By Mohammad Jafari

Nationwide protests in late 2019, COVID-19-based lockdown, what is the next in Lebanon?

April 29, 2020 - 10:19

The Lebanese citizens, who poured into the streets in late 2019 calling for structural economic change, have faced the novel coronavirus outbreak and the following lockdown which has emptied the Lebanese people's pockets more than ever but meantime have made them more determined to seek the best way possible to root out the economic and political instability from their country via basic reforms.  

Aya Majzoub, a Lebanese researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote in her article published by Al Jazeera that coronavirus brought protests to a halt, but government's mishandling of the crisis proves political change is needed.

"We are coming back." This promise from Lebanese citizens flooded social media on April 17, the six-month anniversary of Lebanon's anti-government uprising.

Just a couple of months ago, Lebanon's streets were buzzing with protests. Today, they are eerily quiet and deserted.

The coronavirus pandemic brought months of nationwide protests to a screeching halt, as people stayed home to protect their health and the government banned public gatherings and enforced a lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus.

But the rampant corruption, extreme inequality, regressive tax system, rapidly deteriorating standards of living, and almost non-existent social safety net that drove more than a million Lebanese people to the streets in protest are as prevalent as ever.

The COVID-19 crisis has only exposed and exacerbated these problems. The government's uncoordinated and inadequate response to the pandemic has further eroded public trust in its ability to help people weather this pandemic and pull Lebanon out of its worst economic crisis in decades.

Months before the COVID-19 outbreak, the World Bank predicted that the portion of Lebanon's population living below the poverty line would rise from 30 percent to 50 percent in 2020.

In response to stalling economic growth and a shortage of dollars in the country, banks restricted the amount in dollars that people could withdraw from their own accounts. Businesses closed or drastically reduced their operations.

The economic situation was so desperate that in December, a man took his own life after his daughter asked him for 1,000 Lebanese pounds (then worth less than 50 cents) to buy food - money he did not have. In February, another man set himself on fire in front of his daughter's school to protest against the school administration's refusal to give him a copy of her transcript over unpaid fees.

The COVID-19 crisis and the resulting lockdown measures have only compounded the poverty and economic hardship that most Lebanese faced before the virus. The value of the Lebanese lira has continued to plummet, losing around half its value by April, and fuelling inflation, which the Finance Ministry estimated will reach 27 percent in 2020.

Social Affairs Minister Ramzi Moucharafieh admitted on April 14 that between 70-75 percent of Lebanese citizens now need financial assistance.

"We are dying of hunger," one man from Tripoli yelled during a protest earlier this month. "We want dignity," another said. A taxi driver set his car on fire when security forces fined him for breaking the lockdown rules. A street vendor threw his produce on the streets in frustration after the police suspended his business. A jobless construction worker who can no longer afford rent tried to sell his kidney.

More than a month into the lockdown, very little assistance has reached families in need as the government fumbles its way through the crisis.

The government announced plans to provide food assistance that it has not carried out; it has repeatedly delayed promised financial relief; and it has succumbed to political bickering and maneuvering, at the expense of Lebanese citizens, as politicians have fought over how to distribute the meager aid.

Local initiatives have sprung up to fill the gaps. Some groups are providing food, medicine, rent, and clothing to families in need. But such initiatives do not have the resources to fulfill the government's obligation - and nor should they be expected to.

The Lebanese Food Bank, for example, funded entirely by donations, sends boxes containing basic food items and hygiene kits that can last a family of four for up to one month to 85 non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The government's mismanagement of the coronavirus relief plans has heightened the public's perception that it is ill-equipped to pull the country out of a dire recession that the IMF predicts will be the third-worst in the world in 2020.

And its actions so far have only reinforced that perception. The government has delayed top-level appointments to Lebanon's Central Bank and the financial sector. These appointments are key to addressing Lebanon's economic and financial crisis, yet sectarian squabbling and political party quotas have held up the process.

The government has resorted to populist rhetoric to reassure the public that their bank deposits will not be lost after a leaked draft of the government's economic rescue plan circulated on social media.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab assured citizens on April 16 that at least 98 percent of bank deposits will not be affected by any financial measures the government plans to take. Some economists argue that such promises are "misguided" and "out of touch with reality".

Despite its limited resources, under international human rights law, the Lebanese government is obligated to protect people's right to an adequate standard of living. This includes ensuring that everyone - in particular those subject to lockdown - have access to food, water, healthcare, and other basic needs.

In times of economic crisis, Lebanon must demonstrate that it has made every effort to mobilize all available resources, including international assistance, and allocate them in a way that maximizes respect for human rights and without discrimination, including by religion or sect.

Yet earlier this month, my organization, Human Rights Watch, warned that more than half of Lebanon's residents are at risk of going hungry due to the government's failure to implement a robust, coordinated plan to provide assistance to families who have lost their livelihoods.

For many Lebanese, the government's handling of the COVID-19 crisis was emblematic of the problems that they went out to demonstrate against in October.

The sectarian system that has prevailed since the war, whereby political parties dole out benefits to their supporters - which was somewhat navigable in good times - has stopped working for the majority. And all the flaws of that post-war system have burst onto center stage as the government has proven itself unable to provide even the most basic needs for its population.

Decades of rule by the post-war ruling elite have only entrenched inequality, weakened state institutions, and left the country with few resources to withstand the current economic and public health crises.

Some Lebanese have already been taking to the streets - despite the lockdown measures - to protest against what has become an unbearable economic reality.

The majority of citizens are still at home but many have made it clear that once the threat of COVID-19 has lifted, they will return to the streets in a renewed fight against inequality, sectarianism, and corruption.

Mass protests swept across Lebanon shortly after the government announced new tax measures on 17 October. In unprecedented scenes tens of thousands of peaceful protesters from different religious and class sectors of society assembled in cities across the country accusing the political leadership of corruption and calling for social and economic reforms.

Waving the Lebanese flag, the crowds chanted demands for the "fall of the regime" many of them repeating the slogan "all of them means all of them" - a reference to key ruling figures from a variety of religious sects who have dominated the Lebanese political scene for decades, according to report by the Amnesty International.

Underlying frustration with the government and the political elite had been accumulating for years. Public anger has escalated in recent years over electricity and water shortages, as well as the government’s failure to manage the country's waste and economic crises.

Despite government attempts to placate the protesters with announced reforms, demonstrations continued in Beirut, Tripoli, Zouk, Jal el Dib, Saida, Nabatieh, Sour, and Zahle. On the 13th day of the protests, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation.

On 19 December 2019, former Minister of Education Hassan Diab was designated the new prime minister and tasked with forming a new cabinet.

On 21 January, Lebanon named Hassan Diab as its prime minister to lead the new cabinet of 20 members, after three months of mass protests.

Since 1997, successive governments maintained a pegged exchange rate between the Lebanese pound and United States dollar.

Forecasts for the Lebanese economy worsened over the 2010s and by 2019 GDP per capita reached its lowest since 2008 and the debt-to-GDP ratio reached its highest since 2008 at 151%. As a result, international credit rating agencies downgraded the rating of government bonds. The combination of an economic downturn in the import-dependent country with the continuation of its dollar peg saw an increase in the government's budget deficit and reliance on using foreign exchange reserves from the nation's central bank to keep the currency peg.

A subsequent dollar shortage in late 2019 further affected the economy, as import businesses and citizens became unable to acquire dollars at the official rate and a black market emerged. The coalition government led by Saad Hariri responded with an austerity program of general tax increases and spending reductions, with the aim to reduce the government deficit while maintaining the peg against the U.S. dollar.

MJ  

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