Lebanese taxi driver George Zreik died on 8 February 2019 after setting himself on fire for not being able to pay his daughter’s private school fees.
His violent death in the northern city of Bkeftine sparked an outpouring of both sympathy and anger, reigniting public criticism of Lebanon’s economic situation and the government. A demonstration condemning the death was held on 10 February in front of the Education Ministry in the capital Beirut but was dispersed by security officials.
Politicians were also quick to express their outrage. Samy Gemayel, head of the Christian Phalange party, said Zreik was “a martyr to irresponsibility and lack of accountability”, while Michel Moawad, a member of the Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc, described his suicide is an “unprecedented Lebanese tragedy that reflects the worsening economic and social conditions in the country”. Activist Farouq Yacoub wrote in an online post: ‘We need to take to the streets and torch the country the way George Zreik torched himself.’
Zreik’s death is reminiscent of the self-immolation in December 2010 of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in response to the confiscation of his wares and harassment by the authorities. His death was a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring. In Lebanon, this will almost certainly not happen.
“Zreik’s self-immolation has not sparked mass protests in the way that Bouazizi’s did in Tunisia in 2011, despite the worsening economic situation in the country,” Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Fanack.
However, she added: “[Zreik’s death] is a very stark reminder of the Lebanese government‘s persistent failure to provide even the most basic of services to its citizens. This government failure has led to the lack of affordable, quality services, such as education and healthcare. Some Lebanese have, as a result, turned to private alternatives, which only a few can afford, exacerbating socioeconomic inequalities and widening the wealth gap in Lebanon.”
Blogger Najib had this view: ‘[Some suggest Zreik] should have moved his kid to a public school a long time ago. My guess is that those people have never been to a public school before. While there’s nothing wrong with our public-school curriculum and teachers, the real problem is the horrible environment these schools provide for students, and the lack of opportunities in the future.’
The justice minister said an investigation into Zreik’s death had been launched, but the economic numbers speak for themselves. According to a 2018 United Nations Development Program report, 30 per cent of the Lebanese population (1.5 million people) live on less than $4 per day, or $120 per month, and about 300,000 people live on less than $2.5 per day, which is insufficient to meet their basic food needs. Unemployment rates have remained steady, rising from 6.2 per cent in 2016 to 6.3 per cent in 2017, with an average of 7.56 per cent from 1991 until 2017. However, inflation stood at 3.17 per cent in January 2019, with the price of food and non-alcoholic drinks rising faster than other consumer goods.
A growing number of Lebanese face extreme poverty, the result of a lack of stability – in part due to the war in neighbouring Syria – few job opportunities and a weak welfare system. But the gap between the rich and poor is also widening because the middle class is slowly disappearing. On DW, the website of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Mounir Rached from the Lebanese Economic Association said a key reason for the shrinking middle class is the fact that people’s average income did not rise during the civil war from 1975-1990, or thereafter, while the cost of living has increased.
The starting salary of an engineering graduate is currently around $800 a month, he said. “It is impossible to make ends meet in Lebanon today on this. This means that young professionals start way at the bottom of the income scale and require many years to earn $2,000 at some point.” In addition, there are not enough jobs for young people, he said.
A study published in 2014 showed that Lebanon’s wealth is estimated at $91 billion, 48 per cent of which is owned by approximately 0.3 per cent of the estimated workforce (8,000 people). Meanwhile, 99.7 per cent of Lebanese own slightly more than the other half ($46.4 billion).
In an article about Nadine Labaki’s award-winning film Capharnaüm, which tells the story of a 12-year-old Beirut slum-dweller, journalist Mona Naggar highlighted the situation of the ‘non-extreme poor’.
She wrote: ‘In the socially diverse district of West Beirut, where I live, I am surrounded by people who struggle for survival daily, without begging or talking about their problems.…Even those who have a job and a regular income that covers the daily expenses, including the children’s school fees, are not safe. Because of the poorly developed welfare system, a serious illness in the family can cause a sharp descent into financial ruin. Not even the middle class can take good health care for granted in Lebanon.
Newspapers regularly carry horrifying reports of people in need of emergency treatment being turned away at hospitals because their family cannot pay up front. The revelations always prompt an outcry, but the fuss quickly subsides. Poverty in Lebanon is more visible, more pervasive than in Germany or elsewhere in western Europe. It is also more menacing, desperate, merciless. It can strike when least expected. It is accepted as one of the country’s many decades-old unsolvable problems. The weak Lebanese state is not held responsible. Ma fi dawleh (“There is no state”) is an exclamation commonly heard in Lebanon. Just as the state is deemed incapable of solving the waste crisis or getting to grips with power and water shortages, it is not expected to act in support of vulnerable people.’
“The new government has promised to implement some badly needed reforms, so we will continue to hold them accountable to their promises and push them to improve the provision of essential services, including education and healthcare,” Majzoub said. The new government was formed after a nine-month deadlock following the May 2018 parliamentary elections, but citizens remain pessimistic regarding the efficiency of their new ministers.
For Zreik’s family, help has come in the form of a $10,000 donation and a monthly allowance from a Kuwaiti politician – an unsurprising ‘solution’ in a country that seems unwilling or unable to take care of its own people.