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Worst economic turmoil of Lebanon -The Asian Age


Lebanese have long stood out in the Middle East for not letting political upheaval or civil though wars, and while the tap water was undrinkable and the electric grid unreliable, even the middle class could afford nice clothes, low-paid maids from Ethiopia or the Philippines and occasional foreign vacations.

Bad planning, corruption and the sudden shock of a pandemic have caused the Lebanese currency to crash and consumer prices to jump. Hunger looms. Flawed policies and sudden shocks have thrust Lebanon into its worst economic crisis in decades, with its currency collapsing, businesses shutting, prices for basic goods skyrocketing and the threat of hunger looming for its poorest people.

They come to sell because they need to eat,” said Ali Sabra, a gold merchant in Beirut who pays cash to families selling dowries and wedding rings to buy food. Hundreds of demonstrators angered by a deepening economic crisis rallied across Lebanon for a third consecutive day on Saturday, after violent overnight riots sparked condemnation from the political elite. Protesting against the surging cost of living and the government’s apparent impotence in the face of Lebanon’s worst economic turmoil since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Protesters in central Beirut brandished flags and chanted anti-government slogans. We are here to demand the formation of a new transitional government and early parliamentary elections, Nehmat Badreddine, an activist and demonstrator, told AFP near the Grand Serail seat of government.

In the northern city of Tripoli, young men scuffled with security forces, who fired rubber bullets to disperse crowds. The clashes there left more than 120 people injured, according to figures released by the Red Cross and local medical services.

The stand- off began after young men blocked a highway to prevent a number of trucks carrying produce destined for Syria from passing through, according to the official National News Agency. The World Food Programme issued a statement to say that it had sent a convoy of 39 truckloads of food aid to Syria, which has suffered a knock-on effect from Lebanon’s financial crisis that has driven protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Food in Syria is more expensive than at any other time during the country’s nine-year conflict, triggering scenes reminiscent of the Arab spring protests of 2011 on the streets of the nominally government-loyal town of Sweida last week. New US sanctions against the Assad regime come into force next week that could be potentially devastating.

Lebanon’s prime minister, Hassan Diab, condemned violence and what he termed efforts to mount a coup against the government and manipulate the value of the Lebanese pound. Lebanon is caught in a spiralling economic crisis, including a rapid devaluation of the Lebanese pound, which has triggered a fresh wave of demonstrations since last week.

Local media said the exchange rate had tumbled to 6,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar on the black market at one point Friday, compared to the official peg of 1,507 in place since 1997. Anti-government protesters stage a symbolic funeral for the country in downtown Beirut. In Martyrs’ Square in Beirut on Saturday, demonstrators dressed in black and with their faces whitened carried a coffin draped with the Lebanese flag in a symbolic funeral for their crisis-ridden country.

President Michel Aoun has announced that the central bank will implement measures from Monday including feeding dollars into the market, in a bid to support the Lebanese pound. Despite the pledges, some 200 young men gathered on mopeds in central Beirut on Friday night, some of them defacing shop fronts and setting fire to stores.

Security forces fired tear gas to disperse them and some of the young men threw stones and Former premier Saad Hariri toured the area, condemning vandalism and riots. Interior minister Mohammed Fahmi said security forces would find those responsible for damaging property in the capital. Lebanon one of the most indebted countries in the world, with a sovereign debt of more than 170% of GDP went into default in March. Unemploy- ment has soared to 35% nationwide.

It started talks with the International Monetary Fund last month in a bid to unlock billions of dollars in financial aid. Dialogue is ongoing. The country enforced a lockdown in mid- March to stem the spread of the novel corona virus, dealing a further blow to businesses.

Middle class is becoming day after day poorer and poorer, Dr. Khuri said. Some of the best and brightest are not just emigrating, but this time they may permanently turn their backs on this country. In March, it failed to make a $1.2 billion payment for foreign bonds, the first such default in Lebanon’s history.

Its economic recovery plan, released on April 30, said the economy was “in free fall” and that Lebanon would seek $10 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund. But previously promised aid has never arrived because Lebanon has failed to make progress on the funders’ required reforms.

Even if some version of the government’s plan is eventually enacted, the benefits could take years to reach people like Abu Haytham Sirhal, a vegetable merchant who buys in dollars and resells in Lebanese pounds and has watched his already thin profit margin disappear. I have never witnessed anything like this in Lebanon’s history. This is the worst period ever. The writer is a columnist.