Only days before the terrifying explosions in Beirut seaport, Rabia Ali Omar opened the door of her home in a basement in the northern city of Tripoli in Lebanon to an activist distributing bread. Since the government reduced flour subsidies, the price of bread has doubled and hit low-income groups the hardest.
While Omar can rely on charity organizations for the bread, almost all other basic necessities are out of reach, she said. Over the last four months, the Lebanese pound has plummeted by 80 percent and caused prices to triple or quadruple, making them unaffordable for many.
“Look at the condition of my house,” Omar said inviting the activist and Inside Arabia in. She lifted a curtain under a sink to pull out her stove. She pointed to it and added, “This is my kitchen, we do not even have a fridge.”
For the poor, Lebanese life was hard even before the economy collapsed, a situation made worse by the coronavirus lockdown and the recent Beirut blasts, and now they are struggling to survive.
Even those in middle-income groups – the new poor in the country, are queuing outside soup kitchens.
Even those in middle-income groups – the new poor in the country, are queuing outside soup kitchens. Kao Kab, a widow clad in an abaya, waited at the counter of an NGO for a cash hand-out, and Mamool – a Lebanese sweet stuffed with pistachios, a day before the Muslim festival Eid. As tears streamed down her cheeks Kab said she can hardly provide her children with three meals, forget Eid sweets. “There is nothing in my kitchen,” she said.
In addition to a food crisis, there is also a fuel shortage in the country leading to long power cuts. Electricity is supplied just for two to three hours a day and as a result, hospitals have had to reschedule surgeries, flights have not landed, and traffic lights have gone off causing accidents.
Meanwhile, the politicians have done little to convince the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bail out the country. Lebanon sought a US$10 billion loan from the IMF in May, but the talks have stalled as the ruling political class is reluctant to usher in economic and political reforms.
Such is the level of desperation that some have resorted to robbing shops. In a video, recorded on the CCTV camera of a pharmacy in Beirut, a man was seen stealing diapers, deodorant, and cash at gunpoint.
Thefts have more than doubled; 863 thefts have been reported this year, up from 650 for all of 2019.
Thefts have more than doubled; 863 thefts have been reported this year, up from 650 for all of 2019. Many of these thefts are being described as hunger crimes.
Didi Bozali, a saleswoman at a home decor shop in an uptown market in Beirut, was carefully adjusting items as a “well-dressed” man, in his 30s, walked into her store. She noticed that he was fidgety and looked around in an unusual manner, but she could not fathom that he had come with the intention to steal. As she turned around, the young man nicked her phone and fled on a bike with a friend at the ready.
“He wanted to steal anything he could get his hands on. He could not find my bag so [he] just stole my phone,” Bozali told Inside Arabia. “He came from a good family, I think, but must have been very needy.” Cash was stolen from at least two more shops near Bozali’s.
Eight months ago, Lebanese had gathered in thousands on the streets and demanded the ruling elite give way to new elections and a new team of politicians who could extract the country from its inevitable demise. A new government was indeed formed, but yet again, one controlled by the same ruling elite that the protestors described as corrupt, sectarian, and inefficient.
The protests have diminished as the people are preoccupied with putting food on the table first.
The protests have diminished as the people are preoccupied with putting food on the table first. Political experts say the protestors have lost morale and feel disillusioned while the system has proved to be more resilient than they thought. Many of the civil-society embers and organizers of the protests are pondering how to revive the movement but face an additional challenge—fear of sectarian forces.
Soon after the coronavirus lockdown was lifted in Lebanon in June, two large protests were held in downtown Beirut. But both were infiltrated by sectarian forces who intended to highjack the demonstrations with their own divisive agenda.
Susan, an unemployed graphics designer who spoke on the condition of anonymity fearing she may be attacked by the sectarian militias, said demonstrators got scared as protests on June 4 took a violent turn. Fire was exchanged between unknown gunmen across the line that divided the country during the civil war. “We don’t want another civil war, at any cost,” Susan said.
Lebanon’s last hope is an IMF loan, but many are worried about it not coming through. Nizar Ghanem, a Lebanese economist, believes the politicians would rather throw 80 percent of Lebanese under the poverty line than usher in reforms.
“The government needs to take serious reform measures and pass competition law to basically suppress monopolies that stifle the Lebanese economy. It needs to open the central bank to a proper audit to find out how and where the pockets of corruption are in the state,” Ghanem said. “We need to basically reform the way we do business and unfortunately, currently we do business like a mafia, oligopolies, and cartels. And the politicians will never change it because it threatens their power.”
In light of the devastating Beirut blasts, just days after these testimonials, and the economic impact of the coronavirus lockdown, now more than ever, Lebanon must find solutions to its deepening woes.
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