Writing this address and looking back at the year 2020 I find myself thinking back much further in time, back to the year 1991 when I came to Beirut for the very first time. Seven hours of electricity, sometimes less, was the normality back then, and one had to exploit daylight and plan showers accordingly. The city was still in ruins in most places, but everyday life went on as it had during the war, as people recounted. Not far from me, a flower shop, still there today, sold nice bouquets. The OIB's library was open for occasional visitors. Italian director of the library Roncaglia was in and we talked frequently. Madame Kanaan issued my library card. But the OIB director and the researchers had moved to Istanbul, the Institute was still officially closed.
Now, in early spring 2021, electricity cuts are severe, again, with only six to seven hours of electricity in many places. There is the smell of burning tires and garbage in the air, as people get desperate and voice their frustration in the streets. And several of Beirut's oldest and most iconic quarters lie in shambles, destroyed by the third largest non-nuclear explosion of the last 100 years worldwide, on August 4, 2020. More than 6000 people were wounded, many of them severely, around 200 were killed by the blast, and 300.000 became homeless. The OIB, which had survived the 15 years of civil war with but a few scratches, was heavily damaged, but luckily nobody was harmed. Those living close to the institute had their apartments damaged, too.
So this year started much like the last year ended: in severe crisis mode. While the rest of the world has been and still is suffering under the Corona pandemic, which gained new life through nasty mutants forcing societies into ever new lock-downs the world over, locked-down Lebanon is aching under staggering daily numbers of infections, a high death rate and supply shortages in hospitals, several of which were hit in the explosion — all of this in addition to a multitude of crises. In fact there isn't a single sector of society which is not hit by crisis.
In spring last year, when the country went into a well-heeded first lock-down, the number of deaths, compared to the rest of the world, was record low and the infection curve was close to South-Korea's. Now I know of half a dozen of COVID-19 deaths in my circles alone, and a number of friends contracted the virus. It has come very close to one's life. The situation had changed when in July the airport opened again and thousands of people from all over the world came to visit their families for the summer, as every year, fuelling infection rates, possibly with many strands of the virus. The expatriates' visits were badly needed, though, since half of the Lebanese citizens had fallen below the poverty line already in May 2020, according to the World Bank.
The local currency's value dropped by more than 75 per cent in the black market, fuelling inflation. The banks withheld people's savings in Dollars and finally paid them out in Lira for a fraction of their worth. People lost billions in savings and by the beginning of 2021 official estimates say that some 75 percent of Lebanese nationals are in need of aid. They bitterly feel they are joining the more than 1 Million Syrian refugees living in the country, of whom 90 per cent require humanitarian and cash assistance, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. On 30 January, the World Bank signed an agreement with the caretaker government for a loan of $246 million to provide cash assistance to some 800.000 of the poorest Lebanese. The economic situation, in fact a severe debt crisis, which came as a result of years of Ponzi-schemes between the banking sector, the Central Bank and the government, is dramatic and the downward spiral continues unabated. The dollar reserves of the Central Bank are dwindling rapidly and subsidies on gasoline, flour and medical supplies have already been cut down.
There is a severe crisis of political legitimacy in the country. It had led to the unprecedented popular movement of October 2019 which, lasting more than three months, in turn had brought the government of PM Saad al-Hariri down who resigned on 29 October 2019 in response to the movement. The transitional technocratic government under Hasan Diab, which included six women in important ministerial posts, managed the Corona- crisis successfully until summer 2020 but could not deliver the reforms demanded by the popular movement and European states alike. Hasan Diab resigned after the explosion, on August 10, 2020, and transformed from interim PM into caretaker PM. Lebanon's ambassador to Berlin was charged with forming a new government but gave up the daunting task in the face of unrelenting opposition and returned to Berlin.
Saad al-Hariri was then, once again, charged with forming a government. On loggerheads with President Aoun, he could not deliver until now. Trust in the state is at an all-time low in Lebanon, and the erosion of state institutions is becoming ever more visible. Inflation devalues salaries severely and notoriously perfunctory services disappear altogether.
With no governance to speak of, policy turns into the policing of people through security forces. They are prone to become the face of the failing state, while their 130.000 individual members share the grievances and sufferings of the people at large. If security deteriorates, the old mechanisms of sectarian clientelism, which were the main target of the popular movement, will be strengthened and the political parties, which the movement had criticized, with their strong men and partisans will step in to fill the gap. Even the army, generally much respected in the country as one of the least partisan and most capable public institutions, has come under stress. Together with all other civil servants and people working in the private sector, if they managed to keep their jobs, soldiers today earn a fraction of what they did a year ago, many as little as the equivalent of $150 per month. At the same the prices of basic food-stuffs are rising continuously and shortages appear.
The burning garbage bins at the beginning of 2021 then might be very different harbingers than the burning tires of October 2019 — signaling the civil strife of old, not an attempt to enforce a general strike to bring forward change. But the popular movement, despite being weakened as large numbers of its bright young people left the country to study or work elsewhere, is still there, protesting peacefully and demanding that the ruling triumvirate of president, speaker of parliament and designate prime minister step down to free the way for a younger generation.
More than half a year after the explosion the political class has proved unwilling and unable to form a new government desperately needed to implement necessary reforms in order to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — the first steps to unlocking more substantial foreign aid. Despite several European initiatives, spearheaded by France, Lebanese political leaders have failed to satisfy donor conditions for reforms that would help put the economy back on track. French president Macron and his foreign minister le Drian visited the country repeatedly, sternly addressing Lebanon's ruling elite — to no avail.
Germany's foreign minister Heiko Maas also visited Beirut a week after the devastating explosion of 4 August in order to pledge German support and call for a solution to the political deadlock. After visiting the site of the explosion in the harbour and before meeting President Michel Aoun at Baabda, he came to the OIB, where, after a tour of the heavily damaged premises, he met with members of local civil society associations and representatives of German NGO's in Lebanon.
The European Union (EU) and European governments have therefore decided to disburse funds only for humanitarian aid and for projects already underway. Lebanon also failed to move along an independent investigation of the blast. All demands for an international investigation which would be able to operate more independently than a Lebanese national one were turned down. After months of investigation, the chief investigator was dismissed and a new one appointed.
Accountability and responsibility are the demands of the people — and as long as the political class is not delivering the country will tether on the brink of instability. Lebanon's international partners are therefore called upon to redouble their efforts to prevent state collapse and the onset of a severe humanitarian emergency, while at the same time remaining steadfast in their demand for reform.
For the renowned resilience of the Lebanese people is a double-edged sword. It is admirable to see how Beirutis keep up their good spirits even in severe crises and with the state all but absent, as they did after the explosion. Scores of people from all over Lebanon came to the harbor quarters in East Beirut to clean up and support victims of the blast. But on the other hand "muddling through" has been going on for the last 30 years — and serious change is needed.
Throughout this year of catastrophic events the OIB remained steady in its work. The protracted lock-downs led to numerous video-conferences, internal as well as external, and work in home office proved to be successful, thanks to the endeavors of the IT team to keep everybody connected. Before the airport closed on March 19, a good number of research associates and the administration left for Germany, only coming back in July when the airport reopened. They faced the same challenges with internet connectivity as the ones who had remained in Lebanon, but all in all the interior colloquia were held regularly.
During the phases between lock-downs, the OIB had one more reason to be happy to have its terrace and garden, for which it has been envied all the more: For it made it possible throughout the year to hold meetings and events in person, outside, where distancing rules could be observed.
The year started off, though, in "normal" mode and as planned: The sequel to the international Annual Conference of the Max Weber Foundation (Stiftungskonferenz) in December in Cairo took place in Erfurt in February since the theme of neighbourliness had garnered a lot of interest and people from outside the West had not been able to travel to Cairo for visa restrictions.
The next conference, on Relations in the Ideoscape, was our first and successful experiment with an international conference bringing together a wide array of countries and regions. The conference had originally been planned for Moscow. It was a pity that a workshop on "Reform Islam from Delhi to Istanbul" in Delhi, which was planned by Christopher Bahl and Birgit Schäbler with the India Branch Office of the Max Weber Foundation and ICAS:MP (Martin Fuchs and Indra Sengupta) could not take place.
It had been planned originally, quite fittingly in hindsight for the Corona year 2020, to feature a number of events within the research profile on "relations with the environment". Many of these events had to be postponed. A successful international workshop on "Environmental History in the Ottoman Empire" could take place and was organized by Fatih Ermiş. The video conference brought together an international audience.
The publication department had a fruitful year: The Bibliotheca Islamica published Abū Manṣūr 'Abd al-Malik b. Muḥammad b. Ismā'īl al-Tha'ālibī's Khāṣṣ al-khāṣṣ fī al-amthāl edited by Ramzi Baalbaki and Bilal Orfali (BI 61) and Beiruter Texte und Studien saw the publication of Akhbār Khadījah bt. Khuwaylid fī al-maṣādir al-Islāmiyyah: Abniyat as-sard wa-dh-dhākirah wa-t-tārīkh by Maryam Sa'īd al-'Alī (BTS 139) and The Damascus Fragments. Towards a History of the Qubbat al-Khazna Corpus of Manuscripts and Documents, edited by Arianna d'Ottone Rambach, Konrad Hirschler, and Ronny Vollandt (BTS 140). The work on the Frankfort School An-Naẓariyyah an-naqdiyyah li-madrasat Frānkfūrt by Zakī 'Abd al-Majīd Zakī, edited by Ḥajjāj Abū Jabr appeared (OIS). Work on the Arabic translation of two important chapters of Max Weber's Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Kapitel III "Die Typen der Herrschaft", Kapitel IV "Stände und Klassen"), a translation several years in the making, was finally finished.
Two research initiatives brought life to the OIB during this difficult year. A research project on the Intifada of October 17, organized together with Armin Hasemann of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (who is an Islamic Studies graduate from the University of Jena) assembled a research group of a dozen researchers, all based in Lebanon. After several internal and external workshops and lectures taking place on the OIB's terrace throughout the year the papers have been submitted and a publication is well under way. Besides producing a volume this research project had the added value of making it possible to analyze and discuss history in the making — and the old dictum of "sine ira et studio" applied well here. As one of the participants told a journalist: "Being part of this group was important because it kept me sane and occupied".
The other effort were our relief fellowships. These fellowships were designed to alleviate the financial hardship with which many young scholars have to grapple as they lost jobs and research opportunities in the wake of the financial crises. A very interesting group of young Lebanese and Syrian scholars are joining the OIB research community and continue their projects.
Of our regular international visiting fellows the great majority came and even stayed during 2020, with the exception of the HRR fellows — both our German fellow and a number of Iranian fellows were unable to join the OIB.
Repairs in the OIB after the explosion lasted for 3 months. During this time people migrated from office to office as no lock-downs were ordered during most of this period. Working in flexible, often make-shift offices, either at home or in the institute, was therefore leaving its mark on the entire year of 2020. It is surprising how well this functioned despite the inconvenience. Knowing that the situation at the OIB was so much more stable and secure than in just about all other sectors of Lebanese economy and society surely helped. We wish to thank the Max Weber Foundation for making the needed and considerable funds available quickly and unbureaucratically.
We were also surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response to online-events. General as well as specialist audiences have substantially grown and scholars, who were not able to travel to Beirut in the past, can now present and discuss their work with our research community. As one of the positive results of 2020, these formats will stay with us and will be further developed in the coming years.
2021 is the year of OIB's 60th Jubilee. Hopefully numerous guests and visitors will be able to share in the festivities taking place from 2 to 5 December.
(From the yearly report 2020)