Elderly couples across the country are sifting through rubbish together, and young men are looking for clothes and shoes to bring back to their families.
Many of them curl up when approached by cameras and journalists. “Please just go across the street.” Go far, ”said a man, rummaging through a dumpster in Beirut, to a CNN team.
While Lebanon entered a Covid-induced lockout earlier this year, the destruction of the middle class has remained largely out of sight, but now, when it reopens, there is no way to escape to dystopian scenes of desperation repeated across the country.
Almost every day, the snowball effect of the economic collapse in Lebanon brings new developments. For weeks, the country’s currency has been in free fall, losing 60% of its value last month alone.
Life savings for people, blocked by discretionary control of bank capital, imposed since November, would largely go up in smoke.
Doctors and university professors who, just a few months ago, were considered to be upper middle classes are now earning the equivalent of a few hundred dollars a month.
Meanwhile, prices have jumped – the situation is close to hyperinflation – and fuel shortages have plunged the country into obscurity, with power cuts that lasted nearly 24 hours.
“It sounds very hopeless,” said Carmen Geha, activist and associate professor of public administration at the American University of Beirut. “You sit and wait and it gets worse every day, and the people around you get worse.
“You seem to be waiting for the end of the world, with people eating out of trash cans and people stealing from pharmacies,” she added, recalling a recent armed robbery by diapers in a pharmacy. Diapers are prohibitive for many in Lebanon.
“I didn’t think it was going to be so bad,” she said. “I didn’t think we would be living in a jungle. ”
Less than nine months ago, the country swelled with outrage against a political elite widely accused of corruption. Protesters demanding the fall of the sectarian leadership in Lebanon forced the closure of roads on a national scale, and patriotic hymns were broadcast by loudspeakers installed on makeshift protest sites assimilated to social utopias.
Fast forward to today and the contrast is striking.
The wave of small protests that continue to occur across the country receives little media attention. Instead, a series of recent suicides dominate the conversations and the atmosphere is solemn.
Half-empty cafes and restaurants play music at low volume, and social media pages that would normally advertise summer parties and carnivals are now making a rapid succession of calls for solidarity and humanitarian aid .
Last Friday, a man was shot dead near a Dunkin Donuts branch in the middle of a busy street. He had prepared a sign saying “I am not a heretic”, in reference to a well-known Lebanese left-wing song, and an apparent reference to religious taboos around suicide. The verse continues: “But hunger is heresy. ”
Even the attempts to lighten the mood seem to have succeeded only in making people’s pain worse.
On Sunday, an orchestra inside the ancient city of the temple of Jupiter of Baalbeck – a place that hosted concerts by Nina Simone and the Egyptian diva Um Kulthoum – performed in an empty hall. The concert, titled “The Sound of Resilience”, was broadcast across the country.
But as a light show radiated from Carmina Burana’s hovering notes concert hall, a drone camera rose above the majestic temple, showing the vibrant colors that shone in the midst of the dark darkness d ‘a new power failure. Many saw this as a funeral for a bygone era.
But activists insist on the end of this dark image.
Across the country, anger is mounting against a ruling elite that has done little to prevent the country’s economic collapse.
Leading figures of the political class are pointing fingers, fighting for power. The reforms promised by the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, a self-taught technocrat, have largely fallen by the wayside.
Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund have stalled after politicians aligned with the country’s banking elite torpedoed the economic program approved by the IMF government, which was to dig into the profits of the banks.
The international community – once an active player in Lebanese internal politics – has also remained largely inactive.
US officials have repeatedly signaled that aid will be contingent on the exit of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah government, which they have had seats in since 2005.
International transfers have slowed because more foreign banks are turning away from a Lebanese banking sector riddled with accusations of mismanagement.
Many also suspect that Lebanese banks could be affected by the new Caesar law, which sanctions the assets of neighboring Syria.
Amine Issa, political coordinator of the non-sectarian party The National Bloc, argues that the solution lies in nothing less than a political transformation.
He calls the economic crisis a “panic-induced collapse,” caused by the fall in confidence in the political leadership. “The whole issue is a matter of trust … not supply and demand,” said Issa.
He thinks that a revival of political confidence could lead to an economic downturn: “If (the leadership) stays, the country is headed for destruction,” he said, referring to images of an educated middle class. preparing to abandon the country, in favor of more promising shores.
“What happened on October 17 was a big step,” he said, referring to the popular uprising that started last year. “There is a new breath, a new conviction, a new awareness on which we want to build. ”
Some maintain that the relative silence of the protest movement is due to the fact that the militants organize themselves, are based in a political alternative to the current sectarian leadership.
According to activists, the solutions do not come from a political utopia, but lie in the existing legal system, which favors a non-sectarian state.
“We are very different from other Arab regimes because the solution is in our constitution,” said Geha of AUB. “We have to activate this system, that’s all. He says there should be a transition to a non-sectarian state.
“It is not like saying that we want to kill a regime because we want freedom. In fact, we are hostages of not having a system, ”she said. “It is the pursuit of the rule of law. ”
Meanwhile, acts of social solidarity are as common as signs of hopelessness.
Lina, 8, takes her cousin, Iman, 6, to a bookstore to ask for money. Staff provide them with hand sanitizer and, according to company policy, an employee leads them outside – only to sneak money from their pockets.
“All we want is formula and diapers for our baby sisters and brothers,” says the fiery Lina. “We are begging for a whole day just to save milk. “