As in any other country now under lockdown during the covid-19 outbreak, things were quiet in Lebanon.
For weeks, social media feeds were full of photos of clear Beirut skylines without the regular unpleasant smog and beautiful migratory birds on the country’s coast and valleys. It was so quiet, you wouldn’t think that the country had been rocked by months of protests and riots because of a damning economic crisis — or that these tensions were on the verge of erupting yet again.
Yet that is precisely what happened this week, as unrest began to erupt across the country. The novel coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout have only exacerbated the conditions that have driven Lebanese to the streets since last October, resulting in the resignation of then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the appointment of Hassan Diab as his successor.
Lebanon, among the most indebted countries in the world, defaulted on its extravagant foreign loans in March. In late February, the local currency, officially pegged at about 1,507 to the U.S. dollar, effectively devalued to 2,500. By the end of last week, that number was approaching 4,000. At the same time, the government continued to cut spending on its minimal social services, despite already having an economic system that blends laissez-faire capitalism and sectarian power-sharing to the benefit of the wealthy.
Coming on the heels of the ongoing economic crisis, the pandemic was simply a catalyst for its crash landing. With national poverty and unemployment rates approaching the 50 percent mark, lockdown measures that forced the closure of businesses meant that this already alarming statistic has become a conservative estimate.
Lebanon’s first reported covid-19 case came on Feb. 21, and the country went into lockdown by mid-March. In less than two months, Lebanon went from bad to worse: 75 percent of the country’s population is in need of aid, Social Affairs Minister Ramzi Musharrafieh told CNN on Wednesday.
Compensation from the government was nonexistent. It struggled to distribute a single payment of a meager $100 to 40,000 disadvantaged families — eventually postponing it indefinitely. And in an all too familiar scene, the political parties of the Lebanon’s ruling class used their vast resources and networks to distribute medical, food and financial aid in their constituencies. A resident in the mountainous town of Aytat told me they were sending disgruntled Lebanese a message: “You have no one but us.”
Unable to secure expenses for basic needs, including food, people began to protest across the country. Eyes were especially on the northern city of Tripoli, historically an economic stronghold but now a hub of the worst of the Lebanon’s horrifying economic inequality. A member of the municipal government there told me that authorities, along with the security forces and intelligence agencies, were unable to force people to stop working — though they tried — because of the dire economic situation.
The situation quickly spiraled out of control. Empty bank branches at night were sitting ducks as rioters lobbed molotov cocktails, while furious protesters set up roadblocks made up of burning tires and dumpsters. Unlike the images of Lebanon’s protests that international media fawned over late last year, there were no smiles, catchy songs or slogans. There was only rage.
And then it happened. While hundreds of protesters rioted on Tripoli’s Nour Square on Monday, the Lebanese army shot and killed 26 year-old Fawwaz al-Samman. After his funeral procession the following day at the location where he was killed, riots commenced all day and well into the night. The army put out a statement expressing regret and promising to investigate the incident. But tributes to al-Samman continued to take place in cities and towns across the country.
In a desperate attempt to quell the situation, the Internal Security Forces put out a statement Tuesday urging protesters to demonstrate like they did in late 2019, when they “won the attention and admiration” of so many people. But with all that’s happened, to sing and dance as they once did would be insanity.
When the demonstrations began, there was hope that, because the country was on the verge of economic collapse, the entrenched ruling class would finally realize their time is up. But it didn’t bite. Even a pandemic has not changed that.
After months of tense protests and unrest without a shift in the status quo, it would be dishonest or foolish to think that protesters in Nour Square in Tripoli or elsewhere in Lebanon would still be happy to dance in protest with a DJ, as was the case in October, while watching what’s left of their economy shatter into a million pieces. For anyone who has covered Lebanon’s social ills and witnessed the restraint of protesters for months as the country’s rulers looked the other way, these riots are no surprise at all.
What we are seeing today is a vivid portrayal of Lebanon’s political and socioeconomic realities. It might not be pretty, but reality bites.
Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese journalist and researcher based in Beirut.