After Lebanon’s Collapse, Can an Election Fix the Country?

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Onstage, Lebanese politicians spoke of upholding national sovereignty, fighting corruption and fixing the state. Their leader said he would fight to disarm Hezbollah, the political party that is also Lebanon’s strongest military force.

But those concerns were far from the mind of Mohammed Siblini, 57, who like many Lebanese had watched his life fall apart over the past two years as the country collapsed.

The national currency’s free-fall meant that his monthly salary from a rental car company had fallen to $115 from $2,000, he said. The state’s failure to provide electricity meant that most of his earnings went to a generator to keep his lights on. What was left failed to cover the small pleasures that had been, until recently, a normal part of life.

“I want meat!” Mr. Siblini yelled at the politicians. “Get us one kilogram of meat!”

On Sunday, Lebanon votes for a new Parliament for the first time in four years. It is hard to overstate how much worse life has gotten for the average citizen in that period, and how little the country’s political elite have done to cushion the blow.

The vote is the public’s first opportunity to formally respond to their leaders’ performance, so at stake is not just who wins which seats, but the larger question of whether Lebanon’s political system is capable of fixing its many dysfunctions.

Few analysts think that it is, at least in the short term.

Flags of the Lebanese Forces political party in Byblos, Lebanon, on Sunday. The election is the public’s first opportunity to pass judgment on their leaders since the economic collapse.Credit…Joseph Eid/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The country’s complex social makeup, with 18 officially recognized religious sects and a history of civil conflict, drives many voters to elect their coreligionists, even if they are corrupt.

And in a country where citizens seek out a party boss to cut through bureaucracy or get their children government jobs, corruption actually helps established political parties serve their constituents.

But the collapse has put new strain on that old system.

The crisis began in late 2019, when protests against the political elite spilled into the streets of the capital, Beirut, and other cities.

That exacerbated pressure on the banks, which had been engaging in creative accounting with the central bank to prop up the currency and earn unsustainable returns for depositors.

Critics have called it a Ponzi scheme, and it suddenly failed. The value of the Lebanese pound began a decline that would erase 95 percent of its value, and commercial banks placed limits on withdrawals, refusing to give people their money because the banks had effectively lost it.

The financial turmoil tore through the economy. Prices spiked, businesses failed, unemployment skyrocketed and doctors, nurses and other professionals fled the country for better salaries abroad.

The state, which had never managed to provide 24-hour electricity, ran so low on cash that it now supplies barely any at all, even to power traffic lights.

Making matters worse, a huge explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020, also caused by gross mismanagement, killed more than 200 people and did billions of dollars in damage.

A view of Beirut’s port on Friday. Official negligence led to the explosion there in August 2020, which killed hundreds.Credit…Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

Despite losses that the government says total $72 billion, none of the banks have gone out of business, the central bank chief remains in his job, and none of the politicians who backed the policies that led to the collapse have been held accountable. Some of them are running in Sunday’s election — and are likely to win.

Many of the candidates are familiar faces who would struggle to bill themselves as agents of change.

They include Nabih Berri, the 84-year-old speaker of Parliament, who has held that job, uninterrupted, for nearly three decades; Ali Hassan Khalil, a former finance minister who worked to hobble the investigation into the cause of the Beirut explosion; and Gebran Bassil, the president’s son-in-law, whom the United States accuses of corruption and placed sanctions on last year. Mr. Bassil denies the accusation.

Hezbollah, which has a substantial bloc in Parliament and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries, is fielding a range of candidates. Others are warlords from the Lebanese civil war, which ended in 1990, or, in some cases, their sons.

Many voters are just fed up, and have little faith that their votes will make a difference.

“A candidate comes now and says ‘I will do this and that,’ and I tell them, ‘Many came before you and couldn’t change anything,’” said Claudette Mhanna, a seamstress.

She said she would like to vote for a new figure who came out of the 2019 protests, but because of the way the election is run, she has to vote for lists that include candidates she hates.

“We are suffocating,” she said. “If I get myself to think about going and voting, I can’t think of who I would vote for.”

Supporters of Hezbollah at a rally in Baalbek, Lebanon, on Friday.Credit…Francesca Volpi/Getty Images

Many of those running have ties to the financial system, which Olivier De Schutter, a United Nations expert on poverty, said shared responsibility for the “man-made crisis” in Lebanon that had resulted in human rights violations.

“Lifetime savings have been wiped out by a reckless banking sector lured by a monetary policy favorable to their interests,” he wrote in a report published last week. “An entire generation has been condemned to destitution.”

On Friday, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reported that a son of Lebanon’s central bank governor had transferred more than $6.5 million out of the country at a time when most depositors were locked out of their savings.

Those transactions were carried out by AM Bank, whose chairman, Marwan Kheireddine, bought a Manhattan penthouse for $9.9 million from the actress Jennifer Lawrence in August 2020, when Lebanon’s economy was plummeting.

Mr. Kheireddine has said the purchase was for a company he managed, not for him personally.

Now he is running for Parliament, and he told The New York Times in an interview that he wants to use his experience to help fix the economy.

“I’m experienced in finance,” he said. “I’m not going to make promises, but I will do my best to work hard to get the depositors’ money back.”

For many Lebanese, party loyalty remains strong.

“There’s no list more deserving of my vote than Hezbollah,” said Ahmad Zaiter, 22, a university student from Baalbek in eastern Lebanon.

He said Hezbollah’s weapons were necessary to defend the country, and that the party had helped its supporters weather the crisis by providing cheap medication from Syria and Iran.

“If there’s a party besides Hezbollah that is offering weapons to the government to strengthen it so we can defend ourselves or offering services, then where is it?” he said.

Soldiers were deployed in Beirut on Saturday, the eve of the election.Credit…Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

Many first-timers are running, too, marketing themselves as being cleaner and closer to the people. Most projections have them winning only a limited number of seats in the 128-member Parliament, and analysts expect them to struggle without the infrastructure of a political party.

“I will be the people’s voice inside the Parliament, but I cannot promise that I will fix the electricity or the infrastructure,” said Asma-Maria Andraos, who is running in Beirut. “I cannot say that I will stop the corruption, which is deeply rooted in our system.”

Many Lebanese who have the means have already left the country, and many more are seeking ways out. A recent poll by the research group Arab Barometer found that 48 percent of Lebanese citizens were seeking to emigrate. For those between ages 18 and 29, the percentage rose to 63 percent, the poll found.

Fares Zouein, who owns a Beirut sandwich shop, said he intended to vote for his local political boss, whom he refused to name, because the man uses his position to help the neighborhood.

“That’s our problem in Lebanon: If you don’t have someone to help you, you’re stuck,” said Mr. Zouein, 50.

He, too, had little faith that the election would make life better.

“This is why everyone in Lebanon has three goals in life: to get a second passport, to open a bank account abroad, and to send their children abroad for school,” he said.

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