After cautiously re-emerging from months of lockdown, Lebanon is once again in the grips of nationwide demonstrations.
Thousands are protesting against deteriorating economic conditions and a political establishment blamed for rampant corruption and instability.
On Thursday evening, roads were blocked with burning tyres and banks set on fire as Lebanon’s currency collapsed to an all-time low against the US dollar, leaving many unable to afford basic goods.
Image: The protests have been triggered by the economic crisis
In downtown Beirut, the epicentre of protests in the capital, demonstrators lit fires and some clashed with the riot police and the army, who fired tear gas at the crowds.
Despite the government’s pledge to tackle the crisis, smaller groups of protesters clashed with riot police on Friday in Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli.
The fast deteriorating crisis has resulted in hundreds of thousands of job losses and salaries slashed, leaving many ordinary citizens struggling to pay for necessities such as medicine, school fees, and rent.
Moreover, banks have started capping the amount people can withdraw from their own accounts, leading to scenes of furious depositors demanding their cash.
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Although officials have been credited as having successfully curbed the spread of coronavirus by quickly imposing a strict nationwide lockdown early on, the restrictions deepened the already severe economic crisis.
Image: A demonstrator lies on the ground to block a road in Sidon
Protesters often say they are now more fearful of a pandemic of hunger and poverty sweeping the nation than of COVID-19.
For more than 20 years Lebanon has pegged its own currency at a rate of 1,507 Lebanese lira (LL) per dollar.
But by Thursday it had reached more than 5,500 LL to the dollar on the black market – a 70% drop since this time last year – leaving much of the country’s population out of pocket.
The country is now drowning in debt, accounting for 170% of GDP, and money that traditionally flowed in from abroad has dried up amidst local and regional turmoil.
Lebanon is currently negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an urgent $10bn (£8bn) financial aid package, but talks got off to a shaky start after disagreements between Lebanon’s prime minister and governor of the central bank.
Image: Protests have been held across the country, including the town of Ghazieh, in southern Lebanon
Even in a moment of such severe crisis, Lebanon’s political and economic leadership has struggled to put aside their disputes and work together, further infuriating the public.
Between October and February, 220,000 jobs had been lost according to research company InfoPro, which doesn’t take into account the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Food prices have risen by more than 50% in recent months with cooking programmes now advising viewers how to adapt recipes to fit their financial constraints.
Hospitals are also on the brink of collapse. In February one of Lebanon’s leading cardiologists told Sky News doctors were struggling to treat patients because of cash flow problems leaving many to go without urgent care.
Last October, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took the streets demanding wholesale change. Tired of political instability, economic mismanagement and a crumbling infrastructure, protesters called for the government to resign.
Image: Lebanese army soldiers open a road that was blocked by demonstrators during a protest in Antelias
Some initially referred to this spontaneous outpouring of nationwide anger as “the Whatsapp revolution” after the government tried to impose a tax on voice calls made through the internet and other social media apps.
But that’s an oversimplification of one of the most important moments in Lebanon’s recent history.
Protesters directly challenged Lebanon’s political system – a complex sectarian power-sharing agreement – and the country’s leaders who have fought actively to preserve it.
Despite dealing for decades with rolling power-cuts, a waste-management crisis, sectarian tensions and a deteriorating economy, the Lebanese people had been warned off challenging their leaders at the risk of plunging the country into chaos.
Image: Protesters are demanding political and economic change
For millions of people who’d lived through a devastating 15-year civil war between 1975-1990, it was a warning many heeded over the years. But frustration at Lebanon’s dysfunction and the perceived corruption of senior politicians continued to build.
One of the defining slogans of the protest movement has been: “killon yani killon” or “all of them means all of them”.
For perhaps the first time in the nation’s history demonstrations were eschewing party politics and religious affiliation and instead focusing on building a movement that targeted corruption, cronyism and inefficiency across the spectrum.
While they undoubtedly heralded results – the government of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned after 12-days of continuous protests, they nevertheless failed to overturn a political system outdated and incapable of delivering change in the eyes of many.
A new government, led by university professor and former minister Hassan Diab since late October, has been roundly rejected by demonstrators and political opponents who claim his appointment was forced through by a political bloc, which includes Hezbollah and the largest Christian party in parliament.
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Increasingly frustrated by lack of economic opportunities and political progress, demonstrations have also turned violent.
In January and February protesters tried on several occasions to force their way through roads leading to the parliament building but were met with tear gas and water cannon.
As protesters re-emerge onto the streets there is a sense of dread about the economic disaster unfolding, as well as hope that renewed nationwide action could finally bring about lasting change.
The coming days could determine whether Lebanon slides further into chaos or begins its long road to recovery.
Source : Sky News