A protester holds up the Lebanese flag on the streets of Beirut.
Diego Ibarra Sanchez / Getty

What the Loss of Freedom Feels Like

In three distinct and different places, a similar sense of loss—of liberal values, of hope—is overwhelming.

From my home in Beirut, I think of Hong Kong all the time. Even though I’ve never been and have no real ties to it, I feel as though I have a stake in its future. I stare at news headlines that read, “Hong Kong Families, Fearing a Reign of Terror, Prepare to Flee the City,” and feel a strange, visceral sense of familiarity. I’ve become obsessed with trying to understand—to feel—Hong Kongers’ angst as their city undergoes a precipitous transformation.

Since prodemocracy protests erupted there in 2019, at the same time as anti-corruption demonstrations in Lebanon, I’ve witnessed my own country’s collapse under a plethora of crises: the implosion of its economy, the enormous blast at the Beirut port, and of course the pandemic, all of it wrapped up in endemically corrupt politics and meddling by foreign powers, notably Iran. Decades of progress since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990 have been erased, and thousands of Lebanese are rushing for the exit.

Lebanon and Hong Kong have everything and nothing in common. Both are energetic creative centers of design, film, and music; refuges for those seeking freedom of thought and expression; places situated between East and West, with a culture of emigration. At one time, Lebanon was even described as Syria’s Hong Kong—more on that later. But their histories, their politics, and especially their economies could not be more different.

Still, today they seem bound together by a similar feeling of loss—not as the result of a sudden war or a natural disaster, but because of the disintegration of something much more complex.

Last month, Keith Richburg, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent and the director of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, wrote that “the old Hong Kong of raucous debate and protest, of independent-minded activists and politicians and filmmakers, is gone.” At about the same time, the Lebanese writer and translator Lina Mounzer published an essay titled “Lebanon as We Once Knew It Is Gone.”

Elsewhere, too, others have been experiencing the end of a way of life. Just a few days before Richburg’s and Mounzer’s articles came out, Mujib Mashal, a New York Times correspondent who was born under Taliban rule, took a bus around his hometown as the Taliban were once again closing in on Afghanistan’s capital. He had grown up in that interim period of hope and transformation, and reported “feeling that the window on Kabul as my generation knew it was closing.”

The Afghans hanging from the wheels of an aircraft, desperate to leave a country that was suddenly swallowing them alive, are nothing like the exodus out of Lebanon or Hong Kong. But in each of these places, thousands of people have to make the agonizing choice to become exiles, sometimes overnight, as the Taliban advance, as the Chinese authorities come knocking, as Lebanon’s ruling cartel causes yet another shortage of bread or fuel, or unleashes violence on protesters.

Afghans, Hong Kongers, and Lebanese are all victims today of a form of authoritarian intolerance. The specifics are different for each, but the dislocation within them is perhaps the most visible expression of the disappearance of a world born out of the heady days of the 1990s. In these places, people feel betrayed by their leaders, the world, the West, by their own optimism even as they watch, stunned, the erasure of the life they thought possible after decades of progress—imperfect and uneven progress, but progress nonetheless. I have written about slow, surreptitious transformations, waves of change that wash over societies across decades until people wake up one day and think, What happened to us?

The question now being asked in these three places—Lebanon, Hong Kong, Afghanistan—is more violent, reflective of the suddenness of the change, of the shock. It is perhaps closer to “What the fuck just happened?”

A long-exposure photo taken on October 24, 2019, depicts Lebanese protesters waving national flags at Al-Nour Square, in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, on the eighth day of protests against tax increases and official corruption.
Lebanese protesters wave national flags at Al-Nour Square, in the northern city of Tripoli, during protests in 2019. (Ibrahim Chalhoub / AFP / Getty)

Pervasive in all the stories out of Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Hong Kong is a deep sense of loss—of hope and freedom, but also of space for liberal values and ideas, and, more literally, loss of home and of talent.

This manifests in an array of different ways, real and symbolic, that go to the core of the identity of each place: in Hong Kong, the closure of Apple Daily, the prodemocracy newspaper, and that of Club 71, an iconic bar named after a huge protest that took place on July 1, 2003, which finally succumbed to the vagaries of high rent and reduced footfall as a result of the pandemic. In Kabul, blast walls across the city once used as a canvas for colorful artwork were painted over by the Taliban within days of the group’s takeover. In Lebanon, the beloved and world-renowned indie-rock band Mashrou’ Leila fell prey to the illiberal forces that uphold the corrupt system. Suddenly accused of blasphemy in the summer of 2019 by conservative Christians, their performances were canceled, two band members were briefly detained and questioned, and a vicious onslaught of hate on social media eventually sent the band into self-imposed exile. They continue to sing, performing with international artists such as Mika after the port explosion, putting their pain in lyrics: “Did my time, toed the line / Ain’t seen anything yet … How could you break my heart? / Already played my part / I kept my promise, man / Show me the promised land.”

The promised lands where so much was possible are now producing a stream of exiles, squeezing out artists and activists, writers and dissidents, but also nurses, bankers, teachers, and engineers. In a globalized world, the educated can seek a normal life outside their homeland. Exhilarating protests in both Hong Kong and Lebanon in 2019 failed to stop China’s systematic takeover of governance in Hong Kong or to reverse the growing stranglehold that the pro-Iran Shiite militant group and political party Hezbollah has on Lebanon’s politics.

The whiplash has been painful in both places. Living standards in Lebanon went from being similar to those in Greece or southern Italy to something akin to Venezuela’s within a year. Traumatized by past conflicts and turmoil, a sizable portion of the Lebanese population has second passports, as a Plan B. As I read more about Hong Kong, I learned that many of its people also had second passports, obtained ahead of Britain’s handover of the city back to China in 1997. I wondered why, given that Hong Kong had not suffered war or shortages. I had forgotten for an instant what I know to be true—that economic prosperity and stability cannot replace the need for freedom of thought and expression, for governance and the rule of law.

The population of Hong Kong has dropped 1.2 percent this year. The initial departures after the 2019 protests were of activists and prodemocracy lawmakers, but subsequent waves have involved middle-class professionals. Lebanon does not yet have official numbers on emigration, but as an indicator, the authorities have been renewing 32,000 Lebanese passports a month since January, up from 17,000 a month for the same period in 2020. By 8 a.m. on most days this summer, Beirut’s passport offices had already received the 400 requests they can process daily. (Regional offices elsewhere have been similarly overwhelmed.) An estimated 40 percent of Lebanon’s doctors and 30 percent of its nurses have left, while the American University of Beirut has lost 15 percent of its faculty. The airlift of more than 100,000 Afghans who did not dare stay to find out whether the Taliban had changed will deprive that country of many of its best and brightest. This exodus will change societies from within in all three places. (The key difference is that Hong Kong remains a wealthy place, while the economies of Afghanistan and Lebanon are crumbling.)

Different generations are experiencing this loss differently. If you’re in your 20s, you’re losing the only world you’ve ever known. Afghans under 25 make up two-thirds of the population; those living in cities grew up surrounded by blast walls and foreign troops, but also with elections, rising literacy rates, music, girls in schools, women in Parliament, and chess games in cafés. If you’re in your 40s, you’re losing the world you were promised as you came of age, a world where, if you were a Hong Konger, you could march for freedom and democracy, and score some real victories, even if you couldn’t elect your leader. If you’re in your 60s, you’re losing the world you helped build, or tried to. Friends of mine who were deeply involved in the Middle East peace process during the 1990s, the reconstruction of Beirut after the civil war, or the push for reforms and governance across the region today ask themselves what they have to show for all their efforts.

(Of course, a parallel group of people exists for whom the tumult is neither an ending nor a betrayal: In Afghanistan’s rural areas, far away from university campuses, wedding halls, and hip cafés, there is relief that nighttime raids by occupying troops will end. In Hong Kong, some will benefit economically from greater integration with China. In Lebanon, if you belong to the pro-establishment and pro-Hezbollah camp, this is an existential battle for the survival of a system that serves you.)

Driving around Beirut at night is now a hazardous and slightly depressing endeavor. Endless power outages mean that most street lights or traffic lights are off. The city looks desolate, forlorn, emptied of many inhabitants who were traumatized by the port blast or crushed by the deprivation. Garbage piles up on street corners because municipal workers aren’t being paid and groups of beggars and homeless people sit on sidewalks, more of them every day as the country’s population slides into ever greater poverty. I have flashbacks to my childhood during the civil war. Then, too, the streets were dark at night, the traffic lights had long stopped working, and garbage collection was an occasional event. But in between, we had three decades of reconstruction, a growing middle class, a sense of hope, an exhilarating creative energy—and new traffic lights that we had to relearn to obey.

On his trip around Kabul, Mashal, the Times correspondent, met a lawyer who had been working to complete a competitive two-year process to become a judge. Suddenly, there were new masters in town with a different understanding of the law. “Twenty years of effort,” the man said, “and all for nothing.”

Was all that apparent progress an illusion?

Family members of Beirut port-blast victims demand the truth as they mourn six months on from the devastating explosion, on February 4, 2021, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Family members of victims of the Beirut port blast have demanded that officials be held to account for the devastating explosion. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez / Getty)

As strange as it may sound, Lebanon was once described as Syria’s Hong Kong. Lebanon’s civil war, in which regional and international powers all played a role, ended on October 13, 1990, with a final outburst of unparalleled ferocity, when Syrian troops invaded an enclave of the country that had so far escaped their control. The Assad regime had long had designs on Lebanon, and Pax Syriana now meant that a repressive, socialist, nationalist regime was in control of a vibrant society with a free press and a market economy, much as was the case with Hong Kong.

As postwar reconstruction took off, Lebanon became a poster child of capitalism gone wild: Borrowing skyrocketed, highway and hotel construction surged, music festivals hosted international artists, and elections were held, all as Syrian officials talked up the idea of Lebanon being their Hong Kong. They even described it as “one country, two systems”—the same turn of phrase Beijing uses to characterize Hong Kong’s place within China. Lebanon was Syria’s window onto the world, a playground for its officials and the goose that laid golden eggs to feed into Syria’s Soviet-style economy. In exchange, Lebanon could be free, or allowed to think it was, within the limits of an occupation.

In 2005, Rafiq Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister and the man who helped resurrect the country, was assassinated as he was asserting his distance from Damascus. Syrian troops withdrew in the face of huge protests, leaving behind a system of entrenched corruption that serves them and their allies, including Hezbollah and Iran, to this day. What strikes me most as I think back to those years under occupation is how often people posited that Syria would become more like Lebanon, that the Assad regime would open up and liberalize.

The parallels with Hong Kong are remarkable. There, too, observers long believed that the handover of Hong Kong to China, and then Beijing’s accession to the World Trade Organization, presaged China’s becoming more like Hong Kong. “By joining the WTO, China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products,” President Bill Clinton said in March 2000 as he rallied support for China’s membership in the WTO. “It is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values, economic freedom.” Clinton continued, “When individuals have the power not just to dream but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say.”

It is easy in hindsight to say this approach was a mistake. But at the time, there appeared to be no alternative to allowing China into the WTO (and the benefits to the world economy have undoubtedly been tremendous). Perhaps the same logic can apply to Syria’s takeover of Lebanon: The Cold War was ending, the civil war in Lebanon was dragging on, and President George H. W. Bush wanted the new world order to start. In exchange for Syria’s token participation in the liberation of Kuwait, the U.S. turned a blind eye to Syria’s full occupation of Lebanon. There were further benefits for the U.S., such as Damascus’s help in releasing Western hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Syria and pro-Iran militias, permission for Syrian Jews to leave the country and move to Israel, and Syria’s participation in several rounds of peace talks with Israel.

What could not have been predicted was how circumstances would change. Without the rise of Xi Jinping, China’s trend toward economic liberalization may well have continued, perhaps allowing Hong Kong a degree of freedom. Without the rise of Bashar al-Assad, intent on proving he was more cunning and ruthless than his father, whom he succeeded in power, the strangling of Lebanon may not have come to pass. But flaws and loopholes were baked into each overture and compromise, to which the West remained oblivious because of naïveté or hubris.

As it turns out, democracy is fragile and can come under attack—even in America. In the end, each in its own way, neither Lebanon nor Hong Kong was able to withstand being smothered by its authoritarian big brother. Afghanistan today, a result of invasion and nation building, is perhaps more a function of American delusion, but the chain of events that led to the Taliban’s August 15 takeover of Kabul also originates in the optimism of the 1990s, when the U.S. believed itself invincible. Few could conceive then that the mess of a faraway wreck of a country could impinge on the inexorable progress toward democracy.

Now the Taliban have retaken Kabul, Lebanon is collapsing, and China is completely refashioning Hong Kong. Are we back to square one?

A general view of empty streets during a 24-hour lockdown in Beirut, Lebanon, on January 14, 2021
Beirut’s empty streets on the first day of a January 2021 lockdown (Diego Ibarra Sanchez / Getty)

Many in Lebanon today say that things are worse now than during the civil war. Back then, queues for petrol, bread, and water were typical, but shortages of medication were rare, banks never closed, and U.S. dollar bills were available in ample supply. Lebanese met over fancy dinners despite snipers, attended school in between bouts of shelling, and went clubbing to the sounds of the Bee Gees and Queen. And yet, 150,000 people were killed during the war, 900,000 people left, Beirut was under Israeli siege for more than two months in 1982, and Syrian soldiers looted and raped their way into various parts of Lebanon. How could anyone feel that things are worse today?

Perhaps because worse than war or occupation is tasting freedom and prosperity and having it yanked away. Lebanon’s rapid regression has left its people shell-shocked and depleted, unable to take on the heartbreaking, even Sisyphean, task of starting anew. For Afghans, the sudden return to Taliban rule after two decades of relative freedom is a devastation of a different magnitude than coming under their yoke after a war. In Hong Kong, from a perspective of freedom and governance, life today is worse than after any of the setbacks experienced over the prior two decades, because China’s moves carry a sense of finality.

The loss of hope and freedom extends well beyond the three places in this story. The week Kabul fell to the Taliban, I spoke with a friend who grew up in Tbilisi and had returned to the Georgian capital a few years ago with her husband and kids. She had been born there when Georgia was still part of the Soviet Union. There, too, democratization and liberalization had brought a sense of possibility, halting but ongoing. She told me of Russian and Belarusian journalists who had been hiding from Vladimir Putin in Tbilisi, the last spot in the region where they thought they would be safe—until Georgia and Belarus signed a security-collaboration agreement that came into force, by coincidence, just as Kabul fell.

As American troops withdrew from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said that the goal “was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy” in the country. But democratic spaces, where pluralism, liberal values, and freedom of thought can flourish, are crucial. These spaces can exist and even expand in imperfect countries such as Afghanistan and Lebanon. Biden’s Summit for Democracy in December should not be limited to participants from democracies but should include people working to uphold governance and pluralism in countries where democracy is threatened and pushing to maintain freedom where it is disappearing—because if everyone leaves places that are in turmoil, who rebuilds them?

Despite the exodus, many—in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Hong Kong—are staying in the hope of preserving what they can, building on what was achieved in the past three decades. The progress may have been tenuous but it was not an illusion. The slate is not blank.

On days when I despair at the state of Lebanon, or the future of Hong Kong, I think of the Berlin Wall. For 40 years, those living in its shadow, on either side, could not imagine a life beyond the division it enforced, even while many strove to bring it down. Until, one day, the wall fell. And there was an opportunity for a new world. Then, we were naive about the inevitability of the victory of liberal values. We must learn from those mistakes as we work to stop more walls from going up and the darkness from spreading.