“We cannot think about the future” – students in Lebanon amid the crushing economic crisis

Students protesting at the American University of Beirut, via AUB Secular Club Fb page.             

What would you do if suddenly your tuition fee increased dramatically, and you were not able to pay it anymore?

Many Lebanese students had to ask themselves this very question in the last year and a half. The country is living its worst socio-economic crisis since the end of the civil war in 1990, the most appalling effect of which is the enormous devaluation of the local currency. While before the financial meltdown one US dollar was equivalent to 1500 Lebanese Liras (LL), the value of the Lira reached in the last days the negative record of around 15.000 LL per dollar in the black market.

The prices of everyday goods are skyrocketing. “If before I could buy a pack of cigarettes for around 2000 LL, now it’s almost 10.000. But it varies from item to item”, explains Bilal Nehme, a young TV content creator and political activist from the South of Lebanon.

According to a UN report, in May 2020, more then half of the population had fallen under the poverty line and extreme poverty had increased by 23% from the previous year. Since then, according to experts, poverty is still on the rise.

In a society where 10% of the population owns around 70% of the total wealth, the worse consequences of the crisis are weighing on the weakest groups. Among them, the younger generations.

Hussein Cheaito, 24, is a researcher in Political Economy living in Beirut. “Many young people – including myself – are tired, and hopeless. The situation is overtaking their mental capacity and their ability to think: okay, what should I do next?”, he explains.

For most of them, emigration seems the only possible solution. “It’s difficult to think about the future. There is the idea that everything that is going bad now, will be even worse in the future”, says Bilal.

How did the situation escalate to this point?

Lebanese’s economy is based on services and relies heavily on imports. After the civil war, Lebanon started accumulating public debt to back the reconstruction. Over the years, it became the third most indebted country in the world.

When foreign currency reserves in Lebanon Central Bank dried up in 2019, the number of dollars that people could withdraw or send from their accounts was progressively limited. For University students enrolled abroad, it meant that they could no longer receive money and pay their tuition fees. While some Universities accorded special status to Lebanese students, others were not equally understanding and many had to drop out, explains architecture student Lara Slim.

Lara during our interview.  

Many Lebanese see the roots of the economic collapse in the rotten political system, based on power-sharing between the religious group.  The sectarian system is accused of fostering corruption and immobilism.

Currently, the Levantine country is frozen in a political stalemate. Prime Minister-designate Hariri has been failing to form a government since the resignation of his predecessor after the catastrophic explosion in the port of Beirut on the 4th of August 2020. Without a functioning government, it is impossible to achieve the structural reforms to which financial support is tied.

On top of that, the situation of many students worsened when the top universities of the country, the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University, rose their tuition fees to the new official exchange rate of the dollar. The decision has been heavily contested by students associations, but Universities are inflexible. “It’s like they’re living in a different country, and we are not all in this together”, comments Hussein.

Experiencing these struggles herself, Lara created with other students the NGO Khayar, which aims to provide financial support and a safety net for students in need. “Cutting down on education will have disastrous consequences for our future. If we want change in this country, we need an empowered and educated youth,” she says.

What is happening now?

“People are very very angry”, says Hussein. In the last weeks, as the Lira value dropped and insecurity in the country aggravated, protests erupted again in Lebanon. 

“In 2011, we fought for the secularization of the regime, it was somehow a demand for the niche, instead now everyone is affected. Many protests are spontaneous: sometimes they start as sudden explosions of rage for everyday injustice”, says Bilal.

Bilal during protesting in Riad al-Solh Square, Beirut in November 2019

The strongest wave of protests took place in October 2019. It led to a new government, but did not bring any significant change. “I felt for the first time that I belong to this country. It was a revolution for myself as well”, recalls Lara. Like many others, she has the feeling that the October Revolution is not over, it’s just momentarily in a lower key because of the pandemic.

Bilal, Lara and Hussein dream of their future outside of Lebanon. However, they believe that the collective traumas of the crisis and the Beirut Blast were a wake-up call for many young people, who thrive for more political particpation and are builiding alternatives to a system that does not represent them.

An extended version of this article was published in Italian on the magazine The Submarine.

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