On the brink
Since October, the streets of Lebanon’s capital have been overwhelmed by protests against political disarray, economic crisis and – most recently – the government’s handling of coronavirus. It has become a country on the brink. In the words of its own Prime Minister, Hasan Diab, the country is “drowning in debt,” too. On Saturday, Mr Diab formally announced that Lebanon will default on a Eurobond payment of $1.2 billion worth of Eurobonds, due yesterday. The news marks the first time in Lebanon’s history that the once-booming seaside nation, now the third-most indebted country in the world, has failed to pay back its creditors. Yet in a country where half of all government expenditure is driven towards debt repayment, Mr Diab’s announcement has caught few by surprise. Lebanon’s economy continues to reach unprecedented levels of crisis each week, and since November, a shortage of foreign currency has devalued the Lebanese pound on the black market by more than 60 per cent. It is estimated, moreover, that poverty could rise to 50 per cent, should the country continue on its present course. Lebanon’s so-called “national rescue” government – backed by the Hezbollah – has framed the failure to pay the debt as a defiant measure to save the Lebanese people. In reality, it is the failure of responsible leadership from Hezbollah that has contributed more than anything else in backing Lebanon into the corner in which it now finds itself. Beirut has no choice but to default. But it has had made many choices that led to this point, including over-borrowing, failures to crack down on rampant corruption, acceptance of Hezbollah’s hegemony and incompetence. The default will also tarnish Lebanon’s reputation as a borrower even further.
As the crises continue, popular anger is mounting, with people taking to the streets to express their deep dissatisfaction. The prime minister and his new government have proven themselves to be nonplussed by the mess its backers have created. While Mr Diab did promise to launch a wide-ranging programme of reforms to put Lebanon on the path to economic recovery, his Cabinet failed to include any measures to address the crisis in its annual budget or to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund – an option that Hezbollah rejects. Lebanon needs sweeping reforms, as well as non-corrupt and competent leaders that can stand up to save the country. Mr Diab has yet to prove that he and his Cabinet can fit those criteria. The prime minister himself admitted last week that the state has “lost the trust of the Lebanese people” and is “no longer capable of protecting them”. These are dispiriting words for citizens to hear from their own leaders.