Lebanon, from ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ to a narco-state: now it really risks disintegration

by Riccardo Cristiano *

At the end of 2019 a low to medium salary in Lebanon it was equivalent to 400 US dollars. Today the exact same salary is worth about $ 22. It is the effect of a dizzying loss of value of the Lebanese lira, which since 1991 was linked to the exchange rate of 1500 lire, while today it takes 33 thousand to buy a greenback. A rescue plan for the Lebanese with the help of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank would involve important choices and negotiations, but Lebanon seems to exist only on paper.

After having wasted about a year in palace games to be able to form the new government, led by the billionaire Mikati, the country has fallen into paralysis again because a judge, Tareq Bitar, is determined to investigate the most serious non-atomic explosion in recent times, which has obliterated the port of Beirut and rendered entire neighborhoods unusable. Among the former ministers summoned are figures close to God’s party, Hezbollah, and his ally, Amal, led by the Speaker of the House Nabih Berri, who did not allow their ministers to attend cabinet meetings having seen their request for the replacement of the magistrate, accused of politicizing the investigation, rejected. The competent bodies of the judiciary have rejected numerous requests to this effect, and thus has led to government paralysis. The end of which is not in sight.

The country is increasingly short of everything, basic drugs disappear, dialysis itself is at risk due to the continuous power outages across the country. To make the situation socially explosive there is the presence of at least one and a half million Syrian refugees, who arrived in the country when the cross-border war broke out, and for whose return to Syria the minimum security conditions do not exist.

To aggravate the picture of the “Lebanon powder keg” there is the imminence of political elections, currently scheduled for May, although no one can yet say if they will actually be held, also because the electoral law continues to be discussed. Changes have recently been approved which are however rejected by the party founded by the President of the Republic, Michel Aoun. They concern the vote of Lebanese abroad, and the big news: the Lebanese would no longer be forced to return to their village of origin to vote, but they would vote where they reside. So many would vote a Beirut, not in small towns where many Lebanese commentators argue that the voter is more easily controlled.

Meanwhile the only activity that flourishes is that of illicit trafficking, so much so that many speak of Lebanon as a narco-state on the coasts of the Mediterranean. The traffics are of a different nature and obviously involve the neighbor Syria, given the porosity of the border. Trafficking and illicit earnings in hard currency have a double enriching effect: for example, a medical examination paid in Lebanese pounds costs the equivalent of a few dollars. But it is the traffic of captagon which is emerging as the most impressive novelty.

In the beginning, when this new drug defined emerged the “terrorist drug”, its diffusion especially towards the European market was attributed in particular to Isis. Subsequently, in the persistence of crises, sanctions and paralysis of the political negotiations on political-constitutional reforms, subjects linked to the state would intervene to control their production. The New York Times he specifically indicated the Fourth Armored Division, an elite corps led by Maher al-Assad, brother of President Bashar al-Assad. The Economist he cited studies by the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR) of Cyprus, which estimated the market value of the captagon seized in the last year at around 3.4 billion dollars. A COAR study helps to grasp its importance by comparing it with the $ 122 million that legal olive oil exports annually.

This trafficking involves the coast of Lebanon and also involved Greece and Italy, countries in which large quantities of captagon. Only in 2021 were they discovered and seized 250 million pills. The kidnappings of captagon coming from Lebanon to Saudi ports: but the network is not Euro-Arab, given that the map of the kidnappings also includes Asian ports, such as Malaysia.

This parallel economy could make it possible to prolong the political tug-of-war that paralyzes the Lebanese government, despite the fact that the population of every community would like Lebanon to return to its usual economic and commercial activities. Of the captagon has been talked about for many years, but today the risk is that of a breakup of Lebanon as a sovereign entity. And the enormity of the social crisis produces roadblocks, protests, fires, clashes every day.

* Vaticanist of RESET, magazine for dialogue

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