Banks burn as Lebanon’s Tripoli rises up in hunger

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A truck pulled up to a bank that had been set on fire in central Tripoli, Lebanon, and the team of four men quickly set to work loading a number of steel rods left in the entrance of the building into the back of the truck, even as the smoke became thicker and blacker and began to belch from the bottom of the building.

“They’re stealing them,” said a bystander, with a rueful but understanding look on his face.

Nearby, a crowd watched the bank burn, and there was little condemnation of those who had started the fire or the opportunistic looters who had left with their metal haul.

“It’s the economic situation,” said a 51-year-old woman in a green hijab who worked in a doctor’s surgery next door. She declined to give her name. “Despite the corona, people are hungry. They can’t take it anymore.”

In recent weeks the value of Lebanon’s currency has plummeted amidst a dollar shortage. While the lira is still officially pegged to the dollar at a rate of one to 1,500, the local currency now trades at 4,000. The rate is increasing every day, causing the price of goods and food in stores to skyrocket. The central bank has tried to regulate the exchange rate down closer to 3,000-3,800 in various circulars.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, is one of the poorest areas of the country with poverty rates at the end of 2019 around 50 percent. The city was a focal point for the anti-government protests that began in October last year, driven by widespread anger at government inefficiency, corruption, and a deteriorating economy.

The movement began to lose momentum around the New Year, but the economy has only worsened as the country battles to contain the global coronavirus pandemic. Lebanon has so far been comparatively successful in containing the spread of the disease, but only by imposing stringent social distancing measures that subsequently shuttered much of the economy.

Read more: Coronavirus lockdown more harm than help for Lebanese who can't afford to stay home

Lebanese soldiers are seen near a bank on fire during unrest, as an economic crisis brings demonstrations back onto the streets in Tripoli, Lebanon April 28, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)
Lebanese soldiers are seen near a bank on fire during unrest, as an economic crisis brings demonstrations back onto the streets in Tripoli, Lebanon April 28, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)

Lebanon’s government began a five-stage process to reopen the economy on Monday. Nevertheless, as the economic situation worsens, Tripolitans have recently begun to take to the streets once again. In clashes with security forces during demonstrations yesterday, a 26-year-old protester was shot and killed, reportedly by the army.

After the victim’s body was driven through the city's streets on the way to his funeral, protesters began to target banks, tearing down lamp posts and street furniture to smash their way into what have become symbols of the rapidly widening inequality in the country.

The top 1 percent receives 25 percent of national income on average, and the top 10 percent receives 55 percent of national income, according to data collected between 2005 and 2014.

On the corner of al-Tall Square, at the edge of which stands a proud Ottoman clock tower, hundreds of protestors – nearly all of them young men – faced off with security forces, responding with rocks to their counterpart's tear gas and, reportedly, rubber bullets.

Read more: Coronavirus: Ramadan shoppers in Lebanon’s Tripoli fear economic crisis over virus

“Everyone’s hungry. They want to eat but no one’s got any money,” said a 30-year-old man as he ducked behind a corner to shelter from a cloud of gas. The man said he earned 25,000 lira a day working in a restaurant – less than $30 at the official exchange rate, and much less by the parallel market value.

He listed the rapidly increasing prices of staple products, such as rice and lentils.

“This is the most basic food. This is the food of the poor.” he said. “We want to pay rent and eat. I’ve got two kids I need to feed … This is how we’re dying. We’re not scared of corona."

Barely a hundred meters away at a different bank, smoke laced out of the forged iron grill decorating the arches of a nearby bank. The inside was reduced to charred black cinders. The outside was covered in pro-revolutionary graffiti and the external ATM had been destroyed.

“It’s action and reaction,” suggested Khaled Naja, a jovial, slightly portly bystander with flecks of silver in his hair.

“It’s not inflation, it’s super inflation [is] what’s going on. People are not able to buy essentials. The middle classes are disappearing bit by bit, and the gap is widening between the poor and the rich,” he said. “I’m really anxious of what’s going on. I’m not a pessimistic guy but there’s a difference between pessimism and realism.”

As of Tuesday evening, seven injured protesters had been transported to nearby hospitals and 25 had been treated at the scene, according to figures from the Lebanese Red Cross.

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