Suzanne Mouawad lived through Lebanon’s civil war and built a successful advertising business in the hopeful days after the fighting ended, but she says her country’s economic collapse is breaking her in a way that even missiles did not.
Mouawad, 56, comes from a well-to-do background and previously led a privileged life, running her agency as well as a family-owned paper manufacturing business, taking frequent holidays abroad and receiving rent from properties she owns.
Now, both the advertising and paper businesses have all but dried up, the tenants can no longer pay the rent, and she finds herself pondering the price of items in the supermarket during her weekly grocery shop.
“I didn’t let Lebanon down. It let me down and it hurt me,” she said.
With no end in sight to economic and financial paralysis, Mouawad feels a hopelessness that was not there during the war, which broke out when she was 12 and lasted 15 years.
“With war you get a couple of missiles falling one day and then the next day you pick up and you go back to school or back to work and you start producing and making money,” she said.
“Now the money is being held at the banks and there is no work.”
Stricken Lebanese banks, the biggest creditors to the bankrupt state, have locked customers out of their deposits under informal capital controls imposed without legislation since late 2019 when the country’s financial meltdown started.
Any savings people had in Lebanese pounds have lost most of their value, while dollar deposits are inaccessible.
The crisis is driving a brain drain, with professionals such as doctors, academics, designers and entrepreneurs emigrating in large numbers, which in turn has a knock-on effect on the local economy, further depressing investments and demand for services.
When Mouawad set up her advertising agency in 1992, the long war was drawing to a close and hopes were high for Lebanon’s future. A few years later, feeling optimistic, she sold a property she owned in Greece to re-invest back home.
But with her retail clients cash-strapped, her business has shrunk by about three quarters in the economic crisis. Mouawad herself is facing daily financial pressures.
“It’s become like an obsession with living conditions,” she said.
“All the time I’m thinking what will I do? Do I pay municipality fees or my mechanic fees or my electricity? I am under pressure and I never used to think like that before.”
Instead of a busy work schedule, she works barely an hour a day online. At the large warehouse where the paper business is based, activity has dwindled and deliveries of raw materials have spaced out.
“In the normal days we used to re-stock every four days, now this is all for three weeks,” she said, gesturing at some stacks of materials.
In spite of everything, she is not contemplating emigration. Having lived in the United States for six months in the 1990s and struggled to get used to it, she still wants to live in her home country.
“Everything I fought for is here and then I just leave it for someone else? No.”