#WeAreNotOK: The struggle for justice and security in Lebanon
On a video call from Beirut, members of WILPF Lebanon are speaking about the crisis plaguing their country. As long-time member Shirine Jurdi shares a glimpse into life in a nation in free-fall collapse, her electricity suddenly cuts out.
Shrouded in darkness, Shirine pauses for only a moment before continuing.
“Right now, we are lacking any sort of human security,” she says. “We are unsure about the quality of food and we have no electricity, not to mention the hyperinflation that has rendered a large portion of the population at the brink of famine. We can’t access gasoline. The banks have confiscated our money. Hospital services are decreasing by the day as there is no money to buy medical equipment and doctors are leaving the country.”
Shirine lived through the Lebanese Civil War as a child. She says that the current crisis in Lebanon is more severe than at any other point in her memory.
“Even during the war, my dad could get food and we would distribute it to others,” she says. “Now we cannot; nothing is affordable or available. And I am scared. Every day, I wake up and feel like my heart is beating too fast. I no longer plan for tomorrow because I don’t know what tomorrow will hold.”
Yet despite her day-to-day struggle to get by, in the small Mediterranean country of five million people, Shirine is one of the lucky ones: she still has drinking water. In a July report, UNICEF warned that 60 per cent of the country’s population was at imminent risk of losing access to safe water as Lebanon’s water pumping system gradually ceased.
“We are in survival mode,” says Shirine. “I don’t know what will happen.”
From crisis to collapse
How did it get this bad?
Lebanon’s collapse has been long in the making. In the years since the conclusion of the Lebanese Civil War, which ended in 1990, the country’s government and ruling elite – comprised of former militia leaders who rose to power during the war – have failed to address the institutionalisation and building of the state. As a result, the day-to-day needs and long-term security of the Lebanese people have gone unmet. Instead, many Lebanese claim, the country’s leaders have been more focused on amassing their own wealth.
In 2019, it was revealed that the central bank was borrowing money from commercial banks at above-market interest rates to pay back debts – essentially a state-sponsored pyramid scheme. Tensions began boiling over as people demanded accountability following years of corruption.
The final straw came when the government announced plans to tax gasoline, tobacco, and services like WhatsApp – one of the primary modes of communication used in Lebanon. Thousands of protesters, including unprecedented numbers of women, took to the streets in what is now known as the 17 October Revolution. Responding to pressure from activists, the country’s prime minister resigned and a political crisis ensued.
Just under a year later, while people were struggling to manage the COVID- 19 pandemic, an explosion erupted in the Port of Beirut. It was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history, killing 218 people and displacing over 300,000 more. Protesters kept returning to the streets despite the challenges they faced, pointing to decades of corruption and fiscal mismanagement as the cause of the explosion, and the new government that had formed earlier in 2020 was forced to dissolve.
Today, Lebanon is in the midst of the worst economic crisis of anywhere in the world since the mid-19th century.
Faced with extreme hyperinflation and a currency that has lost over 90 per cent of its value against the US dollar, the country’s unemployment rate now sits at around 55 per cent and over half of the population is living below the national poverty line. The added impacts of COVID-19 have only served to deepen the economic and political turmoil devastating the country.
In addition to these devastating challenges, a robust black market is influencing the prices of commodities and services – further exacerbating human insecurity and pointing to a continued worsening of the situation.
Yet the government – which only reformed in September following 13 months without a formal cabinet – continues to all but ignore the extent of the country’s problems.
“Instead of engaging in crisis management and helping us get out of this mess, the government is allocating whatever resources they have among themselves,” says Shirine.
With an interim government in place, Lebanon is now set for an election in 2022. But many Lebanese refuse to believe that change is possible without a complete overhaul of the country’s political and economic systems.
Mirna Mouka, a French-Lebanese feminist peace activist currently living in Beirut, says that it’s commonly believed the government is actively sabotaging the Lebanese people in order to reduce voting power when the election comes around.
“People are fleeing Lebanon for better lives elsewhere, and it seems the government wants this to happen,” she says. “They are determined to always have a strong hand, to always retain power and wealth, even if it means letting people suffer. Those that decide our future – nothing stops them.”
Shirine agrees. “Corruption has been the backbone of the Lebanese government throughout the 30 years since the civil war,” she says. “How can we possibly expect the politicians to change now?”
Activists are also deeply concerned that women are barely represented within the current government: Just one woman sits on the 24-member cabinet. Yet women – particularly female migrant and domestic workers – are experiencing some of the most severe impacts of the crisis. Unpaid, trapped in geopolitical limbo, and ignored by the Lebanese government, women working in precarious jobs have been hit hard by poverty but have little recourse.
“Civil society activists have been pushing for a quota system to ensure women are adequately represented in government, but it’s clear that demand is being ignored,” says Shirine.
Rola Al-Masri, manager in WILPF’s Middle East North Africa (MENA) programme, cautions that although a quota system may increase the number of women in government, it may not address the root cause of the corruption driving Lebanon’s collapse.
“Lebanon doesn’t just need more women in power; the entire political and socio-economic system needs to be completely reconstructed based on a feminist vision and values that are centred on human rights,” she says. “And women need to be actively engaged in that process of reconstruction at every level, from grassroots community dialogue to government representation.”
“We can no longer talk about resilience. The Lebanese people have been resilient for too long. Now we are exhausted, and we are scared. We need solutions.”
Lebanese activists demand transformation – not just change
Shirine, Mirna, and Rola agree that a complete overhaul of Lebanon’s economic and political systems is urgently required if the country and its people stand a chance at a better future.
“Lebanon is in a critical period of transformation,” says Shirine. “What we need from the government now is transparency, accountability, and justice. The entire system of government must change from the inside out or we will not be able to carry on.”
Mirna notes that although Lebanon is well known for its strong community of civil society activists, even the most vocal defenders of democracy and human rights are struggling to keep going.
“We are being met with violence and activists are being injured or killed,” she says. “We are trying to help each other and help our society but we cannot even sustain or protect ourselves.”
She also notes that although international aid is coming in to help address urgent shortages of food, medicine, and other supplies, it is “ just a band-aid solution. It does not address the depth of the corruption and suffering we are facing.”
The activists are calling on the international community to increase pressure on the Lebanese government to address the root causes of its failures and the humanitarian crisis gripping the country. And they are clear that there is no time to waste.
Stand in solidarity with Lebanese peace activists! Call on your representatives to place pressure on the Lebanese government or share your stories and support on social media using the hashtag #WeAreNotOK.