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Once upon a Time, there was a Middle Class in Lebanon

The crisis may be the last nail in the coffin of the middle class population, who see their way of living drastically turned upside down.

Once upon a Time, there was a Middle Class in Lebanon

Lebanese citizens queuing outside a bank. AFP Archives

On the lawn of a reconstructed garden in the middle of the Metn mountains, a few hundred guests take out their mobile phones to immortalize the traditional zaffeh (wedding procession). Farah and Akram enter to the song Mabrouk (Congrats) under an arcade of fireworks and fresh flowers. The young couple did not skimp on the means to make the event a success: a white limousine, catering of choice and French wines, gifts to guests... Their combined monthly incomes do not exceed $2,500, but they have been willing to save for several years to pay more than $40,000 for the wedding of their dream, and their parents were willing to help. In one of the most unequal countries but where some people do not pay attention to how money is spent and families are willing to get a "marriage" loan from their bank, the example of this cou-ple was quite common. That was in 2018. Only specialists saw the economic crisis coming, while the common people did not suspect the abyss in which Lebanon was about to be plunged in.

In Lebanon, appearances depend very much on having it. Accessing material comfort means being part of a certain social class. Having fun, spending and displaying it are a guarantee for success in the eyes of society. Social networks serve as a vehicle for this lifestyle, which is often disconnected from reality. One of the most edifying examples is lavish marriages, often patterned on the same models. For years, the culture of consumption and extravagance has been brandished everywhere and excessively, like those tables in Lebanese restaurants where the whole menu is ordered, or like buying the latest mobile phone. Parents may do everything to organize a birthday for their child with a huge Peppa Pig cake made of sugar often indigestible, only because "that is how it is done." On Instagram, a beautician could post pictures of herself in July at an upscale nightclub in Mykonos where millionaires mingle, and then subsist on meager resources in the following months. It had become almost common to see some people go into debt to drive a luxury car, the ultimate symbol of social success, or get a rhinoplasty. That was the time when banks were lending, generously.

"Lebanese tend to spend a lot more than they have, buying cars when they may have nothing in their fridge to eat. I don't have that mentality, because I lived in France. But even without this mentality, I must admit that we spent a lot; we never saved or saved too little," said Lisa*, a middle school teacher and mother of four. This image of the Lebanese who live and spend at will is based on an illusion. The average wage of the population has long hovered around $800, and the poverty rate was already 32% in 2018. Many Lebanese have been forced for years to choose between several sacrifices in order to maintain a certain standard of living. The middle class was squeezed between the very rich and the very poor; its upper brackets were trying to resemble the former and its lower brackets were trying not to be equated with the latter.

Class Downgrade

For this already disappearing middle class, the crisis could be fatal. Since the first upheavals of the civil war, it has continued to decline and gradually join the economically weak brackets. But with the devaluation of the pound, capital control, the massive increase in unemployment or the risk of a haircut, the current situation may take with it what remains of the middle class in the country, the last vestiges of a Lebanese miracle-turned-mirage. "You cannot talk about the 'disappearance' of the middle class because it did not exist. What is happening is more polarization of the country, which is already completely divided between ultra-rich and very poor groups," said Lydia Assouad, a doctoral student at the Paris School of Economics and a visiting researcher at Harvard University.

The 1960s, marked by the implementation of redistributive policies in the wake of Chehabist reforms, have never seemed so far away. The heyday of the middle class belongs to another century. The current crisis is sounding the death knell rather than the tocsin of its decline. The hyperinflation of the 1980s had already hit it hard. Then followed the post-war years with their great expectations and disillusions. Between 2005 and 2014, the richest 10% of the population accounted for an average of almost 56% of national income, while the poorest 50% had to suffice themselves with half of the income of the top 1%. In between, the median 40% captured less than 30% of these resources. "This means that sociologically, what we mean by middle classes in France or Europe does not correspond to the middle class in Lebanon. You may say that the equivalent in Lebanon of the middle class in France is the top 9% below the richest 1%," said Assouad, author of a study published in 2017 by the World Inequality Lab.

Heads of small and medium-sized enterprises, administrative employees of the public or private sectors, teachers, university professors, medium-sized farmers, craftspeople and liberal professionals — those who form the backbone of the intermediate social groups — are not all placed in the same category. The story is also that of young people who combine low-paid jobs in the informal sector, workers with frantic work rhythms, children who help their parents and parents who are willing to do anything to ensure a proper education for their offspring — all in a state without a social safety net and with failing public services. It is also about emigration, which has enabled households to improve their living conditions.

But it is a whole different scenario that is playing out today. The economic situation, weighed down by the rampant devaluation of the pound and the lack of access to financial resources, plunged people into a world they are not familiar with. This includes queuing for hours to try to withdraw a few dollars from their bank account. They saved to secure a pension, which the state does not guarantee, or to buy an apartment. They now have to beg for their savings to simply be able to pay for everyday needs.

As the poverty line is about to cross 60% of the population, the gap between the Lebanese is growing. The pound has lost 70% of its value. Among those who have been able to keep their jobs is an ultra-minority still getting paid in dollars. The others, paid in pounds and once comfortable, come up against a new reality and face the threat of being downgraded to a lower class. "A university professor with a pension of LL5.6 million, or $3,777, belonged to the upper middle class. That salary has dropped to $1,000 and the professor is plummeting to the lower middle class," said Melhem Chaoul, a sociologist. "The situation for smallholders and craftspeople is much worse. When a carpentry of five or six people disappears physically, it is the very structure of the Lebanese economy, based on a fairly high number of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which is threatened," he added.

"Our Only Criterion Is Price"

For these men and women, almost every aspect of everyday life, from the most trivial to the necessary, is now being threatened. First is the shopping cart. According to the Economy Ministry, inflation reached a rate of 17.1% over the period from April 2019 to April 2020. And the worst is yet to come, since the majority of the products consumed are imported. The result is a purchasing power greatly diminishing and consumption habits turned upside down.

"We pay more than one million Lebanese pounds at the supermarket every 10 days. Our salaries are only spent to buy food and home cleaning products," Lisa said. This teacher still receives her full salary, while that of her husband, a teacher at another school, has been cut in half. Around the shelves of a supermarket of a big brand, Roland* tracks down displays looking for bargain prices and throws himself on fresh products whose expiration dates are approaching. "Five thousand Lebanese pounds for six French yoghurts; can you imagine? We will soon find ourselves like Cuba, with only local products," he said. A few shelves away, a young mother is sorry to see the price of infant milk almost doubled.

The small pleasures of life are removed from the shopping list. "We used to go to the best cheese, but it got too expensive. We are now going to alternatives. Our only criterion is price. You always have to find the cheapest product," said Zeina*, a nurse in Tripoli. Meat has become a luxury product."Before, you may eat meat two to three times a week. Today it is over," said Walid*, a 73-year-old carpenter who had to close his shop as the crisis progressed.

Paying school fees has become one of the worst anxieties in almost every home. "All structures are failing in the country. The situation can only get worse," said Mohammad, a father from the Bekaa who has been out of work for six months. He had worked for al-Hayat online newspaper for nine years.

The middle strata have made education the alphabet of their emancipation. Public schools have long been eschewed by middle class parents, who preferred to go into debt to enroll their children in private education, considered to be of better quality. Being a graduate of some private schools was seen as a mark of belonging to a certain caste. Zeina was stripped of 30% of her salary last January and now earns only LL1.5 million a month. As the situation disintegrates at breakneck speed, she does not know if she will be able to send her two 13 and 8 year old children, enrolled in a private school, back to school at the start of the school year. "If we are forced to place them in a public school, I am afraid that they will lose foreign languages. And you know, the entourage may change," she says, worried.

Ziad, a lawyer in Sidon, enrolled his six-year-old daughter in a private school a few years ago. She is due to join elementary school soon. "My wife teaches at the same school, so we only pay 10% of tuition, between LL1 million and 1.5 million a year. If my wife keeps her job, my daughter will stay. Otherwise, I do not know..." he said. To ensure that their child has as many opportunities as possible, Ziad and his wife opted for a radical choice."We will not have a second child to guarantee her a future."

Above all, you have to have the means to keep your home. Zeina and her husband are now struggling to repay the credit for their apartment at the bank. Lisa, for her part, may have to give up her rental in the Metn, close to school and her parents."We are thinking very seriously about moving to Keserwan, much further away, to a much smaller flat, because we cannot pay the rent anymore," she explained.

"I Feel It Was Better Before"

It is not just impoverishment that awaits those who are still doing well, but also the crumbling of a way of life – it is like bidding farewell to times that were not lavish but during which one could, willy-nilly, have some advantages. "I was someone who went out a lot in the evening, but without excess. I was not depriving myself of anything. Whereas now I cannot buy clothes or go to a restaurant," Mohammad said. The days of family Sundays at the restaurant are over. "No more restaurants, no more outings and no beach in prospect. I installed a plastic pool on the terrace," Lisa said.

For Zeina, the time of invitations and anniversaries is just a memory. "We stopped activities and hobbies. No summer camp planned for the children. And to go to the beach, we will definitely think twice," she said. The Covid-19 confinement and the devaluation of the pound made it impossible for families who may still afford it to travel abroad." I used to travel a lot, several times a year. But with the decline in purchasing power, I do not think it is going to be possible again," Ziad said.

This feeling of being trapped in one's own country is enough to rekindle the nostalgia of times that were not lacking in experiences. "During the war, you knew that there were limits you shouldn't exceed or places you couldn't go to, but at least there was money. My parents worked and lived well. Now, we are stuck. I have been thinking about setting up my projects, but there is nothing that encourages me to do it, nothing that tells me to get started. I feel it was better before," Mohammad said. “We could work, be employed somewhere, and after the big expenses, we still had a little something left at the end of the month," recalled Cynthia, a university employee. "Our children do not get sufficient wages and cannot hope to get married and start a family."

The only bright spot is that if economic incomes evaporate, cultural capital is maintained. "Middle class people were educated and joined modernity in the cities and in the closest mountains to Beirut. Their way of life, their culture, will not disappear overnight. That is why they may bounce back or help their children bounce," said Chaoul.

In this context, how can we not think of leaving? Flee as far as you can. "One of my children left eight months ago. The other one is still here, but he is just waiting for the embassy and the airport to open so he can leave," said Walid, who worries about his grandchildren."I have a grandson who studied telecom engineering. As he may not find a job, he is preparing to leave. It is a misfortune for the country. If the crisis continues, that middle class is over," he said. Lisa has already started sending CVs to France and the United States. Mohammad is very afraid for the future of his 6-year-old son, Adam, hoping it will be far from Lebanon. "I was born in 1980. There is no war I have not experienced. I was two years old during the Israeli invasion. We had to deal with enormous psychological pressures and there was nothing we could do. We have never been able to realize our dreams. It is even worse now."

* The first names have been changed.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 22nd of June)

On the lawn of a reconstructed garden in the middle of the Metn mountains, a few hundred guests take out their mobile phones to immortalize the traditional zaffeh (wedding procession). Farah and Akram enter to the song Mabrouk (Congrats) under an arcade of fireworks and fresh flowers. The young couple did not skimp on the means to make the event a success: a white limousine, catering of choice...