Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Lebanon’s 'October Revolution' Continues

Since last October  hundreds of thousands of people in Lebanon have been demanding an end to corruption and a new apolitical government of technocrats. Lebanon has been paralysed by large-scale demonstrations for three months, driven by anger at the country’s sectarian political class, entrenched corruption and an economic crisis. The country is one of the most indebted in the world, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 152 per cent. In the 2016 budget, interest payments accounted for almost half of all government spending.
The country's economy is struggling and more than 200,000 jobs have been lost since the crisis began. Local estimates say 10% of companies in Lebanon have gone out of business and many employees have had their salaries cut.
Banks have imposed limits on how much people can withdraw from their own accounts - in some cases as little as the equivalent of £150 every fortnight. 
Protesters say anger over the actions of the banks during the crisis has been fuelled by a long-held perception that the financial industry has a symbiotic relationship with Lebanon’s political class that has enriched a small, corrupt few, at the expense of the entire country. 
“We believe the banks are part of the oligarchy ruling Lebanon. The banks revolve around political figures here,” says 23-year-old Ziad Eldanaf, a philosophy student, at a protest outside Lebanon’s central bank . 
The UN's top official in Lebanon has warned of a potential new migrant crisis is unfolding. Jan Kubis, a former Slovakian foreign minister, has told Sky News that Lebanon faces a new level of social unrest and chaos without the implementation of reforms to address a deepening economic crisis.  Kubis' previous UN postings were in Iraq and Afghanistan. He knows what failed states look like, and he warned of the dangers of Lebanon becoming another.

"Without reforms, the crisis will turn into a security crisis. Then of course we will have not only those Syrians that are still in droves as refugees here but many others, starting with the Lebanese, that simply try to example this kind of social strife." Kubis' assessment of the state of the country is bleak. "Some are saying that it's an existential crisis for Lebanon..."

"Lebanon is on the shores of the Mediterranean. Just look at what is happening now. Look at the waves of migration being generated by many other countries. And what is the destination? It's Europe."

The new government is perceived to be working to save bankers and oligarchs at the expense of the ordinary person. It is no coincidence that the new economy minister is the executive general manager of one of the biggest banks in the country, while the finance minister is one of the few economists in the country opposing capital controls, or  targeting the richest segment of society. 
Asked about the responsiveness of the officials he met with the need to listen to protesters and take their demands into account, Kubis said: “I don’t know. My message was ‘listen to the people, not only those who are protesting, but also those who are not protesting but share the same concerns and needs with protesters.’ Everyone is fed up with the lack of 24/7 electricity, unemployment, rampant poverty, lack of a social safety net, lack of proper healthcare for basic needs. These are concerns shared by everyone and not only protesters who are raising their voices.”
 Kubis tweeted, “Another day of confusion around the formation of a government, amidst the increasingly angry protests and free-falling economy. Politicians, don’t blame the people, blame yourselves for this dangerous chaos” .
Dr. Mona Fayad, professor at the Lebanese University's Psychology Department, explained that the financial crisis has wiped out the entire lifestyle of the Lebanese people.

“We expect things to get worse. There will no longer be any 'middle' class and the Lebanese would be divided between the poor and the rich,” she said. 
Dr. Bashir Ismat, a professor of development studies and an expert at the Social Affairs Ministry, told Arab News: “The rate of people living in poverty has increased to 40 percent, and might even reach 50 or 70 percent if the state and Lebanese banks file for bankruptcy.”
The Ministry of Social Affairs in Lebanon estimates that 20 percent of the people who suffer from extreme poverty currently live below 4 dollars a day, compared to 8 percent in 2019.
Dr. Bashir Esmat said: “This percentage is likely to increase in case the economic collapse.” He talked about a “phenomena that the Ministry of Social Affairs began to witness recently, which was not seen before, as it was monitored that young students arrived at public schools in the Bekaa region, who had not eaten for two days due to lack of food in their homes.”

Zuhair Berro, head of the Consumer Protection Association, told Arab News that the current crisis in Lebanon is “unprecedented, especially that prices have increased by 40 percent in the last three months.” He expressed fears of a further deterioration in the economy, adding that even before the crisis, prices in Lebanon were already 30 percent higher than in neighbouring countries. “The financial crisis has exposed this monopoly system” in Lebanon’s economy, he said. “Speculation might totally erode the value of the Lebanese pound.” Berro said “the political class doesn’t have any solution” to the crisis, adding: “The former government stepped down and left the bank owners in control of the Lebanese pound. In addition, the statement of the new government didn’t include serious solutions. We’re heading toward total chaos, and we need remedies for the causes of the crisis.”
Today, the newly formed government's vote of confidence will take place amid a continued crackdown on protesters.

Among the protesters who have taken to the streets over the past three months, there now exists a keen awareness about the culprits of Lebanon’s woes, and a new focus to target them. 

We have always known what is causing the problems, but we couldn’t change anything without the numbers of people in the street,” says Jadid, a protester. 


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