blocking the highway at Jal El Dib. "I can't see the end of the tunnel, I can't take it anymore!". "If it continues like this I will leave the country, I have no choice. How am I going to feed my children and pay for their education?" Elias exclaims, Lebanese flag in hand.
A young student walks towards me explaining to me that she wants to express herself in front of our camera: "How do you want the youth to have a long term vision in this country with this situation? Our leaders betrayed us, they shattered my dreams! They will pay for it!" she said before walking away without saying a word, looking down.
The testimonies of the demonstrators are startling with sadness. We really feel a people in the midst of suffering and who unfortunately feel powerless. “At least during the war we could defend ourselves, our enemy was clearly identifiable. Today we have to fight against a virus and an economic crisis." "Shu hayda? Shu bedna na3mul? "(= What is this? What do you want us to do? In Arabic).
We, volunteers of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient who are on the ground, can testify. We are in a dying country. Slowly, of course, but the process is well underway. Who will be able to get the Lebanese out of this triple economic, political and health crisis? Who will be able to help the Lebanese to stay in the country with a better future in front of them? Who can restore the land of cedars to their former glory? No one has the answers to his questions. "All we have to do is pray," Georges confides before leaving.
I feel like this is the one thing the Lebanese haven't lost: faith. It remains deeply rooted in them ... but until when?
Arthur Lanternier, head of mission in Lebanon.