Protests erupt in Tripoli fuelled by economic collapse and Covid-19

Caretaker cabinet struggles to cope amid threats by France to withhold vital funding

Protests in  Lebanon’s port city of Tripoli: high unemployment and rising poverty  are driving the unrest. Photograph: Fathi al-Masri

Protests in Lebanon’s port city of Tripoli: high unemployment and rising poverty are driving the unrest. Photograph: Fathi al-Masri

 

Lebanon awaits rescue from French president Emmanuel Macron as the country’s second city, Tripoli, has exploded in violent protests against economic collapse caused by protracted political deadlock and coronavirus contagion.

While no date has been fixed for his arrival, Macron has pledged to press for the formation of a government of independent experts able to effect major reforms in order to access funds to rebuild Lebanon’s economy.

Since his trip in August following the blast that devastated Beirut port, the political crisis has deepened, leaving the country with a caretaker cabinet that cannot cope and non-partisan ministers, proposed weeks ago by prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, who cannot act.

President Michel Aoun rejects Hariri’s list and insists on key portfolios for his appointees.

Macron has said unless the cabinet meets his criteria, Lebanon will not receive $21 billion (€17.4 billion) in financial aid from the International Monetary Fund and foreign donors which have paused assistance since 2018.

Political mismanagement

Aoun remains committed to the formula for sectarian power-sharing governments which have mismanaged and robbed the country for decades. He seeks to preserve a failed system at the expense of the country, threatening its very existence.

In response, Lebanese from Beirut, Sidon and elsewhere have violated coronavirus restrictions to mount protests at home or travel to Tripoli to join ongoing demonstrations, re-energising the October 2019 uprising which demanded measures to halt Lebanon’s economic meltdown and regime change.

Tripoli, the “capital of the north”, became the hub of the uprising due to high unemployment and rising poverty.

Since early last year the coronavirus and impositions to halt its spread have left hundreds of thousands of labourers, street vendors, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and factory employees without work. Many cannot feed their families and rely on charities for food or cash. The state lacks a safety net to cover the 55 per cent of Lebanese who live below the poverty line.

Hunger and pandemic

Tripoli’s rallies have turned into riots. Protesters have thrown rocks and grenades at police and troops and besieged local politicians who have made fortunes while in office. Police have retaliated with water cannon, tear gas and live fire. Some protesters say they would prefer to die from Covid-19 than hunger.

Reimposed until February 14th after restrictions were relaxed over the holidays, a curfew and lockdown have cut infections to 2,000 from 6,000 daily. Nevertheless, operations have been cancelled to make room for coronavirus patients who go from hospital to hospital to gain entry.

Some are treated in offices, others in cars in parking lots. The government has appealed to Lebanese expatriates to fund ventilators. The World Bank has allocated $34 million for vaccines and the health ministry has registered 175,000 for doses expected to arrive in March.

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