“I had to leave Lebanon to support myself and my family. There is no place like home, but staying there was no longer a safe option,” says Michele, a 26-year-old art director at a digital content startup company in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.
Michele is representative of a large number of young Lebanese who, over the past couple of years, have left their country for better opportunities abroad. Nearly three years ago, at the height of the protest movement in Lebanon, Michele was among many who took to the streets—in her case, the streets of Zouq Mosbeh, a town in the Kisirwan district of Mount Lebanon—to denounce the government and call for a higher living standard. Along with three other young activists who spoke to Diwan at the time, she expressed her optimism about the movement.
That was in November 2019. Back then, the country’s currency, the Lebanese pound, reached 2,200 against the U.S. dollar—a significant jump from August, when it was still trading at 1,500 to the dollar, the rate since the late 1990s. Today, the exchange rate is closer to 30,000 pounds to the dollar. In other words, the pound has lost almost 95 percent of its purchasing power since the heyday of the peg. The collapse of the pound is among the major drivers of the financial and economic meltdown in Lebanon over the past two years. Moreover, like the rest of the world, Lebanon has gone through a coronavirus pandemic and lockdown policies, which had a detrimental effect on the protest movement. To make matters even worse, a massive explosion at the Beirut port in August 2020 left more than 200 people dead and a third of the capital city in ruins.
No wonder many of the youth of Lebanon, like Michele, felt compelled to emigrate. The trend looks set to continue. A majority of those who are still in the country are very much considering moving abroad.
Nour, 29 years old, was also among those protesting in 2019—in his case in the southern coastal city of Tyre. Like many Lebanese, he ended up relocating to Istanbul, Turkey, where he found a job in his line of work: martial arts trainer. He says that the situation in Lebanon is difficult to overcome and that he does not have the luxury to move back at the moment. While he has continued to support the demands of the 2019 protesters, he has grown discouraged with time. “I lost hope because there’s a massive imbalance of power with the regime,” he says. “It isn’t easy to oppose those in power while they control everything from the judicial system to the security forces. [Political] parties close to the regime have a green pass to do whatever they want.”
Nour also expresses concern over the dominance of Hezbollah in Lebanon. “How can you expect to achieve major change if you have one armed political group in the country?” he asks.
Nonetheless, other young Lebanese, such as Maria, a 26-year-old architect, have remained in the country. “Yes, I’m still in Lebanon. I plan to stay as long as I can—until I can’t anymore,” she says. When Maria graduated from university in 2020, she joined the Order of Engineers & Architects. In the order’s internal elections of 2021, she campaigned on behalf of an electoral slate affiliated with the protest movement that went on to score a decisive victory against rival slates affiliated with traditional political parties.
This syndicate elections foreshadowed breakthroughs to come in the parliamentary elections, which were held across Lebanon this month. More than fifteen candidates who identify with the protest movement (or what the Lebanese refer to as the revolution—thawra) gained seats in the 128-member parliament. This was a historic breakthrough; never before have reform-minded independents controlled as many seats. The Lebanese diaspora, which now includes Michele and Nour, played a big part in electing these candidates. More than 135,000 Lebanese expatriates voted in the elections, almost three times the number of such voters in 2018. Michele, whose family’s roots are in Aley, Mount Lebanon, voted for the thawra-aligned “United for Change” list, which won three of the thirteen seats set aside for the Shouf-Aley electoral district.
Establishment parties such as the Shiite Hezbollah and the Christian Lebanese Forces, along with Amal, the Free Patriotic Movement, and the Progressive Socialist Party, took the majority of seats. Former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement, which controlled 20 seats in 2018, decided to boycott the elections.
Obeida, 32, who was a community organizer in Tripoli during the protests of 2019, told Diwan at the time that, in order for Lebanon to move forward, the country’s “political class must admit that it has made a mistake.” He has since become a prominent member of Citizens in a State, the reformist political party headed by former Minister of Labor Charbel Nahas. In the recently concluded elections, Citizens in a State fielded tens of candidates—including Obeida, who ran for one of Tripoli’s seats—but none emerged victorious. Nevertheless, Obeida is heartened by the organizational advances made by the party.
When it comes to the new parliament, he is somewhat pessimistic. “Elections are merely a pit stop and a dance organized by the establishment to reproduce itself, and an affirmation of the polarized nature of the Lebanese system, [which is divided] between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces,” Obeida says. “Both insist on the same approach: begging for handouts from abroad and forcing migration on the population.”
Unlike Obeida, Maria does not support one thawra group in particular. “I believe there is potential in several individuals in different revolutionary groups,” she says. Of the elections, she observes: “The results are positive overall and exceeded my expectations even if they aren’t perfect. They show that change is coming, but it may be a very long process.”
In the fall of 2019, it seemed that the Lebanese protest movement was leaderless—by choice. Indeed, it appeared as though the movement rejected the very notion of electing anyone to lead or represent it. Today, however, this same protest movement has elected to office several parliamentarians and given them a mandate to speak on its behalf. Whether these parliamentarians will prove able to steer the Mediterranean country in the right direction and lure back emigrés such as Michele and Nour remains to be seen.