Vultures roam around their prey and wait for it to die. They do not kill it. They take advantage of their prey’s sickness or injury without expending any effort. They would surely blame the circumstances, not their intentions or actions.
This is not an article on zoology, I was just describing the situation in Lebanon. The vultures are the politicians, leaders and money changers who are taking advantage of the bad economic situation that has prevailed over the weakened country for the past year. The citizens’ last ray of hope has been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, which has dug deep into the grave of the once-quasi-healthy Lebanese economy.
People often blame supermarkets and shop owners for the high-priced basic goods. But what can they do if they are buying the goods from foreign suppliers in US dollars at the current exchange rate? Most essential goods are imported, and those made in Lebanon need imported raw materials. Traders are not to be blamed, with the pound trading on the black market in Beirut at about 4,000 to the dollar, compared with the official rate of 1,507.
But how did it all start? An abnormal phenomenon of people withdrawing large quantities of US dollars from the Lebanese market took place way before the Oct. 17 revolution. It turned out to be Hezbollah moving large quantities of paper dollars to Syria, which was suffering from a shortage due to US sanctions. The central bank refused to inject dollar notes into the Lebanese market to compensate for these losses, as this was running contrary to the usual currency transactions. In October and November 2019, the dollar exchange rate rose to 1,700 Lebanese pounds, while the official rate remained at 1,507.
It did not stop there. Pro-Hezbollah money changers started manipulating the exchange rate of the Lebanese pound, bringing it to the 4,000 mark we are seeing now. The pressure on the peg is mounting to serve Hezbollah’s scheme of blaming and overthrowing Riad Salame — the governor of Banque du Liban, the central bank — who has been implementing the US sanctions against the group. Hezbollah has been trying to seize control of Lebanon’s banking sector and install its allies in key monetary positions in a trial to defy US orders.
The Iran-backed party wants to overthrow Salame because it cannot afford another loss after the US economic sanctions shut Jammal Trust Bank for its illicit financial and banking activities to fund Hezbollah. Salame carried out the American order, closing the bank, freezing its deposits and preventing it from paying any debts.
Hezbollah has been trying to seize control of the country’s banking sector and install its allies in key positions
What made things worse for Hezbollah is that the governor confirmed that only legitimate deposits will be insured upon maturity. That is to say, the US Treasury Department will know which account’s owners were legitimate and which were carrying out illicit activities. So the governor will be granting the American administration exceptional access to the Lebanese financial institution. The Trump administration has said loud and clear that it will impose sanctions on all those who cooperate and deal with terrorist groups. Lebanon cannot afford to pay the price for hiding Hezbollah’s activities.
However, people should also blame themselves for the choices they made during the last parliamentary elections. They are the ones who voted for the political class that is controlling the country and is responsible for the economic meltdown.
Aside from the exchange rate and US sanctions, Lebanese politicians and leaders have been missing in action for the last decade. They failed to tackle the emerging problems immediately and broadly, which resulted in spiraling unemployment, further social unrest and uncontainable inflation.
For more than a year now, the economic problems — an increasing debt load and escalating fiscal and current account deficits — have cast an extended shadow over the country. With the prevailing control of Hezbollah over the new government led by Hassan Diab, Lebanon has found itself in a swamp with disappearing (and now extinct) investments, amplified political gridlock and external liquidity shortages.
Between the worsening financial crisis, the rising exchange rate, the politicians’ unashamed theft of public funds and the blatant corruption, the Lebanese people have found themselves besieged and trapped in a vicious circle. Their only way out will be to stand united again, beyond any party or religion, and bring down the current ruling class. They should turn the tables and besiege the politicians’ and leaders’ houses until they resign. The trust between the authorities and the people can no longer be restored.
• Sarah Sfeir is head of the translation desk at Arab News. She holds a master’s degree in applied living languages and translation.