Lebanon’s president asked security forces to prevent roadblocks after protesters shut main roads across the country for a seventh straight day on Monday in anger at more than a year of economic crisis and months of political paralysis.
Measures agreed in a meeting with top security and government officials included ordering a crackdown on anyone “violating the monetary and credit” law, including foreign exchange bureaus, a statement said.
Since the Lebanese pound, which has lost 85% of its value, tumbled to a new low last week, protesters have blocked roads daily.
“We have said several times that there will be an escalation because the state isn’t doing anything,” said Pascale Nohra, a protester on a main highway in the Jal al-Dib area.
As Lebanon’s financial crisis erupted in late 2019, a wave of mass protest rocked the country, with outrage boiling over at leaders who have overseen decades of state graft.
Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost, bank accounts have been frozen and many have been plunged into poverty.
On Monday, three main roads leading south into the capital were blocked while in Beirut itself, protesters briefly closed a road in front of the central bank.
In Tyre in the south, one man tried to burn himself by pouring gasoline on his body but civil defence members stopped him in time, the state news agency said.
In Tripoli in the north, one of Lebanon’s poorest cities, demonstrators built a brick wall one metre high to prevent cars from passing through, allowing a pathway for emergency cases.
PM ups the pressure
“The new developments on the financial and security fronts must be tackled quickly,” the presidency statement said.
After a port explosion devastated whole tracts of Beirut in August and killed 200 people, caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government resigned.
But the new Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri is at loggerheads with President Michel Aoun and has been unable to form a new government that must carry out the reforms needed to unlock international aid.
On Saturday, Diab threatened to quit even caretaker work to raise the pressure on those blocking the formation of a new government.
He warned that the country was quickly headed toward chaos and appealed to politicians to put aside differences in order form a new government that can attract desperately needed foreign assistance.
“What are you waiting for, more collapse? More suffering? Chaos?” Diab said, chiding senior politicians without naming them for grandstanding on the shape and size of the government while the country slides further into the abyss.
“What will having one minister more or less (in the cabinet) do if the entire country collapses,” he asked.
“Lebanon is in grave danger and the Lebanese are paying the price.”
Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai also hit out at politicians in his Sunday sermon: “How can the people not revolt when the price of one dollar has surpassed 10,000 Lebanese pounds in one day, how can they not revolt when the minimum wage is $70?”
Rai has called for an UN-sponsored international conference to help Lebanon.
As pressure built up to end the political deadlock, the currency continued its rapid collapse against the dollar, trading at nearly 11,000 Lebanese pounds on the black market for the first time in its history.
The crash in the local currency has resulted in a sharp increase in prices as well as delays in the arrival of fuel shipments, leading to more extended power cuts around the country, in some areas reaching more than 12 hours a day.
The crisis has driven nearly half the population of the small country of 6 million into poverty, wiped out savings and slashed consumer purchasing power.
“The dollar is 10,500 (pounds) and everyone has four or five children on their neck, including their parents. They (corrupt politicians) need to feed us,” cried one Lebanese protester.
“They vaccinated themselves from corona but they opened the country so that people could die,” he added, referring to a group of lawmakers who inoculated themselves in parliament last month without prior approval, a move that led the World Bank to consider suspending its financing of vaccines in Lebanon.
Another protester who identified himself only by his first name, Ali, said he was frustrated that other Lebanese were still sitting at home.
“Where are the Lebanese people? The dollar is now 10,500 (pounds) and it will reach 15, or 20 (thousand). Why are we in homes? We have to go down!”
Lebanon has been in desperate need of foreign currency, but international donors have said they will only help the country financially if major reforms are implemented to fight widespread corruption, which has brought the nation to the brink of bankruptcy.
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