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In the parts of Beirut where protesters camp out, financial institutions remained shuttered this week, with cartoons of pigs with dollar-sign eyes spray-painted on the walls next to graffiti calling for revolution.

In other parts of the city, the banks cautiously reopened, after being mostly closed for more than a month since daily anti-corruption demonstrations began in October.

Lebanon is now on the brink of financial collapse, according to economists, and the only way out is to build a government and end the upheaval. But the current leadership remains unable to agree on a prime minister or hold legislative sessions.

And protesters blame the chaos on corruption among the same stagnated political class, saying demonstrations will continue until they all resign and are replaced by nonpolitical “technocrats.”

Protesters say they are infuriated by the limited response from political elites in Beirut, Nov. 19, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)
Protesters say they are infuriated by the limited response from political elites in Beirut, Nov. 19, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

“It’s not our fault,” said Kareem, 31, an optometrist who quit work to camp with other protesters near Lebanon’s parliament building. “It’s the politicians.”

Many employees are accepting half-salaries or losing their jobs, businesses are failing, and the banks are limiting the amounts of money people can withdraw or send abroad.

“We used to be two people working in this store but now it’s only me,” said Malak, 27, at a mobile phone shop on a busy Beirut highway. “I work harder and get paid less.”

Malak was paid in U.S. dollars before the crisis began, but now Lebanon is desperately short of the currency and he is paid in Lebanese pounds, which has rapidly lost value. Overnight, Malak’s salary was reduced by 20 percent.

Malak, 27, lost 20 percent of his salary when the Lebanese dollar crisis began while his colleague lost his job entirely, in Beirut, Nov. 21, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)
Malak, 27, lost 20 percent of his salary when the Lebanese dollar crisis began while his colleague lost his job entirely, in Beirut, Nov. 21, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

The mobile phone shop, he added, lost 95 percent of its income. They cannot afford to buy more phones, even if they could sell them.

And renewed upheaval could easily close the banks again, deepening the crisis, said Walid Abou Sleiman, a prominent Lebanese economist.

“If we witness more instability, they will shut down,” he said. And that means, “you are shutting down the economy.”

Crisis long coming

Many of Lebanon’s economic woes began with the Syrian civil war in 2011, Sleiman explained.

Refugees streamed over the border, tourists stayed away and government services like electricity and water declined.

While banks opened this week, financial institutions in Beirut’s popular protesting areas remained closed, covered with graffiti expressing anger at political and financial officials, Nov. 21, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)
While banks opened this week, financial institutions in Beirut’s popular protesting areas remained closed, covered with graffiti expressing anger at political and financial officials, Nov. 21, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

Over the years, Lebanese banks, once a “pillar of the economy,” also declined, as the private sector defaulted on more and more loans. Now, Sleiman said, there is a greater rate of bad loans in Lebanon than there was in the United States in 2008. And that rate was so great it sparked an international banking crisis.

“What happened is a wake-up call,” said Sleiman. “Reform is a must.”

Demonstrations began on Oct. 17 after lawmakers tried to impose a tax on the Whatsapp messaging service amid skyrocketing unemployment and poverty rates. Since then, Prime Minister Sa’ad al-Hariri has resigned, but promises of some reforms have not appeased the anger on the streets.

Even on off-hours, when only a few people roam the protest camps, new pop music calls for “the fall of the regime,” saying “all of them means all of them.”

As he stood alongside barbed wire barriers to the roads surrounding the parliament building, Kareem said demanding change is the only way to improve the situation in the long run, even as the economy rapidly declines.

“I will stay (as long as it takes)” to change the government, he said.

Insecurity

Meanwhile, the unrest has panicked many people, fueling the financial crisis that is fueling the unrest.

Billions of dollars were withdrawn from personal accounts since demonstrations began, forcing the banks to close. Banks now sharply limit the amounts of cash withdrawals and international transfers.

At a posh cigar shop in Beirut, Ayman, a father of two, said even his store, which appeals to wealthy clients, has lost nearly 50 percent of its business.

Ayman, a father of two, also blames U.S. sanctions against Hezbollah on the people’s financial woes, in Beirut, Nov. 21, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)
Ayman, a father of two, also blames U.S. sanctions against Hezbollah on the people’s financial woes, in Beirut, Nov. 21, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

New sanctions against Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed military organization and U.S.-designated terrorist group, are further squeezing the population, he added.

“We are only buying necessities now,” he said. “And waiting to see if things get better.”

Demonstrations have been mostly peaceful so far, with the exception of sporadic clashes and the death of an activist earlier this month, but more protests are expected in the coming days.

And in this sharply divided country, experts say, rallies could easily dissolve into riots.

“I used to say the economic crisis will turn into a social crisis, and the social crisis could turn into a war,” said Sleiman, the economist. “But no one was listening.”
 

 
 
 
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