Hundreds of protesters, including large numbers of retired soldiers and police, marched in downtown Beirut on Wednesday to protest Lebanon’s deteriorating economy. When the protesters attempted to breach a fence and storm the government headquarters building, security forces used tear gas to disperse them, and some of the demonstrators responded by throwing rocks.
Lebanon has been mired in a years-long political and economic crisis that only seems to get worse at every turn. Government power is split between stalemated factions, one of which is the Iran-backed Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah. The president, Michel Aoun, left office in October and has not yet been replaced.
The Lebanese central is under investigation by European officials for money laundering. The probe into the horrifying August 2020 explosion that wiped out much of the Port of Beirut is a farce that was condemned by the U.N. Human Rights Council in early March.
Poverty long ago reached a crisis level in Lebanon. The state power company is only providing about three hours of electricity a day, so Lebanese families are forking over half their meager income to buy power from expensive black-market generators. The Lebanese currency is depreciating at astounding speed, losing 20,000 pounds against the U.S. dollar in a single day on Tuesday to reach an all-time low.
Wednesday’s protesters included retirees furious about depreciation devouring their pensions and depositors furious about emergency banking measures that leave them unable to access their accounts because the national currency would probably melt down completely if Lebanese were allowed to withdraw their money from the banks.
“I used to make around $4,000, now my pension is worth $150. We’re unable to secure basic necessities,” a retired Lebanese general told Agence France-Presse (AFP) from the scene of the protest.
“I am forced to be a vegetarian. How am I supposed to live? My pension is $150 while the generator bill is $200,” a retired teacher said.
“I’m unemployed and I’ve been selling my furniture to feed my family,” said a retiree with five children.
AFP noted the Lebanese pound has become so worthless that grocery stores are pricing food in U.S. dollars, which is very difficult for average Lebanese to obtain with the banking restrictions. Pharmacies shut down entirely because they could no longer obtain medicine to sell. Fuel distributors are demanding the government dollarize their prices to shield them against the constantly dwindling exchange rate. As it stands, a 20-liter can of gas costs almost 2.4 million pounds.
Lebanon’s problems are widely blamed on the corruption and ineptitude of the political class. “Is this how they want us to welcome the month of Ramadan? Where are the MPs? What are they doing about this? What did we do to deserve their corruption?” a protester said to Arab News.
Arab News noted the head of Lebanon’s General Labor Union is talking about launching a “comprehensive strike” that would hit the fragile economy like a wrecking ball because he sees no other way to make government officials “address the insane drop in the exchange rate and the resulting price hikes of commodities.”
Security forces are nervous because any fresh hardship or indignity could be the last straw, and any one of the frequent protests could escalate into something much worse. When Wednesday’s demonstrators reached the government headquarters building known as the Grand Serail of Beirut, the police decided to break up the march with tear gas. Protesters threw stones at the police and clashed with them at close quarters.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned on Thursday that Lebanon is in a “very dangerous situation” due to rising public unrest, the refusal of the political class to implement needed reforms, and the government’s continued heavy borrowing from the central bank.
“To anyone observing Lebanon over the last four years, the likelihood of an IMF program being implemented appears slim to none. There is no urgency, no incentive and no pressure on decision-makers to implement any of the basic reforms,” financial expert Mike Azar told Reuters after the IMF warning was issued.
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