BEIRUT: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE “PARIS OF THE MIDDLE EAST”?


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Among the many leaderless demonstrations sweeping the globe protesting graft, corruption, political elite dominance, income inequality, declining living standards, lack of jobs, etc., the street demonstrations in Lebanon that began in mid-October have escalated. 

The protest that escalated last Wednesday, when some 250,000 were on the streets, many of them blocking the major road near the Presidential Palace, continued through the weekend. 

Denouncing protester demands for political reform and removal of the current ruling government, Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, stated, “If they do not like any person in authority, let them emigrate.”

Despite some incidents of violence, the demonstrations have largely remained peaceful.

But as seen in Hong Kong, Bolivia, and Iraq, the longer these tensions are unresolved, the more likely violence will ignite.

What Happened to the “Paris of the Middle East”?

While the capital city of Lebanon has seen a substantial restoration caused by decades of civil war and foreign intervention, it’s hard to imagine it was once an elegant city and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

Yet, look at photos of Beirut from the 1950s to early ‘70s and it’s easy to see why: luxurious hotels; modern, high-rise apartments; and aesthetic, French-influenced architecture can be seen throughout the city. 

Streets were flourishing with city gardens, cafes, and street vendors attracting buyers.  

Hundreds of artists and fashion designers created an elegant environment making Beirut a major tourist attraction.

Beirut had been a city divided for centuries among Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims.

But despite strong religious memories of the horrific Crusades and simmering tensions between Sunni and Shiite, Lebanon’s three religious communities agreed to share power evenly.

That was then

In 1975, civil war broke out between Palestinian and Christian militias. Neighboring Syria and Israel intruded into the battle, supporting opposite factions. Eventually Iran, France, Russia, and the U.S. became militarily involved.

From 1975 to 1990, some 120,000 Lebanese were killed, tens of thousands displaced within, and a massive exodus of almost one million left the country.  

In 1980, Israeli forces invaded Lebanon, occupying Beirut and laying siege to the city. 

In the fight against Israel, in the early 1980s Hezbollah, a Shia proxy of Iran was formed in Lebanon. 

Among Hezbollah’s manifesto was the objective to expel “the Americans, the French and their allies definitely from Lebanon, putting an end to any colonialist entity on our land.”

In 1983, 220 U.S. Marines and 21 other personnel were killed by a suicide truck bomb in Beirut. Shortly afterward, a second suicide bomber smashed into a Beirut building, killing 58 French soldiers stationed there.

Within months, President Reagan ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Lebanon.

Beirut continued to suffer up to 2005, when Syrian soldiers, who had been occupying portions of the city for 29 years, were finally forced to leave as part of a peace accord.

Around that time, a visitor described large sections of the once-elegant city as a “bullet-pocked stone skeleton.”

From 2005 to today, however, much of Beirut has gone through an impressive amount of restoration.  

It is now a “partitioned” city, caught between the larger geopolitical conflict of Iran, which supports Hezbollah, on one side and Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. on the other.  The Eastern half of the city is mostly Christian, the western half Sunni, and the southern section Shiite.

From Top to Bottom

While a number of noted fashion designers, chefs, and entrepreneurs have returned to Beirut, the prospects of higher spending and more wealth are not trickling down to the mass population.  The millions of protesting citizens are fighting against declining living conditions, poverty, and government corruption.

They see these trends as Lebanon’s leaders favoring elites and an economy offering them no hope. Unable to afford the basic needs of life, they don’t have the money to buy what the expensive, open-air malls are selling or to eat in the high-priced cafés and restaurants.

As the protests escalate, the recent Lebanese tourism revival has completely stalled. Revenue projections had been on track to exceed seven billion dollars, almost a 50 percent rise from the previous year. 

And instead of images of wealthy visitors enjoying city life, photographs now show protesters camped out in tents in front of luxury hotels.

With civil unrest intensifying, banks have closed their doors as customers try to convert their Lebanese pounds to dollars.  Bank workers have gone on strike for fear of their safety following restrictions on dollar withdrawals.

While the deposits of the general public are on hold, the wealthiest have moved their stashes out of the country. 

The Lebanese pound was devalued by 19 percent on the black market, causing prices on household commodities to skyrocket.

Gas stations also closed down, and hospitals can’t obtain vital supplies because they don’t have access to enough dollars.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Riad Salame, the central bank governor, said that money was safe in the bank and no restrictions would be put on withdrawals.

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