A Perfect Storm: Can France Clean Up Lebanon’s Mess?
By Lulwa Taqi
On the 24th of October 2019, after our 6pm lecture, my friends and I took the subway to Washington Square Park in Manhattan to stand in solidarity with the Lebanese community of New York. The demonstrators were voicing their support for the October Revolution that was taking place in Lebanon. They were condemning sectarian rule, the collapsing economy, rising unemployment, systemic corruption, and the failure of the government to provide essential services (such as water and electricity). Standing among the protestors, I was thrilled for Lebanon, and what it might become. A sense of relief washed over me. I was proud of and for my Lebanese friends who were taking the betterment of their country into their own hands. However, under the current backdrop of a pandemic, a deteriorating economy, and a society plagued by greed, my outlook on the state of Lebanon has changed dramatically.
Even before the explosion at the Beirut Port on August 4, 2020, Lebanon was going through a complex economic and humanitarian crisis. After Japan and Greece, Lebanon is the world’s most indebted country. For years, it has grappled with liquidity shortages, while interest payments eat up almost half of the government’s already-dwindling revenues. In 2019, Lebanon’s public debt rose to more than 152% of its gross domestic product (GDP). The driving force behind Lebanon’s economic woes is its deeply-rooted and systemic corruption. In this context, it’s no surprise that the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate (a highly flammable material used to make bombs) that caused the blast had been stored at the Beirut Port in suboptimal conditions, with no oversight, for over six years. The mediocrity of Lebanon’s port safety is just another symptom of the government’s corruption and mismanagement.
Two days after the explosion, while Lebanese politicians hid in their mansions, watching in high definition the devastation and destruction that their incompetence had caused—more than 200 people dead, 6,000 injured, and 30,000 homeless—Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, walked through the damaged city and comforted residents. As kitschy and orchestrated as his tour may have appeared to some, for a large portion of the population, this was exactly what they’d been longing for. There was one particularly evocative moment when Macron pushed his bodyguard away so he could hug a crying young woman. The Lebanese people want to be seen, and they want to be heard—not just by people on social media and the news, but by someone physically there with them. They want a leader to rise to the weight of the moment—something that the Lebanese government has never been able to do. Regardless of your opinion of Macron, he actually showed up. Even though he had his own agenda, his visit satisfied a profound yearning in the hearts of the Lebanese people.
Lebanon’s youth were so moved by Macron’s presence that, by the time he returned to Paris, more than 50,000 of them had signed an online petition begging France to restore its protectorate Mandate for the next ten years. The irony and absurdity of urging France to reinstate colonial subjugation over Lebanon, by the Lebanese people themselves, is that today’s Lebanon is a product of the initial French Mandate. This Mandate crippled them with the sectarian system that fuels many of their current problems. Interestingly, the petition was mostly pushed on social media by Lebanese zoomers who had joked about changing their Instagram location to read “France/Lebanon.” Other than the need for a history lesson in colonialism, it appears that this new generation might be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Do they actually believe that a renewed French Mandate would save Lebanon from drowning in a pool of corruption, when, in many ways, the French Mandate is what created this mess in the first place? For older Lebanese and Macron’s critics, his stunt in Beirut ignited imagery of neocolonialism: a European leader seeking to restore dominance over a troubled Middle Eastern country, in order to distract from problems brewing back home.
Macron landed in Lebanon on August 31 for the second time in less than a month. He once again toured Beirut’s neighborhoods and embraced activists. Then, his trip took an absurd turn. He had dinner with Lebanese icon Fairuz, planted a cedar tree in northern Lebanon, and orchestrated a tone-deaf French military flyover. Then, on the first of September, he facilitated the political process that led to Mustapha Adib’s appointment as the new Prime Minister (PM). The Lebanese public’s reaction to Macron’s second visit was much different than to his first. During this second trip, many began to wonder why the French leader was taking such a prominent role in pushing for reform in the country. As a result, people worldwide are now questioning his motives and the achievability of his promises. It will be interesting to see if France will be able to strike the delicate balance between aiding a country in crisis (where it has strong economic ties), and not disturbing or meddling in its internal affairs.
The situation in Lebanon, and France’s role in it, is complicated—but one thing is clear: Lebanon needs more than foreign aid (and definitely not French intervention) to get them out of their current crisis. Lebanon needs to do some house cleaning. It needs to change its collective mindset, in order to start rebuilding and redesigning its crumbling political and economic infrastructure. Businesses in Lebanon require long-term support from their foreign counterparts. Accordingly, Lebanese firms should take advantage of internationalization to help them overcome their obstacles back home. Internationalization can help these firms reduce risks and find new opportunities by diversifying both their market and product portfolios. Conducting business abroad also allows for exchanges of expertise that can bleed into the Lebanese private sector. Internationalization can entice foreign firms to invest in Lebanon itself, turning it into an attractive destination for multinational corporations planning to expand or export to the Middle East.
Since the Beirut blast, everything seems to be moving slowly. Although the government was dissolved, the same politicians whose negligence and greed caused the explosion are now the ones tasked with forming a new government. After Adib was named as PM, many Lebanese citizens felt cheated, because they view Adib as a duplicate of the previous “establishment” PM Hassan Diab. They also feel somewhat betrayed by Macron (and other world leaders) who have supported Adib’s appointment.
In the midst of the devastation, numbness, and helplessness caused by the blast, my Lebanese friends and I had hoped that this tragedy would serve as a “wake-up call” and a catalyst for change. However, nearly a month and a half after the explosion, many Lebanese and foreign observers alike fear that the country will slip back into the same-old vicious cycle.
Macron and his officials see themselves as mediators, tasked with the challenge of finding common ground between Lebanon’s rival political and religious factions. To make things easier for everyone, Macron had designed a roadmap with a deadline (a French master plan to streamline the process). One would assume that, in the face of such unanimous criticism, the political elite of Lebanon would organize themselves, rise to the occasion, and prioritize the country and its people in order to make the state functional—but no. Once again, the country’s sectarian power-sharing system (born out of the French Mandate) is holding back any good-faith efforts that are being made. The new PM is being blocked from every angle and by every faction, as he attempts to appoint ministers (as per the French roadmap). Yesterday, the French deadline to name a new cabinet expired. Lebanon is now back where it started: in the same-old vicious cycle, with no apparent way out.
A sentiment that’s been repeated in the news and on social media is that the Lebanese people “deserve better.” It’s true; they do, and they know it. That is why the Lebanese people are going to be the ones to rebuild Beirut (and the rest of the country). They don’t need a restoration of the French Mandate in order to do that. They need long-term support from the international community, who can help Lebanese businesses achieve their full potential. For example, 80% of Lebanon’s imports came through the now-destroyed Port of Beirut. The other 20% went to the Port of Tripoli. Since the Beirut Port is indefinitely out of commission, foreign firms that export to Lebanon can invest or assist in the scaling up of the Tripoli Port.
Lebanon is weathering a perfect storm. There isn’t a pillar in its foundation that hasn’t fallen or begun to shake. There is neither a clear way ahead, nor a single approach to rebuilding those pillars (which were faulty from the get-go). What is certain, though, is that it’s all hands on deck: from the citizens sweeping the streets of Beirut, to Macron trying to act as the country's elder statesman.
Lulwa Taqi is an intern at M74 from Kuwait. She is a recent graduate of Pace University in New York City, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in International Management and Economics. Her interests include the European Union’s integration policies, the Middle East’s geopolitical climate, and international trade.
The views expressed above are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the M74 Group, which remains neutral on all matters. Publishers assume no liability for content.