BEIRUT: The cost-of-living crisis in Lebanon has escalated, less than 48 hours after the results of parliamentary elections held on May 15 were announced. The value of the local currency has fallen to 30,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar for the first time in the five months since the Central Bank intervened to regulate the market.
Some shops were forced close to avoid losing money while goods were repriced to reflect the shifting black market exchange rate. Queues for gas returned, even though the price of a 20-liter canister is almost equivalent to the minimum wage.
People are also once again queuing for bread, with some stores selling a bread bundle for 30,000 Lebanese pounds on the black market as bakeries run out of flour.
Doctors and health workers have again warned of medicine shortages amid a lack of subsidies, with cancer medication particularly badly affected.
Meanwhile, power company Electricite du Liban announced further rationing “to avoid falling into total darkness,” pending the arrival of a shipment of fuel on Friday. It blamed the decision on “the rapid consumption of fuel stocks during the days leading up to and following the parliamentary elections.”
It emerged that the main reason for the failure to deliver fuel was a delay by the Central Bank in providing dollar credit amid the likelihood that subsidies on fuel, and possibly wheat, could be lifted. As a result, importers stopped delivering fuel pending the transfer of dollars at the Central Bank’s Sayrafa exchange rate of 23,700 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.
The crisis affected domestic gas-distribution companies, which waited for the Ministry of Energy’s new price list on Thursday and then began selling gas cylinders for 400,000 Lebanese pounds each.
The Ministry of Economy has set the price of a large bundle of bread at 16,000 Lebanese pounds — though, as noted, some stores are charging much more — justifying the decision by highlighting “the significant rise in fuel prices, which directly affects the cost of flour production, bread production and transportation, in addition to the rise in the wheat prices worldwide amid the Ukrainian crisis.”
Some predict that Lebanon will be hit by a wheat crisis in the coming weeks amid the lack of funds.
In response to the various crises, public transport drivers took to the streets and blocked roads leading to the ministries of interior and transport with waste containers in protest against the high price of gasoline and the worsening dollar exchange rate.
Hussein Wehbi Mogharbel, head of the Federation of Employees and Workers Union in Nabatiyeh Governorate in southern Lebanon, criticized authorities for their failure to listen to the cries of the poor.
“They manipulate the exchange rate and no one dares to stop them,” he said. “Employees cannot attend their workplaces because their salaries are equal to two gasoline canisters.”
Citizens’ concerns “are increasing and the officials are idly watching,” Mogharbel added.
As the financial noose continues tighten for citizens, elected MPs remain preoccupied by their political power games. Each faction is convening to discuss the election of a new parliamentary speaker, deputy speaker, cabinet and heads of committees.
The term of the current parliament ends on May 21 and the mandate of the newly elected authority is due to begin the following day. The current government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government will transition to caretaker mode as of May 22.
Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces party, which is the largest Christian bloc in parliament following the election, said on Thursday: “The result of the elections was resounding, with Hezbollah and its ally the Free Patriotic Movement losing their parliament majority.”
He said that the current speaker of the parliament, Nabih Berri, who leads the Amal Movement, “does not meet the requirements we seek in the new speaker.”
Geagea added: “This position requires a serious candidate who pledges to implement the parliament’s bylaws literally and adopts electronic voting; someone who would not paralyze parliament and would work on giving the strategic decision back to the government. This is why we will not vote for Berri.”
Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, admitted on Wednesday evening that “no party has a majority in parliament.”
He added: “The many economic and living crises in the country cannot be handled by one team, even if it obtains the majority. When no one has the majority, everyone is responsible and no one is allowed to abandon their responsibilities.
“The current composition of the parliament may delay electing a speaker and designating a prime minister to form the government.”