Back in October 2019, a video posted by an old school friend popped up on my Instagram feed. In this video, he was sat on the shoulders of another friend, leading chants in Lebanese asking, ‘Where’s the money?’, surrounded by a crowded street of protestors in London who were holding up Lebanese flags and banners. This school friend was Joseph El Kadi, a 23-year-old Lebanese student who is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Cambridge. My interest peaked when I saw the video, but with the pressures of work taking a toll and the lack of media attention surrounding the issues in Lebanon, I liked the video, pushed my interest in the video to the back of my mind, and kept scrolling.
As it turns out, Joseph was protesting to voice his frustrations on the dire situation that Lebanon currently finds itself in. Lebanon has the third highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world, with the Lebanese Pound losing more than 50 percent of its value in roughly half a year. Banks have placed limits on cash withdrawals within Lebanon and withdrawals in foreign countries have been entirely phased out. With the economic crisis limiting the government’s ability to make needed investments in infrastructure and other public services across Lebanon, citizens across the country have been protesting since October to express their dissatisfaction with high levels of corruption and a deteriorating economy.
Today, I have the privilege of chatting to Joseph about his take on the situation in Lebanon and what he thinks needs to change.
Q. Can you describe the current situation in Lebanon?
Right now, Lebanon is experiencing a serious economic crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the economy’s deterioration, which had already been falling apart as a result of corruption and mismanagement of funds by the Lebanese government and central bank.
Essentially, Lebanon’s central bank has been borrowing money from people’s accounts and lending it to the government, the government then ‘spends it’ but doesn’t make enough money back in revenue to close that gap. The government bled money at a dramatically increasing rate for the past ten years, which has resulted in $90 billion of public debt equivalent to 170% of local GDP.
Similarly, the government’s mismanagement is highlighted in the fact that Lebanon is yet to provide 24/7 electricity since its civil war (1975-1990). Electricity is rationed for half the day, and you have to depend on a mafia-like neighbourhood generator to provide electricity for the other half. Clean water isn’t a thing. We had a massive waste crisis in 2015, where waste just piled up on the streets of Beirut because they closed the main landfill site and the government didn’t have a plan B in place. In fact, right now a key landfill in Beirut is threatening to close its doors, which could result in another trash crisis. Crumbling road infrastructure, insane traffic. All these things have angered people alongside the recent financial crisis. There is also a lot of ridiculous finger pointing in parliament, and politicians focus on blaming each other rather than addressing the issues. The majority of politicians have been in power since the civil war and/or have passed on their power to relatives. So that’s the backstory of Lebanon, I’m sure I’ve missed things, but it’s a complex situation.
Last October, devastating forest fires struck the country and revealed that the government’s fire-fighting helicopters, purchased for $14 million, had been out of service since 2010. Meanwhile, a New York Times article two weeks earlier reported that the Prime Minister had gifted $16 million to a South African model. Then ironically, in the same month, in ‘trying’ to handle the financial crisis, the government attempted to pass a law to tax WhatsApp. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and people took to the streets with widespread anger against the government and ruling class, demanding an independent new government of ‘technocrats’ - experts who are not politically affiliated.
Since October, banks have imposed capital control and are only letting people withdraw around a hundred dollars a week. Since then, we've seen threefold inflation of the local currency, which is usually pegged to the dollar. People risk losing their entire life savings if hyperinflation happens. Meanwhile, between October and the end of 2019, $1 billion were illegally transferred abroad by Lebanese despite capital control measures. Today, we have around half of the population below the poverty line, up from a third last September, which is insane.
Q. How do you feel about what is happening in your home country?
I feel devastated, it feels like we’re fighting an uphill battle. My feelings fluctuate, a lot of the time I feel hopeless, but then I have bursts of energy where it still feels like a cause worth fighting for. Back in October, there was a sense of unity and hope at the protests I attended in London, the Lebanese diaspora coming together to try and find some common ground to share and push for change, or at least voice our frustrations and anger – that was good. But there is still a big disconnect between people standing and chanting, and actual change that can make concrete and lasting changes to a system.
It’s just devastating to see the youth of a country desperately trying to find any sort of way out of the country. Out of the 20 or so of my close friends who I met in Lebanon, only three still live there, and one of them is about to move to Belgium. One by one, we’re all leaving – it’s really sad.
Q. Can you tell me more about how you’ve tried to push for change in Lebanon?
There’s a group of individuals in London who mobilised and organised protests there, I partook in as many as I could, coming down from Cambridge even if just for the day. Some of these protests were also synchronised with protests by Lebanese diaspora around the globe. This group have now formed an NGO called Impact Lebanon. I’ve joined and donated to their fundraisers which provide food, medication and supplies to families in need in Lebanon, as well as accommodation for hospital staff to quarantine away from their families during the COVID-19 crisis. They also host webinars about grassroots environmental projects which deal with waste management, water pollution and reforestation in Lebanon.
I’m also trying to be vocal about this on social media and post about other platforms raising urgent funds for Lebanon after verifying their credibility. Growing up, I wasn’t really vocal about politics, but now I’ve had a change in perspective. I think that a big part of changing a system is about awareness and communication. At the end of the day, it’s the Lebanese population who keep electing incompetent politicians, who in turn manipulate people to keep voting for them (through local media and bribes believe it or not), which is why I think it’s important to express my views and have an online discourse take place on social media. Of course, that’s not a direct change, but being vocal online might change who that person votes for next time, or prompt them to have a conversation with family members who share different views.
I also think it’s important to be vocal about issues in countries like Lebanon which don’t make the front pages on media outlets outside the middle east, because our problems are in some ways international. In late November, I remember posting on Instagram about going to a protest in London when protest energy was tailing off; I was trying to say that we need to keep going because we’ve built momentum, and I know that it seems hopeless but it’s important to come together and voice our frustrations about what we want changed. Surprisingly, I got replies on Instagram from friends from Chile and Hong Kong, who were experiencing similar protests in their countries. They were saying, ‘We know how you feel, we feel the same way over here, keep going for it, we’re in this uphill battle together.’ I was touched by this online, international shared feeling of activism.
Q. How do you think COVID-19 has affected Lebanon?
A lot of Lebanon’s economy relies on the service industry: restaurants, retail, etc. COVID-19 has put many of these individuals out of work, which has wider implications on their livelihoods and the economy. As I said earlier, the economic situation is already under heavy strain with limits on bank withdrawals and inflation, with almost half the population living under the poverty line today. At the same time, I think we really have to tread carefully with COVID-19 in countries like Lebanon who don’t have the proper infrastructure and healthcare to deal with this. It’s like walking a tightrope between trying to protect people’s lives but also trying to prevent economic collapse.
What has really struck me is the desperation which the virus has highlighted. When Coronavirus hit, protest activity initially dropped, but we’ve recently seen people take to the streets again in the past few weeks, because simply, they have nothing to lose right now. If Coronavirus doesn’t kill them, hunger will. Two weeks ago, fights broke out between the army and protestors, and a protestor was shot dead in the north of Lebanon. Things are definitely going to get worse before they get better.
Q. What do you think needs to change in Lebanon?
Good but tricky question. What I’m about to say is my opinion, I don’t have all the answers, and I apologise if I miss out or focus on certain aspects. Being asked what should change in a country is a question that we should absolutely be asking ourselves, I just want to acknowledge the limits of my knowledge.
Firstly, from an economic perspective, Lebanon needs to form a more self-sustaining economy; we currently import almost everything. With a self-reliant economy, Lebanon can be sovereign in the steps it takes and not be influenced by external players. But that’s a long-term goal, and in the short-term I think we have no other option but to seek help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to try prevent complete collapse.
From a political perspective, Lebanon’s current system is such that power is divided based on religious factions, which encourages a lot of nepotism and sectarianism. It doesn’t promote a secular state where religion is something in the mind and separate from politics - they’re very intertwined and this definitely needs to change. People should vote for a person based on their qualities and economic, political and social stances, not based on their religion. For this to change, I think the key lies in education and social awareness on civil rights, economics and politics. This might sound philosophical, but so many revolutions in global history have felt like one failed government replaced by another. In Lebanon, education will help people get out of their sectarian mentality. That’s why I’m seriously considering moving to Lebanon after my PhD and getting involved in education and teaching.
The last thing that needs to change is the judicial system, this is really key for concrete steps to be taken in the country. Judges need to have independence away from the government’s influence and conflicts of interest, so that those involved in corruption and mismanagement can actually be put on trial and so ministers and members of parliament know that there’s a sense of accountability. Recently with COVID-19, ministers in Europe resigned after being caught not following lockdown rules. In Lebanon, there are countless ministers and MPs that have committed many violations with no accountability. The key question is: How can we actually put in place an independent judiciary system that can hold people accountable? This is a serious challenge which faces many other countries around the world suffering from corruption. Overcoming this issue of accountability could really help Lebanon take concrete steps in a positive direction, whether it’s tackling the environmental or the economic crises we’re facing.
Now that I come to think of it, back in the October protests I published a list of ideas on Instagram of what should change in Lebanon. Overall, for long-term, sustainable change, I think education is so key and often forgotten. If you raise a new generation of young individuals who have better values and levels of social awareness, that will create a lasting change in society. At the same time, you need to offer them an economic argument to stay in the country, because currently we’re facing mass emigration of Lebanon’s youth. The last part is the judicial system, those elected into power need to be held accountable for their actions. These three pillars are so key and will dictate the future politics and economics of the country.
Speaking to Joseph about the current situation in Lebanon has really opened my eyes to the concept of corruption. As we have identified in this conversation, tackling corruption is going to be one of the biggest global challenges of our generation. There is not a simple solution to overcome corruption within a country, as each country’s individual relationship with corruption is incredibly complex and requires analysing and deconstructing various pillars within society.
As we discussed corruption in Lebanon, I kept drawing parallels to the political situation in Pakistan, where my own family come from. Two years ago, Imran Khan was elected as the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan, with democracy and anti-corruption at the forefront of his campaign. Pakistanis across the globe held hope for Khan, however, what Pakistan has learnt from his victory is that one individual does not hold the power to change the system. In November 2019, thousands of Pakistani protesters took to the streets to call for Imran Khan’s resignation, as they felt that he had not lived up to his campaign and had not changed Pakistan for the better. For a country to overcome corruption, it requires a collective effort for the government and the citizens, a lot of patience as the system is deconstructed and reconstructed, and a lot of time for changes to be implemented and become effective.
I’d like to thank Joseph for taking the time to discuss the current situation in Lebanon in such depth. His passion for changing the system in Lebanon have inspired me to try and understand Pakistani politics better. As a third generation British Pakistani, it is much easier to turn a blind eye to what is going on back in Pakistan and focus on the political system where you currently are, especially when things back in Pakistan are complicated. I’d like to invest more time into understanding Pakistan as a nation, not only for my benefit, but for the benefit of the collective who want things to change in Pakistan.