Lebanese protesters back on the streets as economy crumbles

Lebanese anti-government protesters burn tyres amid overnight clashes with security forces in the northern city of Tripoli

Lebanese protesters confronted soldiers for a second day Tuesday as anger over a spiraling economic crisis re-energised a months-old anti-government movement despite a coronavirus lockdown.

In second city Tripoli, protesters hurled rocks at security forces, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The violence came after a protester died on Tuesday from a bullet wound he had sustained during overnight confrontations between troops and hundreds of demonstrators in Tripoli.

Following the funeral of 26-year-old Fawaz al-Samman in the city’s central Al-Nour Square, demonstrators went on the rampage, torching and vandalising banks and military vehicles.Lebanese anti-government protesters smash the facade of a bank

Troops fired live rounds into the air to try to disperse stone-throwing protesters under clouds of tear gas.

Tuesday’s confrontations were the latest in a string of anti-government protests fuelled by unprecedented inflation and a plummeting Lebanese pound.

Angered by the financial collapse, demonstrators have rallied across Lebanon, blocking roads and attacking banks, re-energising a protest movement launched in October against a political class the activists deem inept and corrupt.

“I came down to raise my voice against hunger, poverty and rising prices,” Khaled, 41, told NYK Daily, saying he had lost his job selling motorcycle parts and could no longer support his three children.

– ‘Increasingly desperate’ –People inspect a bank set ablaze by protesters in Tripoli

After a few hours of calm in Tripoli on Tuesday evening, protesters again hit the streets, vandalising the facade of a bank in the al-Mina district.

A demonstration was also held outside the home of former prime minister Najib Mikati, who has been accused of wrongly receiving millions in subsidised housing loans — charges he denies.

More than 20 protesters were injured in the Tuesday night clashes, including four who were hospitalised, according to the Lebanese Red Cross.

Sixty people, including some 40 soldiers, were injured during the clashes on Monday night.

In the capital Beirut, NYK Daily reporter saw dozens of protesters chanting slogans against the governor of the central bank.

In the southern city of Sidon, demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails at the bank’s local headquarters.

Lebanon is mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, now compounded by a nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus that has killed 24 people in the country and infected almost 700 others.

The Lebanese pound has lost more than half of its value against the dollar on the black market, hitting record lows of 4,000 pounds to the dollar this week.

Economy Minister Raoul Nehme on Tuesday said that prices have risen by 55 percent, while the government estimates that 45 percent of the population now lives below the poverty line.

This has unleashed a public outcry against a government that has yet to deliver a long-awaited rescue plan to shore up the country’s finances more than three months since it was nominated to address the crisis.

On Tuesday evening, Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni tweeted that his French counterpart Bruno Le Maire had given his backing to a rescue plan, but had stressed the need for long-overdue structural reforms.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab acknowledged that living conditions have “deteriorated at a record speed” but said on Tuesday he would not tolerate “riots” and that perpetrators would be held accountable.

UN envoy to Lebanon Jan Kubis said that the “tragic” events in Tripoli send a “warning signal.”

“This is the time to provide material support to increasingly desperate, impoverished and hungry majority of Lebanese,” he said on Twitter.

– ‘Social explosion’ –

Lebanon’s economic crisis has forced large chunks of the population into unemployment.Lebanese protesters chant slogans in front of the building of the central bank in Beirut on April 23, 2020

Meanwhile, a kilo of meat — which used to sell for 18,000 Lebanese pounds ($12 at the official rate) — now costs 32,000 (around $22), while the price of vegetables has doubled.

With no clear government plan to exit the crisis, Lebanon is heading “towards an inevitable social explosion,” Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, told NYK Daily.

Public anger has been increasingly directed at banks, accused by protesters of helping a corrupt political class drive the country towards bankruptcy.

Lebanese banks, many of them owned by prominent politicians, have since September imposed restrictions on dollar withdrawals and transfers, forcing the public to deal in the nose-diving Lebanese pound.

Since March, banks have stopped dollar withdrawals altogether, further fuelling public anger.

In Tripoli, the army accused demonstrators overnight of torching three banks, destroying several automated teller machines and attacking an army patrol and military vehicle.

The Association of Lebanese Banks said that commercial banks would be closed in the city on Tuesday because of “attacks and acts of vandalism.”

The renewed protests came after Diab said Lebanese bank deposits had plunged $5.7 billion in the first two months of the year, despite curbs on withdrawals and a ban on transfers abroad.

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