BEIRUT: With nationwide street protests raging unabated for the seventh day against the deteriorating economic conditions, Lebanon Monday appeared edging closer toward chaos and instability in the absence of an effective government to halt the country’s free fall into the abyss driven by an unprecedented financial meltdown.
Officials from across the political spectrum Monday warned of an imminent “social explosion” and a subsequent security flare-up in the troubled country if a new government was not formed quickly to remedy the situation by enacting a string of economic and administrative reforms outlined in the French initiative designed to steer Lebanon out its worst economic and financial crunch since the 1975-90 Civil War.
The warnings come against the backdrop of a rapid and dramatic collapse of the Lebanese pound against the dollar, trading at nearly 11,000 pounds on the black market over the weekend for the first time in its history. The pound’s free fall has heightened fears of a further decline amid political uncertainty in the country and in the absence of serious efforts to break the Cabinet formation deadlock, now in its seventh month. The pound’s fall eased a bit Monday, trading at LL10,350 to the dollar on the black market.
The plummeting pound, which has already lost more than 85 percent of its value since 2019, has triggered nationwide angry protests, as hundreds of residents have taken to the streets in Beirut and other cities since last Tuesday, blocking roads and highways across the country with burning tires. The protesters have warned of further street agitation if rival leaders do not act to accelerate the formation of a new government to halt the country’s economic collapse.
The crashing pound has led to prices of foodstuffs and other basic items skyrocketing and driven half of Lebanon’s 6 million population below poverty line. The crippling economic crisis has its roots in decades of corruption and mismanagement.
Billed “a day of rage,” angry demonstrators Monday morning blocked key roads across Lebanon for the seventh consecutive day, in the largest coordinated protest against the worsening economic and financial conditions in the country. All major roads leading to Beirut were blocked with burning tires, rocks and sand barriers as streets in many parts of the capital were also closed, causing traffic jams and preventing many people from reaching work.
A deepening rift between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri over the size and shape of the new Cabinet has left the country without a fully functioning government for more than six months.
The ongoing street protests have so far failed to revive talks between Aoun and Hariri on the Cabinet crisis as the two leaders stuck to their conflicting positions.
Hariri is currently on a visit to the United Arab Emirates after waiting for days for a contact from Aoun to meet to discuss with him his proposed Cabinet lineup of 18 nonpartisan specialists he presented to the president on Dec. 9.
Hariri said last week he was still waiting for Aoun’s approval of the proposed 18-member Cabinet of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms, while denying reports that he was awaiting Saudi Arabia’s consent. In a televised speech last month, Hariri accused Aoun of blocking the formation of a new government by insisting on veto power. Hariri has vowed not to grant veto power to any party in the government.
The Amal Movement headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said the street protests over the economic crisis indicated that the country was headed toward a “social explosion” if a rescue government was not formed rapidly to halt the financial deterioration.
Referring to the war of words between the Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement with each blaming the other for blocking the government formation, a statement issued after the weekly meeting of the Amal Movement’s politburo said: “The continued intransigence and insistence on obstructing a solution with mutual statements have only one goal which is to increase political tensions in the country and attempt to create additional factors to the political tug-of-war, thus pushing the country into further collapse. The protests which swept Lebanese areas in the past few days indicate that the country is heading toward a social explosion amid the unprecedented economic and financial deterioration in Lebanon as a result of the rise of the dollar exchange rate against the Lebanese pound which led to an astronomical rise in prices.
“Amid the political deadlock, the only solution to the crisis is to speed up the formation of the government and give priority to the supreme national interest,” the statement said.
While voicing support for the people to protest against the economic crisis, Amal’s politburo warned of exploiting the wave of the rightful popular demands to achieve “populist objectives through which strife and its repugnant repercussions enter to threaten stability and civil peace under confessional, sectarian or provincial slogans.”
Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar warned that the country was drifting toward a “major social explosion” with possible security consequences if Aoun stood firm on his refusal to endorse a draft Cabinet lineup of 18 nonpartisan specialists proposed by Hariri last year to deliver reforms badly needed to unlock billions of dollars in promised international aid to the cash-strapped country that is teetering on the verge of a total economic collapse.
“As matters stand now, certainly the country is headed toward a major social explosion with all its dire ramifications along with growing fears of security tensions as we have seen signs of these tensions in a number of areas,” Hajjar told The Daily Star. “Stopping this collapse can be done only through the formation of a government that has been proposed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri and outlined in the French initiative.”
Referring to caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet which resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the deadly Beirut Port explosion, Hajjar said: “We have a resigned government and there is a Cabinet lineup which the president refuses to sign. Here is the big disaster with such a performance by the team of Gebran Bassil and the president.”
Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law and the FPM leader, has been accused by Hariri and Future officials of blocking the government formation with his tough conditions, including a demand for veto power.
Speaking during a security and economic meeting chaired by him at Baabda Palace, Aoun warned of attempts to exploit the street protests to undermine the country’s stability. He called on the Lebanese Army and security forces to intervene and reopen blocked roads around the country.
“Blocking roads is rejected. Security and military apparatuses must carry out their duties in full and enforce the law without hesitation, especially since the matter goes beyond the mere expression of opinion and is an organized act of sabotage that aims to undermine [the country's] stability,” Aoun was quoted as saying during the meeting that was also attended by Diab, a number ministers, Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun and heads of security agencies.
Aoun also warned of the gravity of slogans raised by the protesters aimed at “harming the nation’s unity, inciting strife and discrediting the state and its symbol.”
Hezbollah MP Hasan Ezzeddine also warned Sunday that Lebanon was headed toward a “social explosion” if a credible government was not formed quickly to rescue the country, saying the escalating street protests against the deteriorating economic conditions served as an “alarm bell.”