‘We’re sick of them’: Lebanon economy freefalls as leaders bicker

Protests flare as Lebanon’s currency spirals and political tensions rise.

A demonstrator shouts slogans in front of burning garbage containers used to block a main road [Hussein Malla/AP]

Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon’s politicians continue to bicker about forming a new government while the economic crisis engulfing the country continues to foment public outrage.

At least half the population lives in poverty (PDF). Over the past month, protests swept across Lebanese towns and cities as the value of the Lebanese pound continues to spiral.

Protesters have set up roadblocks on major highways in recent weeks with burning tyres and rubbish dumpsters set ablaze.

“Our goal is not to have an uprising of the hungry, but you have people going hungry,” Beirut protester Nora Abouchakra from independent political party Li Haqqi told Al Jazeera.

“The streets have exploded because of the economic crisis. People can’t take it anymore.”

The currency’s value dropped to 10,000 against the dollar in early March. Just six days later, it hit an astonishing record low at 15,000, effectively losing about 90 percent of its value since late 2019. The Lebanese currency is still officially pegged to the US dollar at 1,500 pounds, but inflated informal rates have dominated local markets.

In response, the Lebanese government blocked currency exchange rate websites and mobile applications and shut down several exchange shops trading with informal rates.

Lebanese economist Sami Zogheib said an informal and unregulated currency black market will continue to control much of the country’s economy. “Everything is now priced based on the black market,” Zogheib told Al Jazeera. “It is very opaque and so the currency can suffer from heavy fluctuations.”

Like other independent political parties, Li Haqqi has called for Lebanon to form an independent transitional government that would prioritise pulling the country out of the economic crisis.

In the long-term, they advocate for a secular Lebanon built on social and economic justice. “You have people who are going hungry, and they don’t care about these details anymore,” Abouchakra said.

Protests continue to rage in a handful of other cities and towns in Lebanon. In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest and poorest city, demonstrations and riots sparked in January in response to a COVID-19 lockdown. Its residents feared the lockdown would be a knockout blow to their livelihoods.

“When the pound started losing its value, we thought we would only have to cut expenses on non-essentials,” Tripoli resident Omar al-Abiad told Al Jazeera. “But now there are people who can’t afford basic food items.” Foods such as eggs and cheese have tripled in price, al-Abiad added. Food inflation across Lebanon has soared above 400 percent.

‘The bullet that killed us’

Businesses that have not shut down yet are struggling to survive.

“We are working at a loss,” frustrated Beirut restaurant owner Riad Aboulteif told Al Jazeera. Before Lebanon’s economy began to falter a year ago, he had plans to open a third restaurant. But now, he is trying to keep his two establishments afloat.

“The bullet that killed us was the currency jumping from 8,000 pounds to 15,000 [to the dollar]. It was fatal.”

Aboulteif was also impacted by Lebanon’s series of coronavirus lockdowns, which forced him to close his establishments in the heart of the Lebanese capital for months.

In addition, one of Aboulteif’s restaurants was badly damaged by the devastating Beirut port explosion last August, but some local charities and community groups helped finance much of his hefty repair bill. However, the government has not been responding to his or other restaurant owners’ requests for tax and loan exemptions.

“The banks are still after us, chasing us for our loans,” he said. “But the government is in a coma in my opinion. It’s as if they don’t exist.”

Zogheib said Lebanon’s volatile currency crisis is a problem that cannot be resolved without economic reform.

“Leaving the market unregulated the way it is will lead to more episodes like this,” he said. “Especially during times of political turmoil.”

Months without a government

Crisis-hit Lebanon has continued to struggle without a functioning government since last August when Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned less than a week after the Beirut blast. As a caretaker government, Diab and his ministers were limited to basic functions.

As the Lebanese economy continues its spiral, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and President Michel Aoun have been at odds over the past five months about the size of the new government and how ministries will be allocated.

Hariri has been pushing for a downsized government of 18 nonpartisan technocrats, while Aoun has demanded a government of 20 ministers divided along sectarian lines. Hariri has repeatedly accused Aoun of angling for veto power by demanding his share of seven ministers. Tensions reached an all-time high when Aoun suggested that Hariri should resign if he could not form a government.

Hariri met Aoun on Monday at the Baabda Presidential Palace for the 18th time since his appointment to continue negotiations, following a lacklustre one-hour meeting on Thursday that Hariri said gave a window of “opportunity” to bypass the deadlock.

However, Monday’s brief meeting proved otherwise. Hariri told the press that Aoun insisted on having veto powers in government. “This is unacceptable,” Hariri said after the meeting. “It is not the prime minister-elect’s job to sign papers, and it is not the president’s job to form a government.”

Aoun later issued a statement condemning Hariri for sharing with the press his proposed government, which he said he did not approve because ministries were not fairly distributed.

“There is no need to turn the government-formation crisis into a crisis of governance and order,” the president said. “Unless there was a prior intention to not form a government for unknown reasons, which we won’t speculate about.”

A demonstrator stands next to flaming tyres cutting off a road in the centre of Lebanon’s capital Beirut [Anwar Amro/AFP]

‘Run away from responsibility’

Mustafa Allouch, a senior official in Hariri’s Future Movement party, told Al Jazeera the situation was tenuous.

“I cannot say that I’m really optimistic,” Allouch said. “[Thursday’s meeting] was an attempt by Saad Hariri to try to make the president feel safe and feel at ease in order to accept the type of government Saad Hariri is suggesting.”

Allouch added he was especially concerned by Hezbollah Sectary-General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah’s remarks.

The Hezbollah leader said in a speech on Friday he would back Hariri’s technocratic cabinet, should he and Aoun come to an agreement Monday. However, he said it would be unsuccessful.

“I am now saying to everyone a government of both technocrats and politicians, which will not allow anyone to run away from responsibility, is better,” Nasrallah said.

Demonstrators and independent political parties have dismissed the ongoing bickering among Lebanon’s ruling elite, many calling for new faces to take the helm.

“We forced Hariri to resign in October 2019, we don’t him to come back, and Michel Aoun’s presidency has failed,” Abouchakra said. “We are sick of all of them. We want them to resign and leave, so we can build a normal country from step one.”

Source: Al Jazeera