Beirut 2020: a diary of the collapse is a personal, ground-level account of the political, financial, and social crises that pulverized the Lebanese state between October of 2019 and September of 2019. Before we move on with more on this topic, I must ask:
In the fall of 2019, the Lebanese state became overwhelmed by regulatory pressures and embargoes put on the Nation’s banks. Essentially, the bodies that oversaw international payment systems noticed that Lebanese banks were mismanaging their clients’ money, giving out massive loans to borrowers who intended to default, burning through cash, and abusing their power in the financial system. I don’t know much about finance, so let’s sum it up and say Lebanese banks were being recklessly corrupt. As this information percolated through society, some of the greatest fortunes in the Middle East were transferred out of Lebanese banks for protection against bank defaults or failures. As the banks bled capital, the government and productive sectors of Lebanon weakened under rising costs and crumbling services.
Majdalani writes freely and loosely but is always engaging. He alternates between (1) describing contemporary political and financial phenomena, (2) pointing out changes to daily life that result from the problems high up, and (3) giving us an overview of the history of the Lebanese state. As the nation’s banks lost power and trust in both the domestic and international stages, the Lebanese pound followed. Layoffs began, factories reduced their output, and businesses started to rely more and more on imports. Life became expensive, frugal, and silent. Financial and political stresses arising from this situation quickly invaded all spheres of life in Lebanon: widespread blackouts became a regular occurrence and much of people’s focus was on their dwindling hopes for the future.
Why did this happen, and why did the state fail to alleviate the crisis?
I didn’t know much about Lebanon going into this book. I knew it had had a grueling civil war in the 80s, an opulent higher class, and strong ties with European political and financial powers. A story that stands out is when my then-coworker Georges recounted the 2005 assassination of then-Prime Minister Rafic Hariri: as Hariri’s motorcade paraded through the heart of Beirut, 1000 kgs of TNT exploded beneath him, killing dozens and destroying a number of surrounding buildings. The explosion left behind a massive hole in the ground, quite representative of the violent shockwaves that shook the country.
Instead of being set in a rotating basis by the ruling power as it happens in most democracies, political appointments were constitutionally and permanently given to different clans. This was meant to set permanent divisions between the power of various ethnic and religious groups (according to Wikipedia, this is called consociationalism). At any given time, this arrangement produced government boards that were at odds with each other and majorly dedicated to preserving the power of their own clan. The problem is, many players were incessantly trying to gain territory in this landscape, including outside intrusions by Syria, which occupied major areas of Lebanon for decades and gained permanent seats in the Lebanse parliament.
Back to 2019: the government was struggling to keep the crisis at bay. Confidence in the financial and productive markets waned as the Lebanese people were left out of work and struggling to make ends meet. Looming over this grim landscape, was the risk that the government would go completely bankrupt: the ruling powers could not reach arrangements on how to put resources to good use, largely because everyone was afraid of losing whatever power they had. Public services declined and life on the streets became more and more precarious.
CliMajdalani shares stories about meeting up with friends over dinner and hearing their impressions on the whole situation. Early in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the hardships and put everyone in an increasingly thick cloud of despair. It was difficult for people to talk about anything other than the crises and social protests became more and more common. Think back to the major news events of 2020. Do you remember what else happened that year in Beirut?
Before I move on to describe the catastrophic ending to this tale, let me share some impressions on the general atmosphere of a country whose power dwindles and whose people lose hope. Depending on where you grew up, you may or may not relate to this:
A strong state is one where the lines are clear and people feel safe within them. When political systems fail or become corrupted, liberties are uncertain and daily life constrained by this lack of assurance. For example, one may choose not to go for a walk at night when safety from crime is not taken for granted. Instead of exploring the full expanse of their freedom, citizens choose instead to stay far from the fringes where their bounds of their rights encounter those of others’.
As you may have guessed, the climax came with a massive explosion in the city’s port on August 4 of 2020. Right after this date, Majdalani’s diary has a number of unfinished chapters and thoughts that reveal his state of absolute shock and disbelief. Once his mind started to clear, Majdalani put down his own account of the events.
An earthquake, he thought. After many seconds, the shaking stopped. Then it started again. Then it stopped again. Then the sonic blast. It was not an earthquake. What on Earth just happened?
Diary entries in this last portion of the book describe the physical and emotional devastation that came with the explosion. Thousands of houses, businesses, and restaurants had been completely destroyed. People’s furniture and belongings reduced to rubble. Brigades of volunteers cleaned up the streets as the engineers among them surveyed damaged buildings to assess whether or not they were safe to inhabit. Tragedy galvanized the Lebanese people, who already stood behind each other against an unresponsive government.
Expressions of despair and loss abound coming from Majdalani himself but also from anonymous, one-clause testimonies he compiled in the last pages of the diary. In the end, there is no conclusion other than a sense of absurdity. Failing systems made prosperity and happiness seem unattainable in many senses: no safety, no justice, and no abundance. In the streets, scarcity and adversity created a large vulnerable class whose suffering and need today had already “locked in the nightmares of tomorrow.” The middle classes, it seems, were inspired to do better and help others crawl out of this pit. If only they could dispose of the powerful and get a fresh start.