The northern Lebanese city of Tripoli has seen protests against the country’s harsh economic conditions and the lockdown imposed by the government in a bid to halt the spread of the coronavirus over the past week.
The protests turned violent when demonstrators clashed with the security forces, leading to the death of a 29-year old protester, Omar Tayba, and the injury of more than 220 others.
The Lebanese police reportedly used tear gas, water cannons and even fired live rounds to disperse the protesters, who had thrown stones and petrol bombs. “We are here to demand food. People are hungry,” one protester told the news agency AFP, explaining why the protesters had hit the streets of Tripoli.
But experts suggest that the protests will likely not expand to other Lebanese cities. Sarah El-Richani, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo (AUC), told Al-Ahram Weekly that the “alarming and ever-increasing infection and death rates” caused by the coronavirus in Lebanon and the lockdown itself would be enough to stop the growth of a nationwide wave of protests.
“Having said that, there have also been a few protests in Beirut, one of them held by the families of the Beirut port blast victims, who have been demanding answers from the investigator looking into the devastating blast,” she said.
“The other was a protest on the Beirut ring road as a result of the unprecedented economic crisis in Lebanon,” El-Richani, a former resident of Beirut, said.
Last month, Sidon, a southern city in Lebanon, also saw protests over similar concerns. The Lebanese government is struggling to maintain a balance between curbing the spread of infections with the Covid-19 and supporting the country’s economy. From the country’s six million population there have so far been about 303,000 cases of infection and 3,145 deaths.
However, the numbers are increasing, which explains the need for the lockdown. Lebanese families also gathered during last December’s holidays, something that was fiercely criticised by health experts.
The authorities allowed nightclubs and restaurants to stay open until 3:00am over the holiday period, and the number of people being admitted with Covid-19 then became unbearable for Lebanon’s hospital and medical centres.
Hospitals in Lebanon are reporting a 94 per cent occupation rate in intensive-care units amid problems with providing sufficient medical equipment and medicines.
Following an ineffective partial lockdown since 7 January, Lebanon declared a complete lockdown in mid-January that has included prohibiting people from going to grocery stores. Instead, they have been counting on food deliveries.
Non-essential workers have been banned from going to work, with exceptions only being made in emergency cases.
Despite some violations, the Lebanese police say that about 94 per cent of people have complied with the new orders. The situation has been most problematic in areas suffering from high rates of poverty, especially since the lockdown has hit small and medium-sized businesses hard, with these already suffering due to the Lebanese financial crisis.
About 230,000 families in Lebanon have been receiving government payments worth 400,000 Lebanese pounds (roughly $50) a month, according to Social Affairs Minister Ramzi Musharrafieh who said three-quarters of the population needed financial support.
The World Bank recently agreed to provide Lebanon with a package worth $246 million, but the timing of its arrival remains undetermined.
This long list of coronavirus-related challenges has added more burdens to the state authorities amid the socio-economic and political ones already in place. The devastating Beirut explosions in August 2020 left about 300,000 people with no homes, with official estimates showing that Lebanon needs from $10 to $15 billion to rebuild damaged areas.
A donors conference sponsored by France after the blasts managed to only secure 253 million euros ($298 million). The presence of the Shia group Hizbullah in several positions of power accompanied by stalled talks on the formation of a new government have caused a delay in the arrival of the money.
Lebanese Sunni leader Saad Al-Hariri and Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Hizbullah ally, have recently started a war of words, with each side blaming the other for the unfinished business of forming a new governing coalition.
The problem is reportedly related to who will get the majority of ministerial seats in the new government. In late December, Al-Hariri submitted a government lineup to Aoun. One week later, his office urged Aoun to “cooperate” and disregard party affiliations.
Aoun’s office responded by opposing Al-Hariri’s “going it alone in naming ministers, particularly Christians, without agreement from the president.” Accusing Al-Hariri of submitting a lineup different from the one earlier discussed, Aoun’s office added that “the president never proposed the names of party candidates to be ministers and did not present the prime minister-designate with a list of names.”
On 1 February, Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Beshara Al-Rai described the Aoun-Al-Hariri clash as “sad and shameful,” warning that if “ties between them do not improve, there will be no government.”
Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut, told the Weekly in January that Al-Hariri was looking for regional support to get the task done following a visit to Turkey.
“Al-Hariri feels that his best bet is to reposition himself between the Saudi, French and Turkish axes, which could give him leverage in pushing for a Sunni-Christian convergence and consequent backing for his premiership,” Salamey said.
For El-Richani, things are unlikely to improve without international pressure. “The unrest may indeed push the self-serving, negligent and seemingly oblivious political class to at least resume the talks on the formation of a new government,” she said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly