HE called it the “Revolution of the Hungry”. His name was Subhi al-Tufayli and he had been the first secretary-general of Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist political party and military organisation that for decades has wielded considerable clout in Lebanon.

It’s only in the past year or so that the UK has joined other countries in proscribing Hezbollah fully as a terrorist group. But back in the late 1990s when I interviewed Tufayli in the southern suburbs of Beirut, his relationship with Hezbollah was already strained and he was a marked man for other reasons.

He had taken on the Lebanese government by organising protests as part of his “hunger revolution” insisting it was “completely unacceptable that a human being could be humiliated because of poverty or because they were in need”.

In the eyes of many, of course, Hezbollah has always been as much part of the problem as it is part of any solution to Lebanon’s long-term ills. But I couldn’t help thinking of Tufayli’s words again this week as Beirut reeled from the giant explosion that devastated the Lebanese capital.

Not only did the blast destroy a port vital in a country that imports 80% of its food, it also obliterated the silos holding the country’s national grain reserve. Many watching the horrific television pictures this week will have been unaware that hunger was stalking Beirut long before Tuesday’s explosion.

Only last week, the humanitarian organisation Save the Children reported that half a million children are hungry in the city as a rising number of families are confronted with Lebanon’s economic meltdown. Over the past weeks and months, food prices that were already constantly rising have now doubled, while the value of the Lebanese pound has plummeted by 80%, leaving many in dire need.

Close to a million people in Beirut can now no longer afford basic necessities and children are likely to starve to death this year, Save

The Children has warned.

The bottom line here is that Lebanon will need outside help if a full-scale humanitarian disaster is to be prevented. While the UK Government has pledged £5 million, this is but a drop in the ocean for a country such as Lebanon. It is one of the most indebted in the world, with sovereign debt more than 170% of gross domestic product (GDP).

Drumming up more cash from the international community will not be easy for two reasons.

The first is that many nations are already pre-occupied with their own economic plight as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The second reason is that some potential donors share the suspicions of many of the hardest-hit Lebanese when it comes to how the country is “managed”.

Will they really be willing to throw good money after bad? How can donors be sure what they give will not simply disappear or be appropriated by a Lebanese government many see as incompetent and working hand in glove with a corrupt elite that siphons off whatever it can at the expense of the many?

Over many years of on and off living and working in Beirut, I’ve always been struck by the glaring discrepancy between Lebanon’s haves and have-nots.

For many visitors, it’s an easy place to be seduced by. Hezbollah and Hard Rock Cafes exist alongside each other and Beirut’s pulsating energy, chic nightclubs, hedonistic character and endless political shenanigans add to its pull and intrigue.

Back in the late 1990s, when I interviewed Tufayli as his Revolution of the Hungry was gaining momentum, it was possible to stroll along the Corniche, Beirut’s palm and yacht-lined seaside boulevard, and be utterly convinced of the city’s post-civil war revival.

BUT behind all this buffing still lay a place of volatile contradictions. Whoever came up with the millions of dollars asking price for a nine-bedroom penthouse in west Beirut was able to look across a city in which other families lived in one room.

This contrast between rich and poor was exacerbated even further by the phenomenal explosion in consumption that gripped those who had lived through a decade-and- a-half of fighting.

Adding to the financial distortion, too, were many from humble origins who catapulted up the ladder with wealth gained from war activities they would rather not discuss.

“Opportunity in tragedy” had long been a term for survival in Beirut.

I remember one Beirut university professor who compared post-war Lebanon, with its handful of mega-companies that controlled a virtual monopoly on the city’s rebuilding, to the late 19th-century America of the robber barons.

“This is rabid, vicious, uncontrolled capitalism,” he said. “The modern West evolved a social system and accountability alongside free enterprise. Lebanon hasn’t.”

Over the years, things done in Lebanon remained a stark lesson on mankind’s capacity to plumb the darkest depths of its nature in the name of religion, politics, profit and land.

Today, Lebanon is reaping the whirlwind of that political nepotism and financial mercenarism relentlessly pursued by its government and wealthy elite.

Hours of electricity blackouts that some say are worse than the civil war era, massive inflation, heavy austerity measures, collapsing infrastructure and now hunger have brought many on to the streets in protest. Let’s not forget, too, that this has long been a country that remains vulnerable to the political vagaries of the wider Middle East.

A frequently told old Lebanese joke recounts how when God was creating the world and came to Lebanon, he blessed it with blue seas, white beaches, endless olive trees, elegant mountains and cedar forests.

“You are being generous,” observed an angel watching God’s work of creation. “Yes,” replied God. “But wait till you see the neighbours I’m giving them.”

For now it’s not the neighbours most Lebanese need to worry about, but those lurking in the corridors of power within their homeland.

Beirut, the great survivor with its energetic, cultured and wonderfully hospitable citizens has risen phoenix-like from the ashes before and can do so again.

Lebanon might just be about to experience yet another revolution of the hungry. Should that be the case, here’s hoping it passes without bloodshed.