Protests In Lebanon Continue

The continuation of protests in Lebanon saw hundreds take to the streets for a second night on Friday. In the country’s capital, Beirut, protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Similar scenes unfolded in cities across the country. The tensions behind the violence stem from Lebanon’s deep economic strife, which has pushed many below the poverty line. It was already witnessing a plummeting currency from the end of 2019 – also causing protests and civil unrest – but the coronavirus may well have tipped the Mediterranean country over the edge.

Hassan Diab, the Prime Minister, cancelled all scheduled meetings in order to hold an emergency cabinet session on Friday after the scale of the discontent became clear on Thursday night. News of an injection of U.S. dollars into the economy also came through on Friday, which appeared to halt the alarming depreciation of the Lebanese Lira. Moreover, talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over potential bailouts and a financial rescue package are due to begin soon. Protesters, however, remain unconvinced and deeply mistrustful of banks – which were targeted by petrol bombs – and the government itself. Economists are also not optimistic about the country’s future. Sami Nader, director of Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, told The Independent that the “Lebanese currency will continue to sink because nothing has been done to contain the inflation, to contain the pressure on the dollar.” He described the situation as “a free fall.”

The condition of living in Lebanon has plummeted too. The riots are the unsurprising response of a population beset with poverty. Unemployment rate is at 35%, over 70% of the population are soon expected to be living below the poverty line, and the lira is trading at 7000 to the dollar on the black market (the official rate is 1500 to the dollar). The Coronavirus crisis has also been a sucker punch for the Lebanese government.

However, it is imperative that talks with the IMF take place, and that Lebanon is cooperative to IMF-backed reforms. It is thought that authorities are stalling due to a reluctance to comply with demands the IMF might extend in return for financial stimulus. According to Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, such reforms would include “spending cuts in the public sector, ending the hijacking of state institutions, and, perhaps most important, reform of the highly inefficient electricity sector.” However, many of the political class stand to benefit from the system as it is. This explains the sluggishness of the government in reaching out to the IMF. It must change. The government has a responsibility to see the discontent and increasing poverty and do everything it can to help, which will begin with securing financial support from the IMF.

There is an urgency to the situation, in both a humanitarian sense – 60% of workers in Tripoli make less than one dollar a day – as well as politically. In America, the Congressional Republican Study Committee published a report on the 10th June recommending against financial support for Lebanon. This was cited as a way to halt the progress of Iranian power in the Middle East. The future for Lebanon, then, is particularly murky, as there are signs of American resistance to bailouts for strategic, political reasons. It is thus of paramount importance that Lebanon secures IMF assistance quickly and cooperatively. This will allow its people to slowly trust its government again, preventing the violence that has erupted on its streets.

Joel Fraser