The cars in Gemmeyzye stand caked in a thick layer of dust, like everything else in the neighborhoods worst hit in the blast two months ago. Beirut was never known for its clean air but since the explosion at the port ripped through the city, dismantling bolted doors and windows and crushing heritage buildings, just walking around in the blast zone is hazardous. It entails inhaling copious amounts of dust, fumes off the fresh paint being applied on some buildings, and no one knows what else since thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate blew up.
While volunteers swept the streets of the shards of wood and glass, most of the damaged structures have been left untouched, lying in ruins and packed with debris. Home and business owners either don’t have the money needed to refurbish or they consider it too risky to invest in a country grappling with myriad crises. Many say they don’t wish to throw good money after bad. As long as reforms are not ushered in and the same political elite rule, they see little point in devoting time, energy, and scarce dollars in their beloved but broken city.
However, some own a mysterious stash of courage and have begun to rebuild. While the neighborhoods still resemble a bomb-site, a few cafes have reopened. Cortado is among them.
“Keefek habibti [how are you]?” screamed John Anton, Cortado’s owner, when he saw me walking in. To look at a familiar face, alive, in one piece, is an exhilarating experience these days in Gemmeyzye and other damaged neighborhoods in the city. I felt the same joy and reciprocated in my limited vocabulary, “Alhamdulillah [praise be to god].”
John needed just about US$10,000 to redo his small cafe that squeezes in ten people, fewer if they were all actually drinking coffee. He raised most of the money online via a GoFundMe page and most of the people who donated were former clients from the US, France, and the Gulf who had visited Cortado at some point. “Their love for Beirut and loyalty to the cafe is so touching,” said John. “I am so grateful.”
While it is easier to help small enterprises, many of those who need big money have been approached neither by the government nor international agencies yet.
On the street, pamphlets of organizations vouching to help are stuck to walls with phone numbers in bold. Activists are offering water and sandwiches to workers and doing rounds to see who they can help. But while it is easier to help small enterprises like John’s, many of those who need big money have been approached neither by the government nor international agencies yet.
Their road to recovery, as that of their compatriots across Lebanon, is bound to be a long one. Since the blast two months ago, a prime minister and a prime minister-designate have resigned but the old guard that the people blamed for encouraging sect-based politics and turning Lebanon into a clientelist state has clung to power. They have proven to be more resilient than the protestors and members of the civil society. They conceded no ground during the demonstrations, through the Coronavirus lockdown, and even after the blast.
Meanwhile, Lebanese bore the brunt of a collapsing economy—an 80 percent devaluation in the value of the local currency, a steep rise in prices of basic commodities, capital controls imposed by banks that made hard-earned savings inaccessible, joblessness magnified during the pandemic, and now, the blast which has left hundreds of thousands homeless. It is expected to cost billions to rebuild the damaged parts of the city and to resurrect businesses that were already struggling to survive the multiple crises that preceded the catastrophe.
On the shores of the Mediterranean, Lebanon served as a port for traders from across the seas and has been a middle-income country. But a war in neighboring Syria, rampant corruption in the political echelons, and a Ponzi scheme run by the central bank to maintain the currency’s value at 1,500 Liras to the dollar – even though Lebanon imported most of what it needed and exported next to nothing – broke the country’s back. It slipped into a severe economic crisis earlier this year and sought a US$10 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The loan has not come through and seems unlikely it will anytime soon. It is conditional on reforms that the ruling elite have continued to drag their feet on. They fear losing their overarching control of the states’ institutions and their coffers.
Meanwhile, middle-class Lebanese are sinking to the lower strata of society and forced to cut their spending. The lower-income groups have been the worst hit and many are relying on various charities. They receive just enough donations to get by and survive but no more. Activists from Sanobal Nour, a soup kitchen based in Tripoli, have told Inside Arabia on many occasions of the hardship an increasing number of people are facing. “Men are jobless and fridges are empty,” said a local activist.
The level of desperation among poorer Lebanese is so high that for the first time Lebanese families paid a smuggler to ferry them to Europe via Cyprus.
The level of desperation among poorer Lebanese is so high that for the first time Lebanese families, not Syrian refugees – as had been the norm, paid a smuggler to ferry them to Europe via Cyprus. The smugglers cheated them and never boarded the boat. Unaware they had been exploited, 40 plus people onboard soon ran out of food and water leading to the deaths of two toddlers and at least three adults.
Lebanon’s President Michael Aoun has often warned Europe of the possibility of mass immigration of the Lebanese to Europe to induce fear among the Europeans that if they do not bail out the country, they will have a second wave of refugees knocking on their doors. Experts say this is a well-calibrated strategy by Lebanon’s politicians to avoid undertaking crucial reforms. European leaders are already under pressure by populists back home to repatriate Syrian refugees.
Bente Scheller, Head of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Heinrich Boll Stiftung, told Inside Arabia that the refugees are Europe’s “vulnerable point.” She said: “The boats from Lebanon will hit this soft spot and put political pressure on the EU to bail out the government. But the EU is doing all it can to fence off its borders. So I am not sure they feel enough pressure yet.”
Those in the middle-class who can procure a visa or have married abroad are flying out but experts say the numbers are not yet high enough for Europe to reconsider its policy. Those who are based in a foreign country, however, feel helpless and guilty.
In my visit to Berlin last month, an old Lebanese friend expressed how sad it made him feel to have left his family behind. “I am here enjoying life but many in my family, my friends, are still there and suffering,” he said sipping his beer apologetically, “it makes me feel so guilty.”
Lebanon is continuing to slide into the abyss and the people see no end in sight to their problems. John’s cafe is up and running but individual donations can only go so far in a country where billions of dollars and structural reforms are needed to revive the economy.