BEIRUT: Power cuts, plummeting exchange rates and soaring unemployment have hit Lebanon, even as the country’s president on Monday urged people to “stick to hope” and to not “surrender to obstacles and difficulties.”
President Michel Aoun made the remarks after Sunday night’s Baalbek International Festival - “The Sound of Resilience” - that was held without an audience and broadcast live on local TV channels in addition to Arab and international outlets. It was also live-streamed on the festival’s social media accounts and other digital platforms.
Aoun said that the musical evening was “the most expressive manifestation of the spirit of challenge and confrontation that drives the will of the Lebanese in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, on the one hand, and the economic and the unprecedented financial crisis in the history of our homeland.”
However the respite from the turbulence was brief and the Lebanese awoke to more grim news. There was a rise in the exchange rate of the dollar on the black market, with the purchase price ranging between LBP8,900 and LBP9,000 for $1. The selling price ranged between LBP9,000 and LBP9,200. The exchange rate of the dollar had fallen to LBP7,000 at the weekend.
The Lebanese pound has lost 80 percent of its value this year. Food prices have soared, businesses have closed, salaries and savings are vanishing and unemployment has surged.
It is unclear if the Central Bank’s decision - to secure the necessary amounts in foreign currencies to meet the needs of importers and manufacturers of basic and primary materials used in the food industry based on an exchange rate of LBP3,900 - will succeed in alleviating the crisis.
The Lebanese circulated a video of a person lying on a sidewalk in Baalbek with a sign that read: “I am an educator, I am educated, I am begging to live.”
The minister of labor, Lamia Yammine, estimated the country’s unemployment rate to be more than 30 percent after hundreds of institutions closed down and thousands of employees were dismissed.
Lebanon is also grappling with power cuts of over 16 hours a day. Rafic Hariri International Hospital said it was switching off some air conditioners and postponing some operations due to the power cuts and the lack of diesel.
The Ogero communications company said that its services “may witness interruptions” in some areas if the owners of private generators stopped providing some generators and communication rooms with energy.
This crisis, and others, have led people back onto the streets to protest and block roads in Beirut.
Taxi drivers protested in front of the Ministry of Interior in the capital’s Sanayeh area demanding the “amendment of the passenger fare rate.” Truck drivers working for cement companies blocked a road in central Beirut, opposite the Ministry of Environment, to request permission to invest in quarries. Teachers who were dismissed from private schools held a sit-in in front of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, while the Association of Lebanese Industrialists warned that the sector was “bleeding.”
“The problems are not only related to providing liquidity to import raw materials, but also other problems that have imposed themselves strongly recently," Fady Gemayel, the association’s president, told Arab News. "These problems include industrialists having to resort to the parallel market to obtain the dollar to finance their purchases from abroad, especially raw materials, in light of the rapid rise in the exchange rate of the dollar. And finally the power cuts, the record rise in rationing hours, and the scarcity of diesel and fuel. This is a dangerous matter that must be addressed quickly before it is too late.”
Security forces continue to arrest activists for criticizing authorities on social media.
On Monday the activist Pierre Hashash was arrested and two of those who gathered to protest his detention were beaten.
“A group of security and military agencies summoned dozens of people and interrogated them, some of them repetitively, regarding comments they posted on social media criticizing the authorities,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East research director. “Lebanon must respect, under international law, the right to freedom of expression and its protection even if this expression carries a risk of being shocking, offensive, or annoying.”