From a narrow-angle, Beirut looks a picture of elegance and success, its French boutiques, luxury hotels and imported cars blending into Mediterranean skies.
Widen the lens, as three weeks of popular anti-government protests have sought to do, and the view that emerges is of a nation struggling against extreme inequality, failing basic services, high unemployment and hardened frustration.
“Lebanon is a beautiful idea,” said Yara Salem, a 25-year-old cinema student who spends her days at the tented protest camp in Martyrs’ Square, only a few metres from the revolving doors of Le Grey, one of Beirut’s top five-star hotels.
“But it’s an illusion. You think you’re in Paris but you go over there and people are dying on the streets,” she said, referring to the poor and destitute rather than the protesters, none of whom have died in the peaceful demonstrations.
For Salem, the protests – which she calls a revolution and which have drawn hundreds of thousands of Lebanese onto the streets – will have failed unless the ruling elite is entirely swept from power and replaced by a new political leadership.
Since the country’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990, the names and faces of those who run the country have barely changed, she says. Any confidence they can deliver a stronger economy or a brighter future has long since withered.
“It’s been the same people for 30 years,” she said, adding that while her parents’ generation, which lived through the civil war, may have lost faith in politics, the youth still believe that meaningful change is possible.
“The main point of this revolution is to do something for the poor – jobs, services, education,” she said, while also mentioning the high cost of mobile phone services and that marijuana should be legalized.
“MOTHER TO ALL”
On paper, there are many reasons to wonder how Lebanon has managed to hold itself together for so long.
With 18 officially recognised sectarian groups, politics has long been a delicate balancing act. Shifting allegiances hamstring decision-making, while patronage and clientelism are rife. Business and politics are shared family enterprises.
According to the World Inequality Database, Lebanon is one of the most unequal countries, with the wealthiest 1% percent accounting for almost a quarter of the national income and the bottom half just 10%. By contrast the wealthiest 1% in the United States account for 20% of national income.
Downtown Beirut is awash with Range Rovers and Hermes stores. The landmark 1930s clock tower in the centre has a Rolex face. Yet the economy is contracting, debt stands at 150% of GDP and unemployment among under 35s is nearing 40%.
“There’s no work, there are no services, the schools are not good,” said Jamal Raydan, 28, a Druze protester from Moukhtara, a town in the Chouf mountains where Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s leading Druze politician, lives.
Despite an accountancy qualification, Raydan said he had not worked in four years. He sought help from Jumblatt’s entourage without success, and concluded that this political class was a failure, with politicians only looking to enrich themselves.
“It makes me angry,” he said of the gap between the wealth on display in parts of Beirut and the reality on the ground.
“Lebanon should be like a mother to all its people,” he said. “Instead they have turned her into a bad woman.”