Lebanon on the brink of becoming a failed state amid poverty, division and political paralysis

·7-min read

The soft crunch of gravel up ahead of me was the only sense of anyone nearby.

It was not long after 2am, a warm night high in the eastern mountains on Syria's border with Lebanon, but the thin crescent moon gave no light.

I was blind but not alone.

Someone cleared their throat next to me. General Joe Haddad might have cut down on his cigar habit with the currency crisis biting, but his smoker's cough lives on.

He handed me some night vision goggles. A green-tunnelled world opened around me.

Western-trained soldiers were crouched either side, looking through rifle sights; a long line of vehicles including British-provided Land Rovers stretched up the road ahead.

This, in many ways, is one of Europe's frontlines and the nightly cat-and-mouse game, between smuggler and soldier, was on.

The valleys in the eastern mountains, on Lebanon's border with Syria, are a profitable route for gangs moving fuel, narcotics and people between the two countries.

Fuel, expensive and scarce in Lebanon, is even more so in Syria.

Already that night the soldiers had captured seventy gallons of diesel - the smugglers dropped it and ran, free to try again another night.

As fuel flows one way, desperate migrants come the other.

Lebanon is home to more than two million Syrian refugees, many of them living in tented camps in the valley below us.

It is just a temporary sanctuary though, and with their home country still too dangerous to return to, the greater prize of life in Europe is only one small but dangerous journey away.

A few hours later we're in one of those camps at first light, watching soldiers going from tent to tent searching for weapons and IS sleeper cells as wide-eyed children follow the dawn intrusion.

This group is being increasingly blamed for Lebanon's problems, accused of being a drain on thin resources.

It's unwarranted. The United Nations funds the refugee programme in Lebanon and until the recent currency collapse, many of the country's barmen and waiting staff were Syrian, contributing to the economy and paying their way despite facing widespread exploitation and ill-treatment.

Nevertheless they remain vulnerable, to local anger and extremist exploitation.

As the economy and government collapses around them, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are a rare pillar of stability in a country falling apart by the day.

A coup d'état is out of the question - the uneasy dynamic with the influential Hezbollah in the south, and complex sectarian power sharing relationship nationally, rules out any move for military power.

Not only that, but the army simply doesn't want to go there.

"If we were going to take over, we would have done so a long time ago," one officer tells me.

Over a simple homegrown breakfast of labneh, mint, radishes and bread, another general, Johny Akl, tells us we've come too late.

"A year ago someone came up with the idea of growing our own food. We laughed at them. Now that's exactly what we're doing."

Two sheds on the base house chickens, one batch for eggs, the others for eating, and it doesn't stop at food production - they make their own facemasks, hand sanitiser, riot shields, armour plating and more.

Smuggling wagons are impounded and militarised; captured fuel is used for anti-narcotic missions.

If it wasn't so serious, the sight of trained soldiers tending tomatoes would be almost endearing.

But this is no Good Life.

A year ago, the average salary for a young officer was $1300 (£944), today it's just $100 (£73).

The LAF is desperately worried that soldiers will abandon post to return home to look after their families or accept bribes from local gang leaders to supplement their meagre income.

If the operational tempo allows, soldiers can take extended leave to earn another income, but already some have gone AWOL and it could be the thin end of the wedge.

I asked Haddad: How long have you got?

"Two, three months. Maybe less," was his gloomy prediction.

Such is the mistrust of Lebanese politicians, both internally and abroad, the LAF has gone direct to western allies, begging bowl in hand.

The Ministry of Defence has offered food, the Americans equipment - money for salaries is what they need, though.

If the Lebanese Armed Forces collapse, the effect will be felt far beyond Beirut's corniche.

Saad Hariri, Lebanon's prime minister-designate, who is refusing to form a government, is not an especially popular politician.

Even among his own supporters his popularity is fading.

The billionaire son of assassinated Prime Minister Rafic Hariri has a playboy image that doesn't sit well with much of the country.

In 2018, during a previous economic crisis, he was accused of giving $13 million to a South African escort he met in the Seychelles.

He is hardly seen as a man of the people.

But for better or worse, he is the favoured candidate of Washington, Paris and Riyadh, and for Lebanon a Hariri-led government was the best hope of unlocking international financial aid.

A video doing the rounds on social media showed gathered Lebanese political correspondents at the Presidential Palace, gobsmacked and lost for words when the news of his decision to stand down filtered out on Thursday afternoon.

Whether it's another political play ahead of next May's elections, or genuine exasperation with his rivals, Hariri's decision this week to walk away from government could have disastrous consequences for the country.

Within minutes of his announcement the Lira had fallen to a record low; 24 hours later it was at lower still.

In less than a day, basic goods like food, medicine and fuel were almost 30% more expensive than just a week earlier, and the currency has not bottomed out yet.

How long Lebanese people will put up with this is anyone's guess, but their patience has stood strong for longer than might have been expected.

For years they've put up with self-interested politicians who've squandered money and shown feeble leadership.

The last twelve months following the Beirut port explosion have been especially gruelling.

Simple life necessities are now too expensive for many.

The long queues for fuel that wrap around Beirut neighbourhoods, contain all strata of life.

I saw Porsches next to buses, Range Rovers behind clapped-out bangers.

This crisis is affecting all of Lebanese society, with the exception of the very elite.

In Tripoli, Lebanon's second city, Majida opened the door of her fridge and showed me the food she had to feed her family of eight: a small dish of diced tomatoes and herbs.

The freezer above was completely bare.

A slipped disc has left her husband unable to work and the financial depression has left him unable to afford treatment.

Only her teenage son can earn any money, and that's desperately pitiful: two dollars for a night shift down at the port.

It didn't buy them much when I met Majida last week; it will buy them even less now.

Across town, another wife is nursing a husband unable to pay for professional care.

When we see him in his cramped first-floor apartment, Walid is unconscious, breathing through an oxygen machine.

He had cancer a year ago and that might have returned, but without a diagnosis, they have no real idea.

"He is in pain. He can't sleep, can't eat, can't drink. He's fading in front of me," Alia tells me, blinking through tears.

"How hard is it to see him in this state in front of your eyes? There is no money, no medicine, no treatment."

She isn't exaggerating. Not only is paracetamol almost impossible to find in pharmacies now, Alia couldn't afford more than a few tablets even if it was available.

Burning tyres and smouldering wheelie bins are a nightly display of protest in the capital now.

Some evenings they are the only light as the city suffers rolling blackouts.

It's a long, hot summer ahead and patience will run out soon, surely?

No government, no leadership, no money and maybe soon, no army.

Lebanon is on the brink of becoming another failed state on Europe's borders.

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