Lebanon is an incredible country teetering on the edge of utter dysfunction. It has been without a president for more than 450 days. It has absorbed almost 2 million Syrian refugees. For decades it has suffered widespread power outages. And the very members of parliament tasked with tackling these problems recently extended their own terms twice, continuing to ignore calls for elections and real representation.
In September, when the mandate of the current commander-in-chief expired, the minister of defense unilaterally decided to extend the term by a year. Instead of appointing a new chief — as is too often the case in Lebanon — another band-aid was slapped on, procrastinating a problem, instead of solving it.
But Lebanon, like many of the protesters in the streets this weekend, is still bleeding. And when thousands took to the streets this weekend to protest these indignities and raise their grievances, the government — infamous for failing to act — ironically, overreacted.
Riot police and soldiers deployed by the commander in chief used tear gas, bullets and batons on protesters, injuring dozens. Adding to the irony, despite Lebanon’s widespread water shortages, police also used water cannons in an attempt to disperse the protesters.
But there is reason for hope. This weekend’s events may suggest that the public, which has become rightfully and notoriously apathetic to the cycle of paralysis, political bickering and factional infighting, has reached a breaking point. The stench of garbage piling up on the streets of the capital this summer seems to have awakened even the most disinterested of citizens to the growing reality that today’s Lebanon isn’t only an unsustainable tragedy, but it may soon be an insurmountable one.
The joix de vivre attitude that many Beirutis have come to live by, boast about and rely on to distract themselves from the unnecessary obstacles of daily life is increasingly threatened by the fact that no longer are the problems out of sight and out of mind. Instead, like the trash piling up on the streets, the problems are not only visible, but impossible to ignore. And sadly, the solutions so far, are as make-shift as ever, with some residents burning the trash, some municipalities burying it in tucked away corners and empty yards and far too many hoping the problem will – one day in the not so distant future – solve itself.
Today, as people continue to gather in the streets making their voices heard, others are taking to Facebook and Twitter asking whether the protests and government’s heavy-handed and disproportionate reaction will inevitably result in a fate similar to that of Syria, Libya, Iraq or Yemen — a failed state. But the more pertinent, more obvious question is whether there really is a state that exists in order for it to fail.
Others are choosing to bicker about which political parties have the so-called “right to protest”, when the real question is why the people, Lebanon’s citizens — as individuals — are not afforded the right to protest.
And this is one of the fundamental problems in Lebanon. People love to argue, to complain (even expats – and in some cases especially expats). But all too often the very basis of these arguments are founded under a completely false premise built around entrenched political and sectarian affiliations (and the perceptions that come with them), instead of the realities on the ground that perpetuate these all too often inherited perceptions.
Admittedly, I realize, it is easy for me to say this, but it remains true: all of this energy and time serves only as a distraction.
The fact is the reality is becoming all to clear to avoid: The political elite, while still seemingly somewhat in control, have proved themselves to be completely incompetent. Not once, not twice, but relentlessly.
Still, the argument will continue to be made that Lebanon, despite all the internal and external challenges it faces, has remained relatively secure precisely because of the ruling elite and sectarian power-sharing system. They’ll say the regional climate and circumstances make it too fragile to challenge. Sure, they are corrupt. Sure, they don’t solve problems. Just look at Egypt, they’ll say, security trumps freedom. Security trumps dignity. Security trumps humanity.
But that argument is as corrupt as the leaders themselves. Mocking the absurdity of Lebanon’s politicians and complaining about corruption has become a national past time. But learning from Egypt, what if the new generation was to organize to become the politicians, all while challenging them in the street simultaneously?
It is impossible to know what will come of this moment in Lebanon’s history. It is impossible to tell whether this is the beginning of a revolution or another blip in the ongoing post civil-war devolution.
Because when Lebanon is in the news, the focus is always on its role as a survivor — and it is true.
It has “survived” the Arab uprising. It has survived the war in Syria, and the refugees straining its economy. It is surviving the Islamic State and the threat it poses to its security. Lebanon is undoubtedly surviving, against the odds. But what if, instead of surviving, Lebanon started thriving again?
Admittedly, I’m not Lebanese. But like many people who spend a lot of time in the country, for as much as I complain about certain things when I’m there, I happen to be in love with Lebanon. I also happen to be a dreamer … and I know enough young Lebanese dreamers to still hold on to the belief that this could be a pivotal moment of transformation, without feeling completely naive. In my limited, though privileged and intimate experience with Lebanon, the paradox of life there is that it can be everything and nothing all at once: as depressing as it is enchanting, as resilient as it is resigned.
On Sunday, Lebanon’s prime minister made a promise — that members of the security forces will be held accountable for the violence against protesters.Yet, while protesters languish in jail cells, the security forces that attacked them roam free.
Much like the disappointment we’ve all felt by a lover’s broken promises, Lebanon’s leaders are full of empty promises. Put simply, Lebanon’s government is, all talk, a bit of torque, but no action.
You can’t choose who you love, but what you can choose is how to react to a lover that constantly leaves you disappointed. You can either keep asking them to change, or you can change yourself.
As [UK] Ambassador Fletcher reminded us with his parting words:
I believe you can defy the history, the geography, even the politics. You can build the country you deserve. Maybe even move from importing problems to exporting solutions. The transition from the civil war generation lies ahead, and will be tough. You can’t just party and pray over the cracks. But you can make it, if you have an idea of Lebanon to believe in. You need to be stronger than the forces pulling you apart. Fight for the idea of Lebanon, not over it.
This post originally appeared on the author’s Facebook page on August 23.