Fires raged as the sun rose over Lebanon. As the nation’s currency spirals downwards, protestors targeted Lebanese banks with Molotov’s, gasoline, and petrol bombs. According to Al Jazeera, on the night of 28 April 2020, at least a dozen major banks were set ablaze. These protests are the manifestations of widespread anger over Lebanon’s faltering economy.
Poverty has continued to get worse. The depreciation of the Lebanese pound has accelerated the fall over the past six months. COVID-19 has pushed Lebanon into an economic free-fall. Protests were raging towards the end of 2019, but lockdowns due to the virus caused them to stop. Now, they are returning with a vengeance. The government’s response has been ham-fisted, only serving to inflame tensions further and escalate the conflict between protestors, police, and the military.
Politics and the Economy
These protests have been building for months and were ongoing for many weeks before the quarantine. They first erupted on 17 October 2019 in response to proposed taxes on gas, tobacco, and apps like WhatsApp. The protests grew quickly in size and scope, becoming more about the country’s stagnant economy than the new taxes themselves.
The first wave of demonstrations threw the country into disarray, causing the Prime Minister at the time Saad Hariri to step down. Since then, there has been little action on the part of the government as it was only in December 2019 that a new primer minister Hassan Diab, former minister of Education, took power. Time was required for Diab to gather his cabinet and start to make plans to right Lebanon’s economic woes.
Violence on the Rise
Since then, COVID-19 forced protestors into lockdown for a few months. But, in the past few days, the protests have resurged. In response, the Lebanese Armed Forces have ratcheted up the level of intensity with which they respond. Because of this, the LAF has killed one protestor and injured dozens, reports Human Rights Watch.
While the army expressed its “regret,” over the death, it is not explicitly taking responsibility. Eyewitness reports all confirm the army was firing live rounds. Some claim they were doing so indiscriminately into the crowd of civilian protestors. Given this, Lebanon should be thankful, only one person has died so far. In addition to the injuries, the army arrested several demonstrators for their participation in the demonstrations.
The situation in Lebanon is particularly complicated. There are mass economic and political factors at play, in addition to the new problem of COVID-19. Given this complexity, the government faces an uphill battle in being able to resolve all these issues successfully, but there are several clear steps it can and should take. First, they need to establish an independent committee to look into the death of the protestor Fawwaz Fouad al-Seman.
It should include members of the family of those the LAF killed to ensure they undertake it with the utmost urgency and respect for the dead. Second, the government should release prisoners who were peacefully protesting and publicly reaffirm its support for the right to peaceful public protest. Third, the government should provide compensation to any victim of undue force at the hands of the military or police. Finally, it should unconditionally condemn the use of lethal force against protestors.
Resolving Economic Issues
These steps will ensure demonstrators can peacefully gather, but there’s still a massive economic crisis at play. To solve this, the government must do two things. First, it has to quickly formulate a relief package for those most affected by COVID-19. This funding will act as a short-term stopgap for the economy that’ll prop it up long enough for longer-term reforms to be put into place.
Those longer-term reforms are the second step of the solution to this economic collapse. Lebanon must use the time bought from the COVID-19 relief to create stricter capital control to slow the depreciation of their currency and depletion of their federal reserves. Slowing the bleeding of funds from the country will help right the ship that is their economy, and in combination with COVID-19 relief, may be sufficient to bring life back into an economy that needs it gravely.