The freezing Mediterranean squalls that slash across downtown Beirut and the seafront to the west may give the impression this week that Lebanon is lapsing back into its favourite pastime: forgetting history and praying for a return to the good old days.
Revolution? Now that the country’s old parliamentary sectarians have gathered to support Hassan Diab’s deeply uninspiring government, it’s hard to see how the wretched system behind this country’s fragile grip on reality can ever change.
True, the graffiti is still there – including the “God is Great” imprecations spray-painted on the walls just down from my home – and the broken windows on downtown offices and the steel shutters of the banks in the city centre and in Hamra. But there’s a bigger storm coming. More inflation, more taxes, more poverty – though I noticed that the parliamentarians who gathered to vote for the new government were literally very well-heeled – is coming in this tempest. A government which tries to alleviate anger by promising yet more economic suffering is a scenario which only Lebanon can invent.
New taxes on fuel and electricity plus a rise in VAT to 15 per cent – a rate still below EU nations, but likely to rise to 20 per cent – will probably hit first. But the revolution may well return among government employees who receive their salaries in Lebanese pounds, and whose income has already fallen by up to 40 per cent. Compared to price increases of 50 per cent. What many non-Lebanese fail to appreciate is that the Lebanese army and its associated military personnel – all 72,000 of them – are among these government employees. Policemen are going to suffer just as much as the civil society whose anger they must confront in order to protect the government.