Hussam Itani

Between Bread and War, the Lebanese Wait

The Lebanese are waiting for many things these days: they are waiting in line at bakeries to receive their share of bread. They are waiting for a war against Israel to erupt, a scenario that a man on a screen promises will save them from the catastrophic situation they find themselves in.

They are waiting for expats to return, bringing with them money they desperately need to invigorate what remains of our economy and touristic institutions. They are waiting for public sector employees to end their open-ended strike so they can get their paperwork done. They are waiting for the passports they have been denied for some incomprehensible reason.

They are waiting for their share of electricity, no more than an hour and a half daily. They are waiting for medicine for the ill they are looking after.

Every Lebanese citizen is waiting for hope, whose manifestation differs depending on their needs.

There are those waiting for a visa to help them escape the hell that has become their lives. Others are waiting to retrieve even a fraction of the deposits they had put in the bank and had been depending on, back in the day, to ensure they could live out their old age with dignity. A third group is waiting for their children to graduate from university and emigrate - the only reasonable option for the youths of Lebanon.

Often, one Lebanese has two or three things they are waiting for at the same time. One could be standing in a queue, as do thousands of others hoping to get their bundle of subsidized bread, and be thinking about smart missiles striking Israeli oil and gas fields in the sea as the best solution for his or her suffering.

Another may have voted for the Za’im (leader) of his sect and pinned his hopes on the few dollars sent by a close relative residing abroad to relieve him of some of the disasters facing him on a daily basis. It never crossed the mind of our friend expecting the best from a war with Israel as he stands in line at a bakery that his crisis is the fault of his own flesh and blood, who are hiding the subsidized flour and smuggling it across the border to share the profits from selling it at its actual price with Syrian security agencies.

Nor does it cross his mind that a new war would be at the roll of the dice, even if the man with smart missiles tells him that dying a martyr in battle (or, more likely, from an airstrike) with Israel is better than dying in brawl next to a bakery of a petrol station.

Logical contradictions are not important to the Lebanese doing the waiting; if they had been, we would have seen fundamental changes to what political means. We would have seen politics turn from a tool for perpetuating sectarian divisions and the domination of communities that share nothing but fear of one another and contempt for those who differ from them into a means for furthering the interests of the majority who continue to wait for their delusions to come true.

Investing in this mutual fear and contempt is nothing new in Lebanon. It seems that every stage has its own slogans and justifications.

Dividing the country was the slogan raised to save the Christians from being dominated by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its leftist and Muslim allies early on during the civil war. In the 1980s, Christian “liberated areas” were contrasted with the Muslim areas occupied by the Syrians.

Today, ideas like that of dividing the Beirut Municipality and federalism have resurfaced after all hopes in the country coming out united of this void it continues to sink deeper into had been dashed.

It should be mentioned here that those calling for federalism, claiming to want to “save what they can” in Lebanon, given that saving the entire country has become impossible, will soon clash with the traditional representatives of the Christina community. That is because federalism aims to liberate the Christians from the burden of living alongside a Muslim majority whose Shiite wing is dominated by a party armed to the teeth as the Free Patriotic Movement, for example, claims that the safety of Christians is owed to this arsenal.

Disputes will soon emerge between the federalists aspiring to live in peace in their areas and the traditionalists, who see fear of the other or exploiting the other’s strength as the reason they can dominate their community.

The project to split the Beirut Municipality is built on stirring panic of the chaos and destruction surrounding the Western, Muslim half of Beirut, spreading to the Christian, Eastern half, which is better administered and more prosperous. Keeping the community in this state of fear is kryptonite to any movement of national integration or even (as the proponents of federalism will soon find out) a peaceful separation. But that is another matter.

As for those standing in line to get their bread, they are ready to kill and be killed, not only if someone cuts in line, but also if someone tells them, as they are standing under the July sun, that a war with Israel is not a good idea and that it would cost them more suffering and make their current predicament seem like a walk in the park.

It is perhaps an age-old lesson that rulers have always applied: creating external conflicts usually papers over internal despondency. This tactic is virtually foolproof in a country where the people have been unable to solve even one of their crushing problems and will be faced with, in the coming months, presidential elections that will most likely turn into another chance to put our total bankruptcy on display.