Following a stark warning from the International Monetary Fund that time was running out for Lebanon’s economy, the country’s ingenious political leadership responded with a radical solution – unilaterally changing the time. You couldn’t make it up. The country is facing starvation, hyperinflation and civil chaos, but the ruling class are distracted with a legal amendment to delay the introduction of “daylight saving time,” a decision that experts warn will cause travel chaos, malfunctioning electronic devices, and nationwide confusion – particularly as some organizations have already signaled that they will go ahead with the time change anyway.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati and parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri couldn’t have offered a better metaphor for the endless prevarication and incompetence of a leadership that for the past four years has been existing on borrowed time. The head of the IMF mission in Lebanon, Ernesto Ramirez Rigo, placed the blame for the catastrophic economic outlook squarely on continued inaction by Lebanese officials, and warned that a plunge into hyperinflation would ruin the quality of life of many Lebanese for years to come.
But Lebanon’s elite still behave as if it’s business as usual – dining at the same expensive restaurants, dipping into vast hard-currency reserves stashed safely overseas, while bickering with each other over petty trivialities and leisurely going round in circles over issues of the presidency, government formation and a crisis exit strategy. Why are IMF-prescribed reforms taking for ever to implement? Because the reforms would materially compromise the wealth and impunity of this top 0.1 percent who see no problem at all with the apocalyptic status quo.
The architect of many of the catastrophes wreaked upon Lebanon, Gebran Bassil, bizarrely sought to incite a campaign of civil disobedience over the time-change issue, arguing that it was prejudicial to Christians. As if Christians, or any other Lebanese sect – in the complete absence of electricity and basic services – are in a position to know or care exactly what time it is! And as if Bassil himself hadn’t already done more than anyone alive to undermine the status of Lebanon’s Christians!
The latest IMF warning coincided with thousands of protesters, including retired soldiers, trying to break through a fence leading to Beirut’s government headquarters, and with protests erupting elsewhere across the country. Demonstrators furiously blamed the authorities’ incompetence and corruption for triggering an additional sharp decline in the value of the Lebanese pound, further exacerbating financial hardship. These are veterans who have dedicated their entire careers to protecting Lebanon and who are among the most loyal demographics to Lebanon’s governing system. Monthly pensions for retired military personnel and public sector workers are now just over $20! “Don’t they feel guilty about the retired members of the military who have served their country all their lives, given that they are starving and not able to access medical care services?” one protester said.
Meanwhile, Hassan Nasrallah is yet again saber rattling toward Israel. After Hezbollah staged minor provocations inside northern Israel, Nasrallah dared Tel Aviv to invade: “If Israel starts a war against Lebanon for what happened, it could lead to a battle in the entire region,” he crowed. Using unusually specific language, Nasrallah threatened that the killing of even one individual could provoke a major Hezbollah response. But Israel is already striking targets associated with Hezbollah and its allies inside Syria on a near daily basis, not to mention the killing of senior personnel from the Hezbollah-Iran axis.
Everybody knows that Nasrallah has no intention of responding to this. In recent days there has been the worst outbreak of hostilities in several years between US forces and Hezbollah-aligned paramilitaries in eastern Syria, which risks triggering region-wide conflagration.
Iran-backed paramilitaries have been entrenching themselves along the Syria-Iraq border for several years now, including massive fortifications and deep underground tunnels bristling with missiles. With US President Joe Biden warning militias to “be prepared for us to act forcefully to protect our people,” there is potential for these tit-for-tat strikes to escalate in a climate in which US-Iran negotiations have long since broken down.
As Benjamin Netanyahu and his neo-fascist cronies hurl Israel into one of the worst political crises in its history – with the sole objective of keeping him out of jail – combined with Netanyahu’s own escalating rhetoric against Iran and Hezbollah, the entire region trembles on an unpredictable knife edge.
If Nasrallah does eventually get his wish and goads Israel into attacking Lebanon directly, he will already be hiding in his bunker deep underground, along with cronies and family members, while thousands of innocent Lebanese are killed and the country reduced to smouldering ruins. It is abominable that Nasrallah’s mind is mulling over such confrontations when much of the nation is slowly starving to death in unimaginable misery. So many people are tolerating unbearable pain because they don’t have money for medical treatment, and because there aren’t any medicines in any case and the few hospitals that haven’t closed their doors scarcely function after losing most of their staff and equipment. Amid these traumas, suicide rates have soared and families routinely die at sea as they flee in unseaworthy vessels. Hospital morgues are overflowing with rotting bodies in non-functioning fridges because citizens can’t afford coffins.
Lebanon in 2023 is a semi-decomposed body gasping for its last breaths, while the rate of decline of its vital organs continues to accelerate. The entire political class appears to have resolved that it is better to hasten Lebanon’s absolute destruction, rather than to take one iota of action that might diminish their rates of accumulation of corrupt wealth. Such figures have a choice of luxury villas in Dubai, Paris or Qom to retreat to and probably have their exit plans impeccably prepared, private jets fueled up on the runway for the day when Lebanon finally disintegrates altogether. In this climate, Nasrallah needs to watch his mouth and halt his ridiculous warmongering, because he is unleashing forces he can’t control, which will destroy his organization along with Lebanon in its entirety.
The last time Lebanon dissolved into full-blown armed conflict in the 1970s and 1980s, the resulting anarchy sucked in the entire region – Israel, Syria, the Palestinian movement, Iran and the West. The 2011 Syria conflict likewise rapidly became regionalized, even dragging in Russia, while spawning an entire alphabet of radical and terrorist factions. Without drastic action – and by this I mean far-reaching Arab and Western intervention – the eruption of a new Lebanese and region-straddling conflagration is simply a matter of time. The warning bells have been ringing for a long time now. Is it possible that, still, nobody is listening?