Media reports in the past few days seem to indicate that dysfunction in Lebanon – a country perpetually gripped by some combination of war, economic crisis, endemic corruption, and foreign interference – has reached new and dangerous levels, raising the question of whether another Lebanese exodus to Cyprus may be on the cards, as happened during the civil war of the 1980s and periodically after that.
“‘Lebanon is in a death spiral,’” read a headline in The Independent on July 4, quoting economics professor Steve H Hanke of Johns Hopkins University.
An article in The Telegraph on June 30 was even blunter: “‘People will die within months’: Lebanon heads for famine as pandemic accelerates hunger,” it read, the paraphrased quote being from Martin Keulertz, an assistant professor at the American University of Beirut.
Lebanon has always held a fascination for Cypriots. It’s one of our closest neighbors, almost precisely the same size as Cyprus but with six times the population (not counting the 1.5 million Syrian refugees who’ve arrived in the past few years).
It’s also a country with a reputation for culture and elegance, its capital Beirut known for years as ‘the Paris of the Middle East.’ The thought of widespread famine and starvation in such a place – not to mention right on our doorstep – is alarming.
The crisis is essentially a currency crisis, made worse by a coronavirus.
The Lebanese pound (known as the lira) has plummeted in the past few months, from 1500 to the US dollar to its current rate of about 10,000.
Most foodstuffs and other supplies are imported using dollars, so prices (in lira) have soared while salaries have remained static. Buying even the most basic food has become prohibitively expensive for many people.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has decimated jobs and closed the airports – a significant detail, impeding the vast Lebanese diaspora who’s always brought in valuable foreign currency to their loved ones in Lebanon.
A related development is that the country is running out of dollars. Lebanese with dollar accounts have had them blocked, and banks only payout in lira, which is increasingly worthless.
“Lebanese people always had the money,” says 58-year-old Danielle Saleh, who’s lived in Cyprus since 2001. “Always – through the war, throughout everything. But now, nobody has money anymore.
Because they can’t get to their accounts … So nobody can start a new life abroad, because nobody can get money.”
Things are bad, confirms Saleh, who (like most Lebanese in Cyprus) still has most of her family in the country – including, temporarily, her husband, who got stuck in Beirut due to lockdown.
“There’s no middle class anymore,” she says. “There are the people who robbed the country – they live well because they took all the money, sent it abroad – and there are the poor people who are struggling.”
Saleh herself was part of the ‘first wave,’ having spent four years in Cyprus in the late 80s and the past two decades.
Forty-five-year-old Nabil Yazbek, who co-owns a Lebanese sweet shop in Nicosia, has been here since 1998 when his home was destroyed during the Israeli army’s south Lebanon occupation.
(The home was later rebuilt, then destroyed again, then rebuilt again.)
In short, Cyprus had always functioned as a haven, most recently in 2006, when Israel waged war against Hezbollah, and thousands of Lebanese fled here temporarily.
Could the same thing happen again now, if our neighboring country does indeed slide into famine?
It’s a tricky question – because a lot has changed since the 80s. Cyprus is in the EU, but it also has the most asylum seekers per capita of any country in the EU.
A new wave of Lebanese migrants, especially economic migrants, would place enormous pressure on an already fraying, overtaxed system.