‘Rampant chaos’: Lebanon state sector eroded by grinding crisis

A picture shows a working office in Lebanon's ministry of environment in Beirut on 30 August 2022. Institutions in crisis-hit Lebanon have reached a state of disrepair that mirrors the country's broader unravelling -- even in the corridors of power, the paint is peeling and the lights are off. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

September 1, 2022

Even as he battles Lebanon’s summer heat without air-conditioning, judge Faysal Makki tries not to drink too much water because the toilets at the Justice Palace are broken.

His printer still works, but if he wants to use it he needs to bring his own paper and ink cartridges because the ministry can no longer afford office supplies.

State institutions have reached a state of disrepair that mirrors Lebanon’s broader unraveling amid a political crisis and economic turmoil branded by the World Bank as one of the worst globally in modern times.

Even in the corridors of power, the paint is peeling and the lights are off.

“There is no paper or ink or pens or envelopes or functioning bathrooms or even running water,” Makki, who has been a judge for 21 years, told AFP.

“I try not to drink water on the job so I won’t have to go home or to the nearby offices of the syndicate of lawyers just to use the bathroom,” he said.

Staff are sometimes trapped in a lift because of power cuts, or are forced to light their way down dark staircases with their mobile phone flashlights.

Makki said one colleague broke her arm when she tripped and fell down the stairs.

Ever more civil servants have gone on strike or just stay home with their employer’s blessing, because the commute to work would eat up their entire salary or more.

“The basic requirements for a public institution are no longer available,” said Makki.

‘Embodiment of poverty’

Lebanon’s downward spiral has been met with inaction from authorities, who have yet to chart a path out of the three-year-old economic crisis they are widely blamed for.

Parliament, which has yet to approve a 2022 budget, has rarely convened since it was elected three months ago.

Lebanon’s president and prime minister have failed to agree on a new government since the outgoing cabinet’s mandate expired in May.

With the Lebanese pound losing more than 90 percent of its value against the dollar on the black market in recent years, public sector salaries have slumped as low as $40 a month.

A 50-year-old mother of two who has worked for the interior ministry for 26 years says she now has little incentive to go to work.

The civil servant in a district east of Beirut, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, says she now only goes into the office once every two weeks, just above the threshold for a de facto resignation.

Without electricity, employees there have to climb seven flights of stairs in the dark to reach the office, the woman said.

“The tiles on the stairs are chipped,” she said. “Every time you go up or down, you risk breaking your neck.”

Inside the office, “there is no air conditioning or paper or photocopy machines or pens. You have to take a bottle of water with you to the bathroom because there is no running water.”

The woman, whose salary dropped from $1,600 a month to about $75, said she never imagined things would get this bad.

“The embodiment of poverty is being an employee of the Lebanese state,” she said.

‘Total collapse’

Across Lebanon, decaying institutions have deprived citizens of the most basic services.

Power cuts at the parliament have forced lawmakers to postpone sessions, and the General Security agency at one point this year ran out of passports.

The Lebanese army can barely afford to pay and feed its soldiers, forcing many to quit or take up second jobs.

At the environment ministry, the damage caused by the massive and deadly August 2020 Beirut port explosion has yet to be fully repaired.

“The doors are still broken, so they don’t close,” Environment Minister Nasser Yassin told AFP, adding that the dividing walls and false ceilings are also still in disrepair.

Some meeting rooms have no lighting, and employees bring their own toilet paper.

The main municipality building in the northern city of Tripoli — which was torched last year by demonstrators angered by the economic crisis — is a standout example of state decay.

Employees there work in offices with crumbling, soot-covered walls, no cooling and barely any lighting.

“Things are only going to get worse,” said Riad Yamak, the former Tripoli mayor who was removed in September following a political dispute.

“We are heading towards total collapse and rampant chaos.”


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