- Lara Bitareditor-in-chief of The Public Source, a Beirut-based independent media organization.
At least five people were shot today in Beirut after snipers opened fire on a protest as Lebanon faces a growing economic and political emergency amid widespread corruption. Over the weekend, Lebanon fell into darkness for 24 hours after the nation’s electric grid collapsed. Within the past year, the Lebanese currency has fully collapsed as it continues to grapple with the aftermath of last year’s deadly port explosion. This comes as the country’s political class is expected to accelerate even harsher austerity and privatization efforts in exchange for international support, says Lara Bitar, editor-in-chief of The Public Source, a Beirut-based independent media organization, adding, “The international community holds huge responsibility in constantly allowing the political class to reproduce itself, of throwing it a lifeline whenever it is in crisis.”
AMY GOODMAN: We’re beginning today’s show looking at the growing economic and political crisis in Lebanon. Earlier today, at least five people died, over 30 were wounded in Beirut after snipers attacked a protest where demonstrators were calling for the removal of the judge investigating last year’s deadly port explosion. Today’s protest was in part organized by Hezbollah. Clashes continued in the streets of Beirut for hours after the snipers first opened fire.
The deadly attack comes just days after Lebanon’s state-run electrical grid collapsed, resulting in a 24-hour nationwide blackout. While electricity has been partially restored, much of the country still faces long stretches without power.
According to the World Bank, Lebanon is confronting one of the worst economic depressions in modern history. Its currency has collapsed. There are massive food and fuel shortages. Almost three-quarters of the population live in poverty. And Lebanon is facing a political crisis as investigations continue into last year’s port explosion, which killed at least 215 people and destroyed entire neighborhoods of Beirut.
We go now to Beirut, where we’re joined by Lara Bitar. She’s editor-in-chief of The Public Source, a Beirut-based independent media organization.
Lara, welcome to Democracy Now! Just explain what’s happening to Lebanon.
LARA BITAR: [inaudible] this morning that are ongoing. There’s a short lull right now. Residents are being evacuated from their homes. So are children — so are children, from their school. As you correctly stated, snipers, unidentified still to this point, fired at a demonstration that was being — that was organized by Hezbollah and their allies, the Amal Movement. These two political parties have been trying to unseat the lead investigative judge, Judge Tarek Bitar, from the investigation into the port explosion.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lara, could you explain who the judge is and why there’s such opposition to him carrying out this investigation?
LARA BITAR: So, I think, far beyond the intricacies and the details of this investigation, in particular, Lebanon has a very long history, since the civil war and in the aftermath, of unresolved political assassinations, bombings, a myriad of and different types of violences that are carried out, every once in a while sporadic clashes. And oftentimes, or not to say all the time, we are unable to identify the culprits. We are unable to attain any sort of justice. And these acts continue to be carried on with complete impunity. There is never any accountability. And this tone was set in the aftermath of the civil war, when warlords, now politicians, continued in kind of the same mechanisms and these same power struggles. So, whenever we have these outbursts or clashes, bits and bouts of violence that take place in the city and outside of the city, it’s really just a continuation of these decades-long power struggles between very political forces, for the most part right-wing forces, that are just struggling for power amongst each other. In moments of calm, it’s when we have these national unity governments. And these national unity governments are, for the most part, characterized by these same political parties that, in essence, gang up on the population to divide the spoils amongst each other.
As far as this judge is concerned, he is the second judge to have been assigned to carry out this task. The judge that preceded him, Judge Sawan, was forced to resign. And we later found out that he was receiving a lot of death threats, and he was not able to carry out the duty that he was tasked with. The allegation or the claim of Hezbollah and their allies is that this investigation is being politicized, that the United States and their local partners in Lebanon are trying to exploit the investigation. A couple of days ago, they kind of inferred that this judge was leaning towards incriminating Hezbollah, the “Party of God.” So, this is a part of the reason why there’s this attack on this investigation. But again, it’s very important to note that right now it’s the Hezbollah who’s trying to impede an investigation and any form of justice, but all of the political parties and all of the political figures that have been ruling this country over the past few decades are just as guilty.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lara, could you explain the broader context, both economic and humanitarian, in which this is occurring, both the investigation as well as this sniper attack today? We gave some of the figures in our introduction, and now the World Food Programme is saying that food prices have gone up by 628% in the last two years, the Lebanese pound having lost 90% of its value, three-quarters of the population, as we mentioned — almost three-quarters — living in poverty. You’ve said that the Lebanon’s economy is basically based on debt. Could you explain how this situation came about and how successive Lebanese governments are largely responsible?
LARA BITAR: Definitely. Nermeen, if you’ll allow me, first I would just like to correct the record on one thing, because we at The Public Source put out a special issue on the first commemoration of the August blast, and we combed through unofficial lists, official lists, media reports, talked to the families of the victims of the blast. And what we found out is that 252 were killed in the blast — not, as widely reported, over 200. And just to kind of portray the Lebanese state’s failures, on one hand, but a complete negligence and disregard for human lives and the costs of the blast and other explosions and fires that have taken place since, the Lebanese Health Ministry stopped updating the list of casualties shortly after the blast took place and only accounts for 191 victims, whereas people are still dying from the blast. And as a matter of fact, one pharmacist died exactly one year after the blast, on August 4, 2021, so just a few months ago.
So, to get back to your question, Lebanon right now is one — is experiencing one of the most devastating economic crises not only that the region has seen but the world. And as stated in the World Bank report, 79% of the population is living underneath the poverty line. This is up from close to 25 to 30% just three years ago. The situation for Syrian, Palestinian and other refugees who live in Lebanon, and have been living here for quite a while, is even more disastrous, with the figure reaching up to 90%.
So, over the past two years, we’ve been experiencing severe power outages. The nationwide power outage that took place last week was not exceptional. And as a matter of fact, it was surprising to most of us because we found out that there was a power outage through the media. It was not something that most people noticed. This is how bad the electricity situation is in Lebanon right now. Before the nationwide power outage that took place, most people were only being supplied with an hour of electricity a day, two at most. So this is obviously impacting our access to water. It’s, yeah our access to water, our access to drinking water, as well. And obviously, due to the shortages in fuel, diesel and so on, there are frequent disruptions to the internet, frequent disruption to all telecommunication services. And we’ve also been faced, since the beginning of the summer, with recurring shortages in petrol, the subsidies on which have recently been lifted.
So, the situation across the board is disastrous. Public sector employee wages have been decimated. The education provided by public schools and the only public university, the Lebanese University, is at risk. It’s not clear yet if there’s going to be another school year. And pretty much access to any basic services, commodities, basic goods, it’s extremely difficult for the vast majority of the population.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to the World Bank saying Lebanon is in one of the worst economic collapses in the last 150 years, a bit further explain?
LARA BITAR: So, let me answer that question by talking about the formation of the most recent government, spearheaded by billionaire Prime Minister Najib Mikati. Najib Mikati is basically tasked with doing one thing, in my opinion, which is, well, obviously, to resume negotiations with the IMF. Going back to the earlier question about the economy of Lebanon being based on debt, what led us to this situation today is exactly this economy that is nonproductive in any shape or form, that is reliant almost exclusively on remittances from abroad, that is also reliant to a certain extent on the service industry. But, for the most part, the economy of Lebanon is nonproductive at all. So, over the past 30 years, it has been dependent almost exclusively on these loans from the IMF, from the World Bank, from the international community, in general. And this is really what got us into this disastrous situation to begin with.
So, going back to Prime Minister Najib Mikati, he’s tasked with resuming these negotiations with the IMF, with further indebting the country and the populations, population for generations to come. And the World Bank, really, and the IMF and the international community at large has a lot of responsibility in what’s happening with Lebanon and, in my opinion, the eventual bailout that will happen, which is really a bailout of the banks, similar to what happened in the United States in 2008 after the financial crisis there. We are hearing a lot of talk about sending off what remains of state assets, of further decimating the public sector, of basically killing off what remains of this country and eliminating any possibility for, on one hand, political change, economic change and, on the other, social change. And again, I must emphasize that the international community holds a huge responsibility in constantly allowing the political class to reproduce itself, of throwing it a lifeline whenever it is in crisis, and of preventing, really, the will of the people to be assumed.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the role right now of COVID and how it’s affecting the population, and also the victims of the Beirut port blast holding a sit-in at the Palace of Justice?
LARA BITAR: So, the families of the victims and people who were injured — almost 10,000 people were injured, over a thousand permanently disabled or maimed — they have not been receiving any kind of help from the Ministry of Health or anybody else. They’ve been left to fend off on their own. Because of the depreciation of the Lebanese pound by almost — by over 90%, they are unable to pay for their surgeries. They are unable to pay for medication. And even medication, the most basic, are missing, and there are severe shortages.
What this economic crisis has created is a two-tiered society. Lebanon has always been a vastly unequal country, but the economic crisis has allowed a small minority of people to exploit the crisis and make vast amounts of money. One of the ways in which they’ve done that is through the subsidies program, that was mismanaged, that was exploited and abused by a certain class of people. And this has happened, of course, at the expense of the majority of the population, that is continuously sinking deeper into poverty. The minimum wage right now is less than $40 per month.
And to talk a little bit about COVID, the mismanagement of the vaccination program was really what was expected. The Lebanese Ministry of Health decided to buy some of the most expensive vaccines by using some of the World Bank loan that they had received as part of this resilience program, about $40 million, $32 million of which were used for the vaccination program. Less than 19% of the population is fully vaccinated. And the program, in general, was in complete disarray, mismanaged. Some people were allowed to cut the line ahead of others who should have been prioritized. Taxi drivers, people with disabilities, some of the most vulnerable of the population were placed at the end of the line, but then we saw, of course, government officials at the very front. And this outraged a lot of people when it happened. And I assume that one of the reasons that Lebanon hasn’t been hit by the Delta variant as hard as other countries have is because — is simply because so many people have already been infected. Granted the number is around 700,000 people who were infected, but, of course, it’s fair to assume that the number is significantly higher, since testing has drastically reduced over the past few months and the COVID-19 pandemic is not really so much on the agenda anymore.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lara, could you talk about the broader health context in which this COVID pandemic is playing out in Lebanon? I mean, quite apart from the absence or mismanagement of vaccination, there are also basic — the most basic medicine is not available, and hospitals and clinics are on the verge of collapse. If you could respond to that, explain what’s happening, and also elaborate on your earlier point about the international community’s complicity in the present situation? If you could explain what you mean by that and what you think needs to happen?
LARA BITAR: Sure. So, I’ll start first by addressing the health crisis in Lebanon. As you stated, most of the even generic medications are not available in pharmacies anymore. And people who have access to what is now referred to as “fresh loans” could potentially buy some of this medication off of the black market at exorbitant prices. But, again, for the overwhelming majority, it’s very difficult to access life-saving medication. A few weeks ago, cancer patients held a sit-in because they have been prevented from continuing their treatments for quite a while. They haven’t been able to access the medication that they need. Right now, honestly, it’s a gamble to be living in Lebanon, because you don’t know, if you get into a car accident, if you’re going to be transported to the hospital, whether they’re going to have the basic tools, the basic medication that you might need. At the same time, there’s also an exodus of medical workers. Doctors and nurses, just like everybody else who has the ability to do so, are fleeing the country in droves, so this is putting, you know, another burden on this sector. And finally, on that point, the social security system here in Lebanon is near bankrupt, is near bankruptcy. Almost a million people rely on this service to visit their doctor or to carry out — to have any procedure in surgery, to get their medications, as well. Now this social security service has been almost uncapable of responding to the needs of people who rely on these services.
As for my point on the international community, so, what I meant by that is, in 2019, there were mass demonstrations against this political class. The demand was pretty simple. It was a complete rejection of what this political class has been doing to this country for decades, how they’re ruling it, how they’re exploiting every industry, every sector, and how they’re constantly reinforcing their sectarian, clientelist networks in order to stay in power. And this is not to say that these mass demonstrations or that the uprising that we witnessed in 2019 and early 2020 saw a very clear pathway and that they were going to topple this political and economic system. But for a brief period of time, people thought like change could be possible, maybe not in the near future but at a certain point.
The French, in particular, led by the French president, Macron, who had this initiative, who was really playing a hero in the aftermath of the explosion and was constantly coming to Beirut and making statements, promised kind of that no aid would be given to the Lebanese government without reforms. Now, we all know what reforms mean. Reforms mean further privatization. Reforms, at a certain point, will of course mean even harsher austerity measures and the reform that is in the benefit of the banking, the banking sector in Lebanon, that is very powerful and that has a lot of sway in a lot, if not most, of the political decisions that are made by this establishment. Lebanon or the Lebanese government and this political class would not be able to sustain itself without the financial assistance of countries like France and others. This political class, that is now preparing itself for elections next year, would not be able to finance these elections and bribe people, bribe people, you know, with the basic goods and services, had it not been for the financial assistance of the international community.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Lara Bitar, editor-in-chief of The Public Source, a Beirut-based independent media organization, speaking to us from Lebanon.
Coming up, we’re going to look at how an Afghan interpreter who helped rescue Joe Biden in 2008 has finally escaped with his family from Afghanistan. Stay with us.