There have been better times to be head of the British Embassy in Lebanon. The crises buffeting this wonderful and troubled country – from the port explosion, to the Covid pandemic, to the economic collapse – have dulled Lebanon’s shine, impoverishing the people and putting both state institutions and the private sector under intolerable pressure. With no prospect in sight of a government capable of gripping the situation, Lebanon’s situation looks increasingly precarious.
And yet my message, as I leave Beirut, is not just one of profound concern but also of hope. For I see in Lebanon a place which, for all of its deeply serious problems, retains incredible potential. This land of the cedars is a truly amazing country: of outstanding natural beauty – from the mountains to the sea, of a rich and diverse culture, and of a people whose hard work and creativity rivals anyone in the Middle East – and beyond.
But you will only unleash this better future if you can slip the shackles of your history. And change fundamentally the way in which politics and government are done here. Lebanon today stands perhaps at its most important crossroads ever: which way will you go?
Forgive my bluntness: but there is something rotten at the heart of Lebanon. The failure so far to hold anyone accountable for the disastrous port explosion last summer is just the most dramatic example of the impunity and irresponsibility that characterises too much of Lebanese life. State institutions are subverted; special interests are protected; and Hizballah’s militia operate freely, accountable to no one but themselves. And the result? An elite enriched, as the Lebanese people lose out at every turn.
I have discussed Lebanon’s political deadlock and the deteriorating situation with almost all shades of the political elite. I have warned about the risks they are taking, and of the damage being done to people’s lives. I have urged them to find a compromise that can establish a broad-based government, with a mandate to undertake the reforms and secure the IMF support that is so desperately needed. But I regret that my words, like those of Lebanon’s other international friends, fall on deaf ears.
And this is a problem. Because although the UK will always do what it can to stand by the Lebanese people – with a strong record of significant support for Lebanon’s security, education and humanitarian support– this assistance cannot be a substitute for urgent action by Lebanon’s politicians. The international community cannot stop Lebanon’s fall.
It would be easy to dismiss Lebanon’s political elite as out of touch and corrupt. Many regrettably are. But the problem is more profound than that. For a political system rooted in the divisions of confessionalism can simply never be the basis for a successful twenty-first century country.
For decades the real purpose of the Lebanese “system” has been, not to look after the national interests of the country, but to “balance” the interests of competing groups. Some tell me this is what is necessary to prevent the fracturing of the delicate Lebanese mosaic. Perhaps. It is certainly important to ensure that Lebanon’s diversity is respected and protected in the framework of the country. But what has been the consequence of this system?
It has been to focus on a zero-sum game, on ensuring that each group gets no less of its share of Lebanon’s wealth and resource than it believes it is due. And in this relentless effort to take, Lebanon’s leaders have spent its resources recklessly – way beyond what it could ever truly afford. Now the country stands on the verge of insolvency. So focused were the political elite on dividing the cake, they never thought about how to bake a bigger one.
Some say it is the region that prevents progress. Lebanon is a small country – a place in which the fault lines and tremors of others’ geo-politics play out. For sure, yours is a difficult neighbourhood: too many foreign powers take too close an interest in what happens here. Their agendas are not always benign. But the confessional instinct to lend one’s trust to foreign powers more than to fellow Lebanese has not helped. The weaker and more divided the country, the more vulnerable Lebanon becomes to the predations of others. A neutral Lebanon, disassociated from the region’s other conflicts, is an essential feature of a better future. And it would be a fatal error to conclude that Lebanon must wait for other nations to reconcile before change can happen here.
None of this is easy to do: nothing of value ever is. But in the midst of our current despair I do believe that change can and will come to Lebanon. Last month I took a two day tour of the south, travelling as far down as Bint Jbeil. One of the highlights was to call in on a rural public school and meet the young people to hear their views and aspirations for Lebanon. They are – in every sense – Lebanon’s future. For theirs is a generation less scarred by the divisions of the civil war. But also more united, through technology, with their peers across the globe: they see the world beyond Lebanon – and thus what is possible here.
I do not believe that the old, corrupted practices will withstand youth’s excited impatience for a better future, and nor should they. This at heart is what gives me hope for the future of Lebanon: as the new generation rides to the rescue of the old. And the UK, as a long-standing friend and partner to the Lebanese people, will be proud to ride with you.