Mid-morning on a Friday afternoon is around the time that merchants in Tripoli’s shopping district would usually think about closing their shops before prayer. But in the past months, around half of the stores have already closed, their steel shutters plastered with “For Rent” signs. They’re the latest victims of the financial crisis suffocating Lebanon’s economy.
Tripoli, known for its poverty before the revolution broke out, has been particularly hard hit.
Mazen Khaled has owned his menswear shop on one of the city’s streets for 15 years, and so far he has managed to keep his doors open. But the country’s economic and political crisis has presented him with two main problems.
“The first is that people aren’t in the mood to come and shop around,” said the 42-year-old, sharply dressed in a turtleneck with jacket and sporting a neatly trimmed silver beard. “The second is financial … People’s salaries have lost their value as a result of the increasing cost of the dollar.”
Khaled gestures to the street, past the rows of blue denim jeans and crisp-collared shirts lining the walls. “Outside there are around 16 shops closed, and I expect even more will follow,” he said. “In all the streets around here there are shops that are 15 or 20 years old that are shutting down and getting rid of their employees.”
Lebanon’s deteriorating economy
For months, Lebanon has been gripped by a steadily deteriorating economic situation, to the point that in October last year hundreds of thousands took to the streets across Lebanon in mass protests.
After weeks, the protests toppled the government of then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri, but the economic situation has not improved since. Despite the Lebanese lira being officially pegged to the dollar at a rate of 1 to 1,515, its value on the street has continued to plummet, recently hitting 2,450 to the dollar.
Lebanon’s Consumer Association announced recently that prices had risen by 45.16 percent since the start of October, while the minimum wage had fallen from $450 to $267 per month.
Lebanon’s bakers, who called a strike in the days immediately prior to Lebanon’s “October revolution” to protest continually declining profits, announced further strike action starting this Monday. Bakers, like Khaled with his clothes store, buy imported goods in dollars, but sell in Lebanese lira.
Lebanon has recently approached the International Monetary Fund for technical assistance, but as the country debates whether to pay back its $1.2 billion eurobond that matures March 9, prospects for a speedy recovery look bleak.
Tripoli hit hard
Around the corner from Khaled’s shop, 27-year-old Jad Helwani sits with two friends in front of a shuttered storefront. On a stool between the men, the slowly passing time is measured in gradually emptying coffee cups and the crumpled butts of cigarettes accumulating in a busy ashtray.
Until recently Helwani worked in a restaurant. His starting salary was 1,300,000 Lebanese lira – around $860 at the official rate. Less than a month later his pay was cut to 600,000 lira. His salary was further reduced to 500,000 lira before the restaurant closed down.
The crisis is hitting across the country, said Helwani. “It’s hard in Lebanon, whether Beirut, the north, south, or in the Bekaa Valley,” he said. “There’s no work.”
Nevertheless, Helwani’s hometown is suffering particularly hard.
“Tripoli is the mother and father of the poor,” he said.
Up until the end of the Ottoman Empire, Tripoli was one of the key strategic cities on the eastern Mediterranean. History runs through the winding streets of the old city, which plays host to the biggest concentration of Mamluk architecture outside Cairo, and a Crusader-era castle that dominates the city from a nearby hill.
The creation of the Lebanese Republic under the French Mandate saw Tripoli gradually lose significance to the more central Beirut. The city’s reputation deteriorated further in recent years as it gained a reputation for violence, with clashes between Sunni and Alawite communities from the Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jebel Mohsen neighborhoods, respectively, killing hundreds.
The violence in Tripoli’s suburbs has largely died down since 2015, but the grinding poverty that fueled it has not. An August 2018 profile of Bab al-Tabbaneh by UN Habitat and UNICEF found that nearly 60 percent of the working-age Lebanese population was unemployed, while over half of its buildings were in need of major structural repair.
Tripoli as a protest center
When protests began last year, Tripolitans’ enthusiastic response earned their city the sobriquet “the bride of the revolution,” with thousands pouring into the central Al-Nour Square every evening. But while they have succeeded in changing Tripoli’s public profile, the poverty remains.
“Tripoli was one of the poorest cities on the Mediterranean before the revolution, and things are getting even worse now,” says Samer Annous, a 47-year-old professor of education at the nearby University of Balamand.
The professor was at a recent march to protest the financial policies of Lebanon’s new government. Tripoli’s revolutionary movement no longer has the same huge momentum that it did before the New Year, but the demonstration nonetheless attracted a few hundred dedicated protestors.
They keep coming out onto the streets, says Annous, because of “the level of deprivation and rage. [Tripoli is] historically a city that has been left to itself, exploited and abused by politicians,” he said as the evening light slowly recedes into the not-too distant Mediterranean behind the apartment blocks.
As a solitary customer enters his clothes shop the next morning, Khaled arrived at a similar conclusion. Poverty and unemployment continue to bring people onto the streets “because these guys don’t have work or a job – they don’t have a future,” he said. “They’ve got nothing to be optimistic about.”