Steep dive of Lebanon: riots and new “salvation government”

Anhar Kochneva: “I'm surprised at the appointments, but it'll never occur to me to go on a rampage as a sign of my disagreement”

Lebanon announced a new government last Wednesday. If in Russia the Cabinet of Ministers was changed relatively peacefully, then in the Middle East Republic it was preceded by demonstrations. Beirut and other cities have been shaken by protests for the fourth month with all the ensuing consequences: pogroms of banks and shops, blocked roads, clashes with law enforcement forces, the collapse of the national currency. Anhar Kochneva, the columnist for Realnoe Vremya who is living in Lebanon, has already reported on the riots that began at the end of 2018 and escalated in the autumn of 2019. What is happening there now — the journalist tells in today's author's column written for our online newspaper.

100 days of protest

On Wednesday night, Lebanon, where rioters had been demanding the formation of a new government for almost 100 days, got this new government. Only here the news caused a new wave of pogroms and riots. In the night, many sections of the long-suffering single highway linking the north and south of the country (as well as mountainous areas with the rest of Lebanon) were again blocked by burning tires. In the satellite city of the “northern capital” of Lebanon (Tripoli), another attack on a branch of a Lebanese Bank took place: the attackers could not get inside, but they broke all the windows and smashed the ATM.

By the way, after at least one successful robbery of an ATM in the centre of Beirut, two or two and a half months ago (the video shows how they stuffed money into their pockets), “revolutionaries” tried to gut all ATMs on the temporarily occupied sections of city streets under the guise of an enviable regularity. Mostly, in the dark of night, they smashed screens and broke plastic parts. As a result, several dozen expensive banking machines were broken. Bank branches were also attacked during the working day. The Union of Bank Employees of the country even made a special statement that, in fact, about 25,000 employees of the banking sector fall under attack. And if they lose their jobs or part of their wages due to forced absence from work, the financial situation of at least 80,000 family members deteriorates.

The country has come to a standstill. The majority of the population has ceased to part with money unnecessarily, thereby further worsening the economic situation in the country as a whole and the financial situation of their remaining citizens without income

By the way, in the 100 days since the start of “the protest actions” in the country, hundreds of cafes and restaurants, trade enterprises and private firms have already closed. The employees of many organizations that are still working often receive no more than half of their previous salary. Even famous morning and evening traffic jams to and from Beirut on weekdays have become noticeably “thinner”. Fewer people are going to work, fewer are travelling on business. Much less are going to restaurants, shopping and having fun. Someone doesn't have the money to do it. Others do have, but they are in no hurry to part with it. And still others temporarily have gone abroad for a period of uncertainty (many have relatives there or they themselves have citizenship of other countries). The country has come to a standstill. The majority of the population has ceased to part with money unnecessarily, thereby further worsening the economic situation in the country as a whole and the financial situation of their remaining citizens without income.

The official and “shadow” lira's rate

Last Tuesday, the union of exchange offices of Lebanon agreed to currently determine the lira exchange rate at the level of 2,000 liras per dollar. On the one hand, this is a third higher than the official exchange rate of the lira, which has not changed for 30 years (officially, the dollar is still about 1,500). Almost everything has suddenly become 30 per cent cheaper for foreign tourists in Lebanon who have cash currency. On the other hand, it is an important and necessary restriction that creates at least some stability: just a week earlier, the dollar could be sold even at 2,400 — demand still exceeded supply. Dollars and euros are needed both for those who have to go somewhere and for those who try to protect their capital from “drying up”. And those who have some payments in a foreign currency. There are also rumours about billions of dollars taken “in time” by prudent owners abroad.

They say the cash was taken in suitcases. The Central Bank of Lebanon was even forced to impose a temporary veto on sending and exporting currency abroad. As a result, the entrepreneurs who brought to Lebanon what Lebanon itself does not produce (and this is almost everything) suffered. Store shelves have become noticeably empty, and the process continues. Prices for still available goods have increased, some twofold. One can live, but the situation is alarming.

The closer the moment when a new government was to be formed, the more intense the actions of the rioters were becoming

Perhaps, the most difficult was the second half of October. When the whole country was suffering from constant road closures. Later, the hooligans changed their tactics and concentrated in the сentral district of the Lebanese capital, where the government building and the parliament are located. As well as Hamra Street, which is popular among Lebanese and tourists, where the building of the country's Central Bank is located. All the other citizens breathed a sigh of relief for a while: roads were again filled with vehicles, people rushed to do things that were postponed, to stock up on food in case of new exacerbations of the situation on the roads, and so on.

Wanted a new government? Get it!

The closer the moment when a new government was to be formed, the more intense the actions of the rioters were becoming. At a special press conference held by the head of the Lebanese riot police, terrible figures were announced: out of 1,500 employees, about 500 were seriously injured, with about 150 suffered head injuries from large stones and rebar hitting their heads. Undoubtedly, they were “hit” consciously and deliberately. The president of the country, Michel Aoun, held a special meeting with the heads of law enforcement agencies, at which, apparently, some plan of action was developed against those who maliciously violate law and order and attempt the life and health of the military and police: their civil rights had not been revoked. For three months, the state tried not to escalate the situation, constantly releasing the arrested brawlers. But there is a limit to any patience. By the way, there appeared water cannons in Lebanon, which had not been there before.

In short, if you want a government, you get a government. It's already here. Out of 20 ministerial posts, as many as six have been given to women (halloo, who there still believes in the oppression and the lack of rights of women in Arab countries?). But as expected, the demonstrators are again not satisfied with this because of the principle. As stated by one of the hooligans interviewed by TV media: “We want someone of ours.” Apparently, he never even bothered to read the text of the Constitution, according to which the head of the government is appointed by the president, who, in turn, is engaged in the formation of his Cabinet. Not a couple or a hundred of loudmouths from the street. Those who try to blackmail the state do not have an understanding of how the state works. So they block roads again (the army unlocks them here and there) and continue to try to take the entire country's population hostage — under the slogans like “Mom, buy me a car!”, “Go away, you're ugly!” and so on.

Whether the daredevils who agreed to take these posts will be able to pull the country out of the steep dive — as usual, time will show

To be honest, I am myself somewhat surprised by the appointments. To be more precise, the way the competence of the ministers strangely combined. The thing is that fewer ministers have been appointed than there were in the previous government. And some of them now combine the positions of leaders of different individual departments. For example, the minister of tourism is also responsible for the social sphere, and now these two areas are managed by... a medical doctor by education. Although it was initially proposed to combine tourism and ecology, appointing a real professional in the field of tourism, well-known, including in Russia, to this post. But it'll never occur to me to go on a rampage as a sign of my disagreement with something. Let the one whom we have there work.

Such government is already something. It is already referred to in the press as “the salvation government of Lebanon”. Its job is to somehow end the paralysis of the central government that has been going on for 3 months. Whether the daredevils who agreed to take these posts will be able to pull the country out of the steep dive — time will show, as usual.

Some historical statistics:

  • In 2009, the Lebanese spent 137 days without a government.
  • In 2011, the Lebanese spent 152 days without a government.
  • In 2013, the Lebanese spent 329 days, almost a year (!) before the government appeared.
  • In 2009, the Lebanese spent 137 days without a government.

Last but not least: the Lebanese spent most of 2018, a total of 9 months, without a government.

Anhar Kochneva, photo courtesy of the author