Unrest continues in Lebanon amid US pressures on Hezbollah

Traders held signs warning that 1,200 companies will soon go bankrupt while 5,000 families will suffer from unemployment.
Monday 29/06/2020
US ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea (R) meets with Lebanese Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti in Beirut, June 29. (AFP)
US ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea (R) meets with Lebanese Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti in Beirut, June 29. (AFP)

BEIRUT –  

Protests over the deteriorating living conditions are continuing in Lebanon as the country, one of the most indebted in the world, faces unprecedented political tensions, exacerbated by Washington’s frustration with Hezbollah’s sectarian dominance over the political scene.

In Tripoli, a number of protesters gathered Monday, blocking access to el-Nour square before access was restored by security forces. The protesters then set up roadblocks on the highway leading to the north of the country and the road leading to Aabdeh (Akkar province).

An associated strike was also held in Tripoli, with many businesses not opening.

Earlier, last week, demonstrations resumed around the country in protest against dire living conditions, the National News Agency reported.

Traders in Sidon and Tyre closed their shops to take part in demonstrations while complaining about their impoverishment given the increase in the value of the US dollar against the Lebanese pound.

The traders held signs warning that 1,200 companies will soon go bankrupt, while 5,000 families will suffer from unemployment.

Protesters also cut roads in various regions of the country including Nabatieh, Rashaya, Jounieh, Baabda and other areas.

In Beirut, protesters cut roads near the Justice Palace to condemn the arrest of demonstrators who demanded better living conditions.

As the protests rage on across the country, the Lebanese army is frequently intervening, only to prompt protesters to throw stones at security forces and cars of judges passing by.

Lebanon is mired in its worst economic crisis in decades. It recently defaulted on its debt and has been negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for weeks with no breakthrough so far.

The local currency lost more than 80% of its value against the US dollar in recent months amid soaring prices and popular unrest.

The renewed tensions in Lebanon come amid a growing frustration in Washington with Iran-backed Hezbollah’s policies in the country.

Frustration mounted when a judge ordered a year-long media ban on US Ambassador Dorothy Shea after she told Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath that Washington has “great concerns” over the Iran-backed militant group’s role in the government.

Shea said Lebanon is reeling from years of corruption of successive governments and accused Hezbollah of siphoning off government funds for its own purposes and of obstructing needed economic reforms.

Views were divided about the envoy's remarks. Some viewed them as foreign interference in Lebanese affairs while others saw them as a mere expression of a viewpoint by a foreign diplomat as guaranteed by international law. The judge’s ruling was in any case harshly criticised by many in Lebanon, where the media enjoys far more freedom than in many other Arab states.

On Monday, however, Shea read a brief statement in which she said that her meeting with Lebanese Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti was “positive.”

“We turned the page on this unfortunate distraction so we can all focus on the real crisis at hand, which is the deteriorating economic situation in Lebanon,” she said.

A few protesters held a sit-in outside the Foreign Ministry during the meeting.

The court ruling remains in effect but appears unlikely to be enforced.

The court decision by the Lebanese judge reflected the rising tension between the US and Hezbollah, and revealed a widening rift among groups in Lebanon amid the crisis.

Shea said the US stands ready and will continue to help the Lebanese people as the government takes the necessary steps to address the underlying causes of the crisis.

State-run National News Agency quoted Hitti as saying during the meeting that freedom of the press and opinion are a “sacred right” in the country, which enjoys wider freedoms than many other Arab countries.

Hitti, who had summoned Shea to the meeting, also said that it is important that Beirut and Washington continue their cooperation in all fields to help Lebanon weather the crisis.

Hezbollah and its allies are dominant in parliament and back the current government. Hezbollah is designated by Washington as a terrorist group and the US has recently expanded sanctions against it.

However, Washington is one of the largest donors to the Lebanese Army, making for one of the more complicated diplomatic balancing acts in the region.