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All smiles at a political rally in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square. Photo: Geoff Dunlop / Alamy

Country Profile: Lebanon

Lebanon
Country Profile

Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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My 15-year-old daughter suddenly declared last week that she needed a break. A break from what? I inquired, imagining a teenage world of academic tests, peer pressure or girlish gossip. ‘From Lebanon,’ she said.

Lebanon is a country that goes through ‘waves’. The early 2000s saw a wave of assassinations, a wave of bombs planted in various neighborhoods, a wave of demonstrations.

More recently, a wave of refugees from the Syrian war entered the country. By October 2016, according to the UNHCR, Lebanon was host to 1.1 million registered refugees – around a quarter of the number of permanent inhabitants, and this in a tiny country of just 10,452 square kilometres (about the size of Devon and Cornwall in the UK). Refugee camps were quickly set up. Schools opened afternoon classes to accommodate Syrian children.

A family of Syrian refugees in a UN camp near Zahle, in the Bekaa valley
A family of Syrian refugees in a UN camp near Zahle, in the Bekaa valley. Photo: François Razon / Alamy

As the Syrian war showed no sign of stopping, even more refugees arrived and the streets were filled with begging Syrian children. Lebanon felt like it was drowning. Local unemployment increased as Syrians, in their desperation, took on jobs at lower wages.

Then, suddenly, the influx of refugees began to slow – not much, but enough to notice the difference in the streets of Beirut. Now ships off the coast of Tripoli, in the north of the country, were illegally shepherding refugees to Europe. We watched on television mesmerized as so many made their way into Europe. We were even more mesmerized to see some Lebanese of Syrian descent among them. Some I know well. They are now European residents, they tell me, as they grin mischievously during holidays back in Lebanon.

The historic market in the northern town of Tripoli. Photo: Mark Pearson / Alamy
The historic market in the northern town of Tripoli. Photo: Mark Pearson / Alamy

In 2014, a new wave: the kidnapping of Lebanese soldiers by ISIS. The Islamist group overran the town of Arsal, on the northeast side of the fertile Bekaa Valley. Fear gripped the country: was ISIS about to invade Lebanon? Panic ensued.

The Lebanese army, along with fighters from the Shi’a group Hizbullah, surrounded the stronghold of the militants and then, in 2017, launched separate offensives against them. The battle ended with an exchange of dead bodies and prisoners and with the evacuation of the militants; the eight kidnapped soldiers were found murdered.

Meanwhile, a wave of a completely different kind: the closure of Beirut’s waste dumps in 2015. Garbage piled up in the streets, even burying parked cars. The street leading to my apartment building was blocked with bags of garbage. The stench was unbearable. Night after night, the horrible odour of burning garbage would infiltrate our homes.

A series of protests, aptly dubbed YOUSTINK, erupted as thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in protest. The garbage crisis lasted for eight long months. As I write, a landfill site has been created near the airport. But this is only temporary and much of the trash is still strewn all over the beaches, rivers and forests.

Rubbish dumped on the road in north Beirut: the country’s garbage collection system has collapsed.
Rubbish dumped on the road in north Beirut: the country’s garbage collection system has collapsed. Photo: Char Abumansoor / Alamy

The latest wave: our prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, suddenly resigned in November 2017 in a televised address during a visit to Saudi Arabia. This called forth accusations that he was being held hostage – the Saudis were unhappy with his accommodating attitude towards Hizbullah, which is backed by Iran.

Would a pro-Saudi camp and a Tehran-backed alliance take to the streets? Would Lebanon plunge back into turmoil reminiscent of the 1975-90 civil war? We held our breath.Lebanon map

After a month of invisibility, Hariri withdrew his resignation just as suddenly as he had tabled it. He claimed that the situation had been resolved after the government had agreed to keep out of the affairs of other Arab states; he resumed his post as if nothing had happened. We breathed again.

But there will inevitably be another ‘wave’ soon. I have to agree with my daughter. I, too, need a break from Lebanon.

Fact file

Leader Head of state Michel Aoun; head of government Saad al-Hariri.
Economy GNI per capita $7,980 (Jordan $3,920, France $38,720).
Monetary unit Lebanese pound.
Main exports Cement, chemicals, clothing, electrical equipment, jewellery, metals, textiles, tobacco. Lebanon has a free-market economy with minimal government regulations. Banking secrecy is a key feature. Agricultural output is still only 20% of that before the civil war, and less than a third of the country’s food is home-grown.
People 6.1 million (annual growth rate 2.6%, not including influxes of refugees). People per square kilometre 575 (UK 271).
Health Infant mortality 7 deaths per 1,000 live births (Jordan 15, France 3). HIV prevalence rate <0.1. Hospitals have doctors schooled in Europe or the US and have modern equipment. But the many Lebanese without insurance end up without medical care or in poorly run clinics.
Environment The garbage crisis has severely polluted many of Lebanon’s waterways. The piles of trash in the country’s few remaining forests could contribute to future deforestation by sparking bushfires. Street burning of trash poses grave health risks.
Culture Predominantly Arab, but with strong Western influences. The Levant has been populated and influenced by numerous cultures over the millennia: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Crusaders, Ottoman Turks, French.
Religion There has been no census since 1932, when there were similar numbers of Muslims and Christians. A new census is avoided so as not to upset sectarian sensibilities but it is accepted that the Muslim population is now larger than the Christian.
Language Arabic, officially, but French and English are widely spoken. The Lebanese are renowned for their ability to switch between languages.
Human Development Index 0.763, 76th of 188 countries (Jordan 0.741, France 0.897)

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution The average salary of a Lebanese employee is about $500 per month, which barely covers the basic necessities. There is a significant wealthy elite and little serious government effort at redistribution.
Literacy Education standards are quite high in the state-run schools and the huge array of private ones; most children are expected to speak three languages fluently by the time they graduate.
Life expectancy 79 years (Jordan 74, France 83).
Freedom There are no political prisoners and freedom of expression allows lively debate. But many Lebanese have disappeared in the past for criticizing the Syrian government and are thought to be in Syrian prisons.
Position of women Women represent 28% of the workforce – the highest in the Arab world. There are female doctors, lawyers, engineers and managers and the number of women entering the political arena and starting their own businesses has recently increased.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is illegal and imprisonable for a year, but is quietly tolerated. Four years ago, an advocacy group was established to promote LGBT rights – the first of its kind in the Arab world. The gay community has recently become more visible.
Previously reviewed April 2008
New Internationalist assessment Lebanon has experienced some welcome stability in the past year since the election of President Michel Aoun and the formation of a new government headed by Hariri. In October 2016 Hariri finally agreed to support Hizbullah's candidate, Aoun, ending two-and-a-half years of deadlock between opposing parliamentary coalitions, one backed by the West and Saudi Arabia and the other by Syria and Iran. Hizbullah is now the paramount power in Lebanon. The continuing garbage crisis is a scandal that exposes the depth of corruption within the ruling elite.

New Internationalist issue 512 magazine cover This article is from the May 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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