BEIRUT: Lebanon on Monday erupted in what protesters called “the revolution of the hungry people” amid soaring food prices caused by a plunging exchange rate of the Lebanese pound against the US dollar.
Demonstrators defied the coronavirus lockdowns and burned tires, set up roadblocks and chanted slogans against rampant inflation.
Six people were injured in protests in Zalqa, northeast of Beirut, protesters set tires ablaze on highways in Dbaiyeh north of the capital and Damour to the south, and demonstrators also mobilized in the northern city of Tripoli.
After confrontations between demonstrators and security forces, the Lebanese Army said it respected people’s right to protest, but urged them to refrain from blocking roads and damaging property.
“Bank employees were assaulted in several branches across the country by rioters trying to convince the people that their actions aim to punish the banks for impoverishing the country and its people,” the Federation of Syndicates of Bank Employees said.
Trouble had been expected on Monday after money changers closed their offices and went on strike on Friday because of volatility in the currency markets. A circular issued late on Sunday by central bank governor Riad Salameh, setting an exchange rate of 3,200 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, failed to control the market.
Separately, Lebanese banks set an exchange rate of 3,000 pounds per dollar for withdrawals from dollar accounts, and the central bank set a rate of 3,800 to be applied at money transfer offices, which are used by many Lebanese abroad to send money to relatives at home.
“The rise in the exchange rate during the past few days is unjustified,” Salameh said in his circular. “The exchange operations should be organized to protect the stability of the Lebanese pound and maintain the social security and purchasing power of Lebanese citizens, particularly those with a low income.”
Nevertheless, illegal money-changers continued to manipulate the black market on Monday. Some sold the dollar for 4,400 pounds, and others only bought dollars while refusing to sell.
Security forces closed down exchange offices violating the official rate and detained dozens of unlicensed money-changers in Sidon, Nabatiyeh, Chtoura, Anjar and Bar Elias.
Lebanon’s financial and banking crisis is widely considered to be the biggest risk to its stability since the 1975-90 civil war, undermining faith in the economy and the dollar peg.
The exchange rate volatility has also led to soaring food prices of in supermarkets. A check by Arab News found beef fetching 32,000 pounds a kilo, and lamb 50,000; 2kg of powdered milk cost 42,000 pounds, a kilo of tomatoes 5,000, a kilo of garlic 10,000, and a box of eggs 14,000.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun chaired a ministerial and administrative attended by Prime Minister Hassan Diab focused on fighting corruption.
“Political corruption should also be addressed given its gravity. We should not only focus on administrative corruption,” Aoun said.
“Prosecuting senior political officials will prove that accountability is not limited to those in the lower ranks of the public sector.”
Diab said: “Corruption in Lebanon is protected by politics, politicians, confessions and religious leaders. It has become necessary to address this issue and hold corrupt people accountable.”