In 2021, Lebanon Suffered While the World Looked On

Skyrocketing inflation, government corruption, and international apathy defined a country in economic free fall.

By , the social media editor at Foreign Policy.
An aerial view shows Beirut in darkness during a power outage on April 3.
An aerial view shows Beirut in darkness during a power outage on April 3.
An aerial view shows Beirut in darkness during a power outage on April 3. Dylan Collins/AFP via Getty Images

2021

In 2020, the world watched as Lebanon reeled from compounding crises: vaulting inflation, civil unrest that overflowed from the prior year, an unruly spread of COVID-19, and a deadly port explosion that devastated the country’s capital. But what occurred in 2021 was a return to crises at the institutional level—a rot from the top down.

After a 13-month game of prime minister hot potato following Hassan Diab’s forced resignation in August 2020, billionaire Najib Mikati assumed the top job this September. He formed a 24-person ministry and promised to set the country back on track for economic revival. But many Lebanese view Mikati and his immense wealth as “a symbol of an old and corrupt order,” FP columnist Anchal Vohra wrote in August.

Critics have argued that the extended political stalemate before Mikati’s reign is what ultimately tanked the country’s economy: The World Bank reported recently that Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis may even hit the top three most severe crises globally since the 1850s. The local currency is experiencing inflation rates in the triple digits, and Lebanon’s GDP fell to 37 percent—an amount “usually associated with conflicts or wars.”

In 2020, the world watched as Lebanon reeled from compounding crises: vaulting inflation, civil unrest that overflowed from the prior year, an unruly spread of COVID-19, and a deadly port explosion that devastated the country’s capital. But what occurred in 2021 was a return to crises at the institutional level—a rot from the top down.

After a 13-month game of prime minister hot potato following Hassan Diab’s forced resignation in August 2020, billionaire Najib Mikati assumed the top job this September. He formed a 24-person ministry and promised to set the country back on track for economic revival. But many Lebanese view Mikati and his immense wealth as “a symbol of an old and corrupt order,” FP columnist Anchal Vohra wrote in August.

Critics have argued that the extended political stalemate before Mikati’s reign is what ultimately tanked the country’s economy: The World Bank reported recently that Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis may even hit the top three most severe crises globally since the 1850s. The local currency is experiencing inflation rates in the triple digits, and Lebanon’s GDP fell to 37 percent—an amount “usually associated with conflicts or wars.”

Economic instability continues to have serious implications for the livelihoods of everyday people. Nearly three quarters of Lebanese live below the poverty line, and fuel shortages have triggered rolling blackouts throughout the year. As Vohra reported in September, Hezbollah may be leveraging fuel scarcity to gain party allegiance from those desperate for basic necessities.

Here are five Foreign Policy stories that helped define a critical year for the Middle Eastern country.


1. Lebanon’s Failure Is Partly Macron’s Fault

by Anchal Vohra, June 23

This year, Lebanon marked the one-year anniversary of the Beirut port blast, which occurred on Aug. 4, 2020. As the world now knows, the event produced incredible damage to one of the busiest seaports in the Mediterranean Sea, killing 200 people and causing around $15 billion in property damage.

For some time after, there was hope the catastrophe could spur political change. French President Emmanuel Macron was the first political leader to visit the capital city, embracing and mourning with Beirut locals standing among the wreckage. During the visit, he launched an ambitious initiative to help bring the former French colony back from the brink. Yet since then, Vohra writes, “nothing has been achieved.”

The French road map for Lebanon looked promising on the surface. It encouraged the formation of a new government within 15 days, reforms to the electricity sector and other sectors most in need, and an early election, Vohra explains. But ultimately, the plan empowered the same elites many Lebanese said caused the problems to begin with.

“France’s reluctance to impose harsh sanctions and inflict a cost on the political elite instead of merely plead with them to do the right thing was utterly naïve—and ultimately destructive,” Vohra writes.


2. Lebanon Is in Terminal Brain Drain

by Anchal Vohra, Aug. 9

Medical staff are pictured outside the American University of Beirut Medical Center in Beirut on March 17.

Medical staff are pictured outside the American University of Beirut Medical Center in Beirut on March 17. Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images

The very people crucial to Lebanon’s revival are the same people leaving the country en masse out of concern for their safety and livelihoods. Inflation has made it harder for citizens to buy food and basic necessities against dwindling and inconsistent salaries. As Vohra notes, 20 percent of Lebanese doctors have already left or are planning to leave since 2019. And a recent survey revealed that 77 percent of youth want to leave—the highest percentage in the region.

Vohra outlines the contours of a widespread despondence among Lebanese: “First anger, then hopelessness, and now escape. … They hope neither for justice nor for any change under any government with the same political class in charge.”


3. Lebanon Is Europe’s Most Urgent Challenge

by Faysal Itani and Azeem Ibrahim, Oct. 15

Lebanon’s mass exodus risks a potentially catastrophic refugee crisis for Europe, write Faysal Itani and Azeem Ibrahim, directors at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy. It’s a country that has one of the largest numbers of refugees per capita—1.5 million Syrian refugees and 500,000 refugees from elsewhere. Few countries outside of Lebanon have the level of security or stability to offer a safe haven.

This has caused a disconnect between capacity and motivation, Itani and Ibrahim write. Economically, Europe can certainly share the task of hosting those individuals most in need. “But politically? The 2015 refugee wave was hugely destabilizing for domestic and European-level politics, leading to a surge of support for far-right and neofascist parties across the continent and imperiling the liberal democratic political order,” they write. European Parliament fears yet another surge in nationalism could occur if more refugees arrive on its shores.


4. Lebanon Loses a Pillar of Independent Journalism

by Hussain Abdul-Hussain, Nov. 20

In October, Lebanon’s oldest English-language newspaper, the Daily Star, shut its doors after a heroic nearly 70-year run.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain, the paper’s former managing editor, reminisces and mourns the impactful storytelling his team produced—from exposing embezzlement schemes at state-owned institutions to engaging in an unlikely but successful spat with a Beirut-based Dunkin’ Donuts over its anti-LGBTQ policies.

“The paper’s once buzzing offices have been reduced to archives collecting dust in the dark,” Abdul-Hussain writes. “Its story is the story of Lebanon, reduced in less than 15 years from a promising country to a failing state.”


5. Lebanon’s Reformers Trade the Street for the Ballot Box

by Tessa Fox, Dec. 6

Despite decades of political stasis and government corruption, a new generation of political activists is helping mark a new era of hope for the country. Journalist Tessa Fox profiles the largest of these new activist groups: Minteshreen. Formed during the 2019 uprising dubbed the “October Revolution” and informed by prior generations, the group is capitalizing on the country’s increase in political engagement over the last two years to push for a more democratic state once and for all.

They understand the setbacks: Lebanon isn’t entirely a sovereign state, Hezbollah continues to squelch democratic advancement, and prior attempts by activists to unseat the political elite have ended in assassination or removal from elected office. Yet Minteshreen’s members figure now, more than ever, is the right time to plant the seeds of change as “these will be the years that we will be fought very ferociously by the people in power,” one group member running for parliamentary election told Fox.

And maybe this time, they’ll be the ones to set Lebanon on the path toward political repair.

Kelly Kimball is the social media editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @kellyruthk

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