Lebanon bracing for a harsher post-COVID-19 phase

“More people are getting hungry, losing their income and jobs and the pound continues its downward spiral against the dollar, unabated,” said political analyst Johnny Mounayar.
Sunday 26/04/2020
An anti-government protester covers her face with a Lebanese flag during a protest against the Lebanese Central Bank’s Governor Riad Salameh and against the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut, April 23. (AP)
Days of the mask. An anti-government protester covers her face with a Lebanese flag during a protest against the Lebanese Central Bank’s Governor Riad Salameh and against the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut, April 23. (AP)

BEIRUT - Lebanon is bracing for a more painful and restive post-COVID-19 phase marred by social unrest amid deteriorating living conditions, skyrocketing prices and a nosediving devaluation of the Lebanese pound, analysts say.

Anti-government protesters have taken to the streets in different parts of Lebanon despite a nationwide lockdown enforced since March 15 to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Protesters blocked highways and gathered in squares and outside the Central Bank in Beirut in defiance of confinement restrictions. In the Bekaa town of Taalabaya, in east Lebanon, the army used force to disperse demonstrators, causing minor injuries to 40 protesters.

“There is no doubt that people are full of anger. Recent polls indicated that the percentage of those frustrated with the ruling class is much higher than it was when the anti-government protests first began in October last year,” said political analyst Johnny Mounayar.

“More people are getting hungry, losing their income and jobs and the pound continues its downward spiral against the dollar, unabated,” said Mounayar.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s so-called cabinet of technocrats, which took office in January with the backing of Shia Hezbollah, Amal Movement and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun, is yet to agree on a plan to deal with the worst economic and financial crisis to rock Lebanon since independence from French mandate.

“The politicians are still incapable of alleviating the country’s problems and finding solutions. Even among the Shia community there is a growing percentage of people unhappy with their own politicians. In other words, Hezbollah will have to make an effort to bring them back into the fold,” Mounayar said.

The pressure caused by the vertiginous slide of the pound’s value will eventually force Lebanon to seek International Monetary Fund (IMF) help, an option strongly opposed by the powerful Hezbollah, Mounayar maintained.

“Of course the IMF support will come with pre-conditions including demarcation of the maritime borders, control of ports and airports to prevent smuggling, et cetera… All these matters do not suit Hezbollah. But the financial crash will force it to take that option, which I believe is the only available option.

“Can you imagine where the unchecked slide of the pound would lead Lebanon in one or two weeks? What happened lately is just a foretaste of what would happen after the pandemic is over. You cannot stop the people from rebelling when they are hungry and don’t see any future,” Mounayar said.

The protests on April 23 occurred in mainly Sunni-inhabited areas in the north and east of Lebanon. They coincided with a Central Bank circular requiring banks and money transfer offices to convert foreign currency transfers and cash withdrawals from foreign currency bank accounts to Lebanese pounds, at market rates determined daily by the bank.

The move, which was meant to ease demand on the dollar, caused panic as the pound traded between 3,500 and 3,700 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, a sharp jump amid general currency depreciation that began in March. For almost 30 years, the pound has been pegged to the dollar at 1,500 pounds.

But despite the projected uproar the government is not likely to be toppled, according to Mounayar. “I don’t think any party, including those in the opposition, would want to topple the government because the alternative is chaos. This government proved to be very weak and divided, but it has a transitional role that it will have to assume until the smog clears and some kind of a settlement is reached.”

The Lebanese have been taking to the streets since October denouncing the ruling class and accusing them of corruption and pushing the country to the verge of bankruptcy. The coronavirus pandemic has only intensified the economic slump.

Halime Kaakour, a university professor and activist in the protest movement, said the acute deterioration of living conditions and inflation thrust the people back on to the streets.

“They are so frustrated that they can no longer stand idle. They are bursting in the streets spontaneously. Once the lockdown is lifted, I preview a massive comeback of the protests much bigger and more aggressive than before,” Kaakour said.

“How peaceful would the demonstrations be? We do not know. We can no longer control the street or convince the hungry and humiliated people to remain peaceful. There is always a risk of vandalism and riots,” she added.

The government extended the lockdown for another two weeks from April 26 and endorsed a five-phase plan to reopen the country and end the lockdown by June 8. The virus has infected 704 people in Lebanon and killed 22 so far.

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