During the past two years Lebanon has gone through a series of crises that have pushed its residents to the brink of ruin. A financial collapse engineered by the governing elite saw millions lose their savings; an explosion in Beirut’s port killed hundreds, maimed thousands, and destroyed the livelihoods of half the city; and now a global pandemic has pushed an already impoverished nation into outright destitution. The United Nations estimates that three-quarters of the population now live below the poverty line. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, both young and old, have left the country in search of greener pastures abroad. Lebanon’s Christian community, which still makes up roughly a third of the population, is shrinking every day, many of its members having finally given up on making a good life for themselves in their home country.
Last summer the economic situation took a nosedive when the Lebanese lira became nearly worthless and the alternative currency, U.S. dollars, became scarce. When the state canceled all subsidies for fuel and gas, many could no longer afford to drive their cars. The electrical grid sporadically failed because the state could no longer afford to power its power plants. The network of private generators on which most of the country relied became prohibitively expensive; many could no longer afford to keep their refrigerators plugged in.
Medicine disappeared from the shelves of pharmacies after subsidies were removed there as well. People have started resorting to social media to procure medicine—from basic painkillers to chemotherapy drugs. Twitter is filled with desperate requests from people with serious medical conditions, while advertisements on Facebook and WhatsApp promise to fill prescriptions with weekly deliveries from Istanbul. Visitors to Beirut now often bring an extra suitcase filled with medicine and baby formula.
Schools have also taken a hit. The American University of Beirut, one of the most important institutions of higher learning in the Middle East for over a century, is struggling as faculty and staff quit for better futures abroad. Like every other institution in Beirut, it started losing money when banks implemented unofficial capital controls at the beginning of the crisis. In an effort to slow the flight of its faculty, the university has offered to pay professors 20 percent of their salaries in U.S. dollars and to pay the remainder in Lebanese lira at an exchange rate five times better than the market rate. Meanwhile, the Lebanese University—the country’s flagship institution of higher learning with over eighty thousand students—remains in limbo. Its administrators and teachers squabble over pay raises, transportation subsidies, and a pandemic that has shifted most schooling online. But if there isn’t any electricity to charge laptops, students won’t be able to attend classes. And once the pandemic relents, how will teachers drive to campuses if gas is still too expensive?
The flight of capital from Beirut, along with the collapse of its administrative, medical, and educational sectors, is slowly provincializing what was once one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities in the eastern Mediterranean. The crisis has demonstrated beyond all doubt how intimately linked the country’s various institutions are: the collapse of one sends shockwaves across the whole Lebanese economy.
While Lebanon’s political leaders remain mostly feckless and inert in the face of catastrophe, some of its other leading institutions, such as the Maronite Catholic Church, are sounding the alarm. The Church’s leadership decries the flight of Christians from the country. Yet their actions over the past few years have done little to prevent that trend. By continuing to support political Maronitism, the Maronite Church plays a prominent role in protecting the regime of sectarian “consociational” governance that has led Lebanon into its current predicament. This problem goes back a long way. The Church solicited foreign and colonial support for Maronite-only rights and primacy in Lebanon during both the Ottoman and French-colonial eras. Some historians claim that the Maronite Church’s intimate relationship with France is to blame for Lebanon’s sectarian political system, in which different positions are reserved for members of specific religious communities.