For a handful of lira

Spiegel Politics | 30 April 2020

Despite curfew, angry demonstrators are taking to the streets in Lebanon. Banks are burning, the police are firing live ammunition – many people have nothing to lose in the corona crisis.
The boys want to pull at least a few cents out of this bank. They tear the cable ducts off the ceiling, heave the ATM’s frame onto their trailer, two of them try to dismantle the elevator with a large bar. Her clothes are pitch black from soot.
“We get 200 lira for a kilo of steel from the scrap dealer,” says Zakaria, a 20-year-old with a dirty, blue Adidas hat and a penetrating look. The equivalent of just twelve euro cents these days. This will soon be even less, because the Lebanese currency is losing value more and more quickly, more than 65 percent since October. Tripoli, the second largest city, is one of the poorest areas in Lebanon. Following protests from government critics, several banks burned this week, including this branch of the Banque Libano-Française in the center. Zakaria and the other boys take advantage of this.
In principle, corona affects states in a similar way to people: for those who have been weakened and sick before, the risk increases. The Lebanon was already on the ground, as there in late February, the first Covid-19 cases were known and soon after the country was sent into quarantine. The measures were implemented earlier and more emphatically than in Germany, for example, because it was clear to everyone that the cedar state with its dilapidated health system only had a chance against the virus.
But this insight has long since evaporated from many. “The state invented the disease to stop our revolution,” says Zakaria. There is no corona in Tripoli. That is how many people in his city now think. Although the number of confirmed corona cases nationwide was reduced to 717, the economic life came to a complete standstill as a result of the lockdown measures.
Zakaria drove a taxi a few months ago and was able to contribute at least a few lira to his family’s income. But now he has been sitting with his parents and eight siblings in their two-room apartment in the poor district of Bab al-Tabbaneh for weeks and sees how their food is becoming scarcer and the world is sinking all around.

Hope turned into disappointment and anger

Tripoli was a center of the October uprising . From the suspended metropolis, which is considered one of the poorest cities in the Mediterranean, notorious for Islamists and firefights, became the “bride of the revolution”. Nowhere have the protests been as loud and persistent as here, because the residents knew that their insurrection might be the last chance for a change for the better.
This hope has long turned into disappointment and anger. As the lira rate rose to ever more threatening heights earlier in the week, hundreds of young men took to the streets, lit cars and banks, broke the pavement, and fought battles with the army. The soldiers shot back, even with live ammunition, a young man was killed. After his funeral, the riots continue unchecked.

Not only in Tripoli are people taking to the streets again, protests are growing all over the country, including in Beirut, Sidon, Nabatije and in the Bekaa plain. While families and students sang encouraging songs and waved imaginative banners in autumn, the frustrated young men are now throwing Molotov cocktails. Again and again it hits the branches of the banks and the overriding central bank, the Banque du Liban (BDL).

Because the Lebanon crisis stems from the implosion of the financial system. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, this has been based on the peg of the national currency to the dollar. The central bank printed money and refinanced itself with the private banks, which could offer astronomical returns. The corrupt state apparatus, which is based on a proportional rule for 18 faiths and is still dominated by War Lords, was able to supply its minions. This strategy could be concealed until remittances and aid payments from abroad collapsed.
Since last autumn, the state and banks have been trying to reduce dependence on the dollar. Since then, the Lebanese can only withdraw a few hundred dollars a week, mostly in Lira, of course. “This so-called de-dollarization is causing the dollar rate to continue to rise,” said Patrick Mardini, chair of the Lebanese Institute for Market Studies, a think tank.

According to a study, three quarters need help from the state

Lebanon’s government debt has now risen to 175 percent of its gross domestic product. Mardini sees a way out only in long-term reforms, investments by globally operating companies and massive aid from the Monetary Fund and the international community.

But the Lebanese already need support now. The government plans to pay just 400,000 lira, currently the equivalent of around $ 100, to 187,500 particularly vulnerable families. As the state continues to delay transfers, the need grows. Official estimates even state that 75 percent of the population needs help. The poorest include the more than 1.5 million refugees in the country.

“The government and the central bank are trying to blame each other for the catastrophic situation,” says Patrick Mardini. He expects bad things for the coming weeks: “A severe recession, rising unemployment, more poverty and certainly further riots.”

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