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Lebanon crisis

An eyewitness account of a failed state: Lebanon

Joseph Haboush

Published: Updated:

Blood pressure medicine, check.

Advil and Tylenol, check.

Children’s Tylenol Cold, check.

Like most travelers heading to Beirut, I had multiple suitcases filled with medication being asked for by local residents.

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Apart from the several bags packed with medicine that relatives carried while traveling a few days before me, an immediate family member even took insulin shots to a friend’s extremely ill father.

Insulin must be stored at 36°F to 46°F. This relative used an insulated lunch bag filled with frozen sausages and a cooler pack to ensure the shots remained at the recommended temperature.

An aunt of mine - who fled Lebanon during the civil war in 1975 - has one friend left in Beirut, who happened to be another local looking for medication. Her husband is struggling with colon cancer, and the medicine he was taking is no longer available in Lebanon. Fortunately, this aunt secured 60 days’ worth of the needed medication and sent it down with me.

Reading about the problems Lebanon is facing is one thing. Experiencing them first-hand is another.

Traveling to Beirut

It started with the mandatory COVID-19 PCR test at the airport in Beirut, and within three days, mayhem ensued.

I arrived in Lebanon on August 12, accompanied by a cousin who didn’t have a local phone number.

“I’ll just use your phone number for him too,” the security official registering incoming travelers’ information said.

PCR test results are sent to all travelers entering Lebanon on the phone number they provide to the authorities.

On August 14, I received an SMS from “covid Lab” in Arabic: “The result of the coronavirus test that you took at Rafik Hariri International Airport is negative.”

No second message was received, and it was unclear whether the message was intended for my cousin or me.

And so began my brief visit to the country of my forefathers.

Having lived in Lebanon for nearly six years - while observing and writing about the deteriorating situation - I returned home to the US in March 2020.

It has been difficult not to follow the ongoing developments since then.

Shortly before leaving in 2020, Lebanese banks started to illegally block depositors’ access to their savings accounts. As a direct result, imports that the country heavily relied upon came to a near-halt.

Since then, the local currency has further plummeted and reached record lows; the capital of Beirut witnessed one of the deadliest non-nuclear explosions ever; the brain drain has expedited; a severe shortage of medicine has shaken the country, and electricity and gas have become scarce.

No fuel

I saw the latter two within hours of arriving. Soon after exiting the airport, in the Hezbollah-stronghold of Beirut’s southern suburbs, a billboard of the slain Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani stood above a queue of locals waiting (or hoping) to fill their mopeds and cars with gas.

The line of vehicles was even longer on the day I left Beirut, ten days later.

Local residents and tourists wait for hours, and sometimes days, to fill their cars with gas. Petrol is one of the most recent items the government has decided to stop subsidizing.

Since I was only in Lebanon for a short period, I wanted to be sure I could move around quickly. But, with all gas stations closed on the third day of my trip, I turned to the black market.

Criticize the move if you wish, but petrol is needed in the event of an emergency or the need to get from Point A to Point B. The black market-purchased fuel was enough for about 200 miles.

At the gas stations, 20 liters, or about 5.5 gallons, of fuel was sold for around 78,000 Lebanese pounds ($51.75 at the official exchange rate; $4.09 at the black-market rate).

Following the government’s decision to partially lift fuel subsidies last week, 20 liters now costs 130,000 pounds, still well short of that being sold on the black market.

The gas being sold on the black market cost me 600,000 pounds for 40 liters. That translates to around $31 today.

I’m told the black-market price has only gone up since then.

Filling up the car with gasoline purchased on the so-called black market. (Al Arabiya English)
Filling up the car with gasoline purchased on the so-called black market. (Al Arabiya English)

No electricity

The gas issue is challenging for many, but there are ways to mitigate the problem for some.

Having no electricity is something that ordinary Lebanese people had to solve decades ago.

The country had 24/7 electricity along with many other perks of a first-world nation before the bloody Civil War decimated infrastructure and state institutions.

Private generators were introduced as a temporary solution, or at least that’s what the public was told at the time. Instead, they are still in operation, but owners now say they cannot find diesel to keep the machines running.

Recently a gas station owner - a staunch supporter and member of the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces - was found to have been stashing an estimated one million liters of fuel.

The Lebanese army raided the depots used to store the gas and distributed it to citizens. This came after the army announced that they would raid gas stations and warehouses being used to illegally hoard fuel and diesel.

Hospitals and restaurants are closing one after another, putting people’s lives at risk, and destroying livelihoods.

Two days after being in Lebanon, the American University of Beirut’s hospital (AUBMC) issued a stern warning that hundreds of its patients would die immediately once the generators were shut down because there was no state-provided electricity.

Fortunately, the situation was addressed, and no one died as a result. But other hospitals have since shut down.

COVID-19 and schools

Most children and young adults are preparing to begin the new school year, albeit in difficult situations for some areas witnessing an increase in new COVID-19 cases and new strains of the virus, presenting yet another obstacle ahead of schools reopening.

In Lebanon, parents face other problems: the cost of school supplies and other basic needs of students has skyrocketed, while the schools are unsure if they will have electricity to resume classes.

And, as the colder weather creeps in, diesel used to fuel heating systems in most schools remains limited.

Teaching via Zoom and other forms of e-learning have become a common form of schooling since the COVID-19 pandemic, but today, internet access itself might collapse in the country. The electricity needed to power phone and cabling towers continues to dwindle.

And the internet? I’ve never had a halfway decent experience with any form of the internet there. But today, it’s even worse. Cell phone data is, at times, even slower than the state-provided internet.

No future

Sitting on the balcony of a friend’s apartment the night I left, four couples and another two friends were having a drink.

Two of the couples, John and Rita, are awaiting their immigration papers to emigrate to Canada.

Another couple with a 3-year-old daughter is contemplating their next move. “What about our daughter? She’s supposed to start her first year of school this year, and that looks unlikely. It’s unbearable here,” Jessie, the girl’s mother, told me.

Rami, a 37-year-old financial consultant, has started to look at his options abroad.

Others are choosing to stay closer to home and look for jobs in the Gulf. However, salaries being offered to Lebanese are much lower than previously.

This is a direct result of increased job competition and the soured ties between Beirut and much of the Gulf region.

Lebanon’s former foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, and Hezbollah’s continued participation and support of wars outside of Lebanon severely impacted the historical bond that once connected Beirut to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and other regional countries.

“They [Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement] want us to turn East. Now, what?” asked the 37-year-old.

Hezbollah has continuously cast blame on the US for the situation in Lebanon. Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, has called on the local government to look to Iran, China, Russia and others for help.

The former prime minister, Saad Hariri, backed by the West and the Gulf for most of political life, also did himself and the country no favors after reportedly being involved in mass corruption deals.

The list of Lebanese officials and politicians who engage in siphoning off public funds is never-ending.

File photo of Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun (C) with former PM Saad Hariri (R) and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. (AP)
File photo of Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun (C) with former PM Saad Hariri (R) and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. (AP)

A failed state

As I jumped in a taxi to Beirut’s only functioning civilian airport, I saw only a handful of residential and commercial buildings with lighting.

The quiet streets of a once-bustling cosmopolitan city served as another reminder of how dire the situation in Lebanon has become.

Barely any cars were on the road to the airport. There were plenty of cars, but they were all queued in lines with motorists hoping they could fill their tanks with fuel when gas stations opened the next business day.

Going into the airport and thinking I was lucky enough to escape the chaos of Lebanon, I was met with pandemonium. Hundreds of people were crowded into the check-in counters, with each member of the various security apparatuses telling me the mess was not their responsibility.

After waiting for three hours to check-in and then having about 10 minutes before my flight took off, I weaved my way through the security line ahead of people kind enough to let me cut and sprinted to my gate.

Chaos is seen at the Beirut airport, Aug. 23, 2021. (Al Arabiya English)
Chaos is seen at the Beirut airport, Aug. 23, 2021. (Al Arabiya English)

I sat down thinking I was the last one on the plane. But minutes later, I saw more passengers rushing on.

Takeoff was delayed for a little over an hour due to the disarray at the check-in counters.

I, like others, have the blessed opportunity to have a home country that presents me with a possibility for a better life. But that doesn’t stop me or many others from thinking almost daily about the disastrous state that Lebanon has reached.

As my Lebanese-born grandmother tells me: “Lebanon was never this bad. Even during the [1975-‘90] war, people had access to their money and had access to food.”

A senior World Bank official recently explained to me that his organization does not use the term “failed state” to describe certain countries because it insinuates the inexistence of state institutions. But after my most recent trip to Lebanon, I would have to disagree.

No state institutions would mean a collapsed state.

Academics are likely to argue with that definition, but as Robert Rotberg writes, “State failure cannot be ascribed primarily to the inability to build nations from a congeries of groups of diverse backgrounds. Nor should it be ascribed baldly to the oppression of minorities by a majority, although such brutalities are often a major ingredient of the impulse toward failure.”

He says that a failed state cannot control its borders and loses authority over sections of its territory. “Plausibly, the extent of a state’s failure can be measured by how much of its geographical expanse is genuinely controlled (especially after dark) by the official government.”

Unfortunately, this is the case in Lebanon, which may be well on its way to becoming the region’s next biggest calamity.

*The names of the individuals in the process of leaving Lebanon have been changed as per their request.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.