Since October, the country has been struggling with political turmoil and severe economic uncertainty. Protests erupted on Oct. 17 — after the government proposed new tax measures that were seen as onerous and after lapses in the government’s response to wildfires that engulfed several areas.
Then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri set a 72-hour deadline to fix the economic crisis and then resigned when the protests continued. The numbers on the street swelled. People in the divided country found common purpose: All leaders, regardless of religion and sect, must go.
Nearly three months later, a new government has yet to be formed. Hassan Diab, an engineering professor and former education minister, was designated as incoming prime minister in December, tasked with forming a government. But his selection has been controversial. On Tuesday, President Michel Aoun blamed the delays on “hurdles,” without elaborating.
The protests, called “thawra,” or revolution, illustrate the population’s frustrations with governmental dysfunction and repeatedly broken promises. Power cuts are a daily occurrence, and the entire country runs on generators. Water, air and beaches are highly polluted. Adding to Lebanon’s struggles is the presence of more than 1 million refugees from neighboring Syria.
Lebanon is also one of the most indebted countries in the world. The protesters complain that the deep economic malaise is exacerbated by corruption and the centralization of power in the hands of the elite.
Most recently, the soaring price of the U.S. dollar has sharpened the country’s economic woes. The Lebanese pound and the U.S. dollar are used interchangeably across Lebanon: It is common to pay in one currency and get change back in the other. But it has become more expensive to obtain dollars.
The value of Lebanon’s currency has been long pegged at 1,507.5 Lebanese pounds to a U.S. dollar, and although the official rate remains untouched, the rate at exchange bureaus has hit 2,500 pounds to the dollar.
On Tuesday night, after several weeks of quiet, protesters again filled the streets of Beirut. They smashed through windows of several banks and closed down roads, even as security forces launched tear gas.
Hariri, who has continued to serve as prime minister in a caretaker capacity, said the clashes were “unacceptable.”
“I do not want to blame it on the people’s revolution and their anger against the banks, but it was a black stain on any party or person who justified and covered it,” he said.
Aya Majzoub, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, noted that Lebanon’s politicians “have done little to stop living standards from plummeting and have not responded to protesters’ concerns about the worsening economic crisis. And so people returned to the streets to reiterate their demands.”
Mohammed, a 23-year-old nutrition college student who declined to give his full name for fear of reprisal, said he is protesting because he has money in a bank that he cannot use owing to withdrawal limits.
“I’m angry because they killed the country. They’re looting our rights,” Mohammad said of the ruling class. “Forget about money, they’re not giving people their simplest rights. And for what?”
People do not have enough money to live, he said, adding that prices are rising, the streets are always clogged, there is no work and rents are unaffordable.
The lack of dollars in the market has driven up prices of imported goods, said Jad Chaaban, an economics professor at the American University of Beirut, estimating that medicine and food imports are 10 to 20 percent costlier than usual.
“There is a slowdown of consumption; people are not consuming anymore. They’re just piling up dollars, saving at home. Nobody trusts the banks anymore,” he said.
The capital controls imposed by the banks during the protests have worsened some of the very problems that people were protesting about, Chaaban added. Most banks capped dollar withdrawals to $300 per week and placed monthly limits on online payments in a country that heavily relies on online ride-hailing applications and food-delivery systems. They also stopped outgoing international money transfers.
The elite classes are often exempt from these restrictions, further stoking the anger of the public.