Lebanon: The currency protests

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TOPSHOT - A Maronite Christian priest pleads anti-government protesters to let him pass with his vehicle as he stands next to burning tires at a make-shift roadblock in Zouk Mosbeh north of Lebanon's capital Beirut, on March 8, 2021 as they protest against the deteriorating value of the local currency and dire economic and social conditions. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

A video that went viral on social media showed a fight among a group of Lebanese citizens inside Spinneys supermarket. It was hard to determine the cause of the scuffle, which security personnel interfered to end, but the administration of the shop explained it had been about who should obtain subsidised products, with one customer trying to buy all the milk and oil available at a low price.

Lebanon has witnessed protests and road closures for almost a week following a currency catastrophe. Once again, the Lebanese pound dropped against the US dollar, with $1 costing LBP 10,000. According to Asharq Al-Awsat, this is due to a growing demand by importers for US dollars on the black market and the Central Bank of Lebanon being unable to open credits for subsidised products. 

An enormous rise in the cost of goods and services resulted. For example, petrol prices rose by 30 per cent, while bread prices rose by almost 50 per cent. Power cuts are reportedly increasing in frequency as fuel shipments arrive later than expected, reaching 12 hours per day. 

Political tensions resulting from various economic and political factors in Lebanon have been ongoing for at least three years. A similar situation had occurred two years ago and the present rerun was too much to tolerate for the Lebanese people, who took the streets to express their anger.

The Lebanese pound previously lost roughly 60 per cent of its value against the dollar. This was a huge blow to business owners in the import-based economy, with six million people losing their jobs. More than a single major road was blocked by protesters who burned tyres and garbage cans in different cities. Examples of road-blocking activities included the highway that leads to the airport, along with others in Tripoli and Sidon, the second and third largest cities in Lebanon respectively. 

On 4 February, demonstrators in Tripoli clashed with security forces as they protested the harsh economic implications of lockdown measures in the northern city. The police used tear gas, water cannon and even live rounds to disperse the protesters. The families of those who lost their lives in the August Beirut port blast blocked the Sami Al-Sulh road in both directions on 19 February after a new judge was assigned to lead the investigation. The protesters raised slogans such as “No to procrastination in investigations” and “No to politicisation, no to dilly-dallying”, a scene that reflects the ongoing state of public distrust in ruling elites. 

Fadi Sawan, the judge who was replaced, accused caretaker premier Hassan Diab and ex-minister Ali Hassan Khalil, Ghazi Zaieter and Youssef Fenianos of negligence, demanding that they should be interrogated. They did not show up, however, and Khalil and Zaieter officially requested replacing Sawan as they argued that he was acting unconstitutionally against them. 

The explosion in itself is a major source of trouble for Lebanon, as official estimates say $10 to $15 billion is needed to remedy the destruction it caused, with 300,000 homeless. 

Sarah Al-Richani, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo (AUC), said: “The unrest may indeed prod the self-serving, negligent and seemingly oblivious political class to at least resume government formation talks, although it is unexpected that these will bear fruit without an intensification of international pressure.

I do not expect the protests which are taking place in Tripoli to spread too widely to other parts of the country largely due to the alarming and ever-increasing infection and death rates (more than 3000 deaths) resulting from Covid-19 and ensuing lockdown measures. Having said that, there were a few protests in Beirut – one of which was held today by families of the Beirut port blast victims demanding answers from the judicial investigator investigating the devastating blast, the other on the Ring Road in Beirut relating to the unprecedented economic crisis.”

Diab warned on that Lebanon is moving towards a state chaos and said he is ready to leave office if it would help end the government-formation deadlock. “What are you waiting for, more collapse? More suffering? Chaos?” Diab said as he addressed political leaders in Lebanon, stressing that Lebanon is “in grave danger and the Lebanese people are paying the price”. Saad Al-Hariri, the Sunni leader and former Lebanese premier, has so far failed to form a new coalition amid a political clash with Hizbullah and President Michel Aoun, a key ally of the Shia group. 

Michel Aoun called on the army to stop roadblocks, but he does not seem to be on good terms with the Army Commander- in-Chief General Joseph Aoun. “The soldiers are hungry like the people, so what are the officials waiting for,” Joseph Aoun said, noting that “they launch political campaigns against us to distort our image”, insisting they will not manage to do so. “It is forbidden to interfere with our affairs or with our promotions or formations.

The army is compact and its dissolution means the end of the [Lebanese] entity. The experience of [the Lebanese Civil War in] 1975 will not be repeated,” the commander added. He emphasised that no desertions have taken place due to the economic crisis. However, he did not seem to be happy with the military’s budget decline. “Do you want an effective army or not? The army budget is reduced every year, which negatively affects the morale of the military.”

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