Friday, August 11, 2006

Hummers and have-nots

Before this war began the Lebanese business community were hoping this summer would prove that the country’s economy was back on the road to recovery after the upheavals of last year. Oil cash was flowing into the country and scores of luxury apartments and gated communities were planned. The smart downtown district was packed with flush Arab tourists who come here in their thousands to escape the oppressive summer heat of the Gulf and enjoy the libertine atmosphere of Beirut.

But all that is now gone and understandably there is anger at Hizbullah for dragging the country into a war that has destroyed this. Thousands of Gulf tourists and foreigners have fled the country, downtown Beirut, the showcase of Rafik Hariri’s reconstruction efforts is deserted and cash machines have stopped issuing dollars because people were hoarding hard currency.

Once again the media has portrayed Lebanon as a place of death and destruction, a clichéé that the country has worked so hard to shake off. Although investors in Lebanon have proven themselves to be a hardy bunch it remains to be seen whether they are willing to risk their money in a country that can be plunged into war overnight.

But there is a lesson to be learnt here that has been ignored repeatedly though out Lebanon’s history. Put simply, the country’s laissez faire system has ignored huge sections of the population and while many here have a great deal at stake in the country’s economy there are many more who don’t.

Beirut is a tale of two cities, and although the western media lapped up the pictures of pretty girls demonstrating against the Syrians in last year’s “Cedar revolution”, there is another side to the place that is ignored. Less than three miles from the luxury shops and Sushi restaurants of Downtown lie the southern suburbs, an area made up mostly of Shia, Hizbullah’s support base and the largest and most marginalized community in the country. Before the 1975-1990 civil war this area used to be known as the “belt of misery”” and although conditions have improved since then it is still a deprived place. Power supplies are sporadic, the streets are full of pot holes and government services are lacking. State control is weaker here and during the recent World Cup, tracer fire could be seen weaving up from the area every time Germany or Brazil won. The place is a world away from the corporate internationalism of the Downtown area that is advertised on CNN.

Although the southern suburbs is a diverse area and it would be foolish to speak for all of its inhabitants, one can say that complaints about the loss of tourism dollars were likely lost on many here. They do not own hotels or restaurants in downtown, have stakes in banks or have the wasta (political influence) that would get them a job that pays a decent wage. Many people here live on little more than $200 a month which for a family in Lebanon doesn’t go very far at all.

These people are made to pay for services that they don’t get. There is no income tax in Lebanon and in order to service the country’s $36 billion debt, the government has put 10% VAT on consumer goods as well as tax on other services. While Lebanon’s rich can easily afford to pay these increases and are probably very happy that they don’t pay income tax, for someone who earns $200 a month 10 percent on their shopping bill is a lot.

The debt was incurred during the post-war government in building prestige projects that would put Lebanon back on the international map and much of it was wasted by venal contracting and plain theft. Most of this debt is owed internally to Lebanese banks who have been doing very well out of lending the government money at very good rates. Lebanon has over 60 banks, and if were not for the business that the country’s debt payments brings then there would probably be far fewer.

The whole thing stinks of a scam and unsurprisingly the country’s poor are angry that they paying for something that they don’t benefit from nor have much say in.

In the midst of all this sleaze, Hizbullah stands out as the one party that doesn’t indulge (too much) in corruption and it attaches great importance to this image, acutely aware of how unhappy the Shia, and all of Lebanon’s sects, are with their dirty politicians.

Furthermore, Hizbullah is not only a militia but also a popular political party, and where the government falls short Hizbullah has stepped in and the party runs hospitals and schools in the southern suburbs and Shia areas around the country. When this current conflict comes to an end Hizbullah will likely step in and distribute aid from Iran among the hundreds of thousands of refugees and those who have lost houses in the Israeli bombardment. This will only serve to strengthen the party further.

Most Lebanese agree that this disparity between rich and poor was a reason behind the civil war, which in the beginning was as much about class struggle as it was about sectarianism. But despite this hard learned lesson, the Lebanese government appeared to be make exactly the same mistake in the post-war period. Now the middle class has gradually disappeared and has been replaced by Hummers and have-nots, the ostentatious rich and the invisible poor.

Although it is unrealistic to expect the Lebanese government to overcome the crippling internal divides it must find a way of taking responsibility for all its citizens. If this were to happen then perhaps this country could avoid the kind of incendiary politics that led to the current impasse. The southern suburbs are not the only area of the country that is deprived and much of the rural areas in fact face a lack of services. Protecting the interests of the hoteliers and bankers is not protecting the interests of all Lebanese. If the country’s poor had something at stake in the country’s economy then they might have more interest in safeguarding it.

Christian Henderson, Beirut, Lebanon


Blogger Unknown said...

Great post ...

11:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

bravo...well said

2:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great work you are doing! Keep on with your great articels - the world has to wake up to this tragedy.

There is another blog of a lebanese living in the Beqaa giving very detailed descriptions and analyses of the events. It can be found under

All the best for you.
Greets from Germany.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh Come on,
Dont tell me again this story of the poor people living in misery and have always something to reclaim,
> fisrt: try to feed a family of ten or twelve persons
> second: if they were paying their electricity bills they would have electricity
This theme of "themiserablecommunityabandonedtoitsproblems" is passed away since a long time.
With this war, and if it ends , they are simply going to keep this status for at least 1 or 2 decades.
And please tell me: "Who is benefiting at the same time from the war & the peace buisness?" if not the leaders...

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