Protesters block roads and halt traffic across Lebanon after economy hits new low

Anger mounts over worsening economic situation amid deadlock on forming new government

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Hundreds of demonstrators blocked major roads across Lebanon on Monday as protests over worsening economic conditions and record low currency levels entered their seventh day.

The protests were fuelled by the Lebanese pound reaching a new low of 10,000 to the US dollar last Tuesday, days after the government eased Covid-19 restrictions.

President Michel Aoun blamed the recent fall in the lira rate on speculators and parties seeking to undermine Lebanon’s security.

The currency has lost more than 80 per cent of its value since late 2019 as Lebanon struggled to contain an economic and financial crisis.

During a meeting with caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, members of his Cabinet and the country’s top security officers, Mr Aoun ordered the army to re-open blocked roads and to uncover “plans put in place to harm the country.”

“The latest developments have dangerous repercussions on social and national security, and require swift and decisive financial, judicial and security measures to prosecute those manipulating the livelihood of the Lebanese," Mr Aoun said.

Hours later, the army still didn't intervene to re-open the roads.

Addressing senior military officers at a separate meeting, Lebanese Army Chief Joseph Aoun said the country was reeling under the burden of a suffocating economic crisis that has eroded the purchasing power of the people and army personnel.

The army commander said the military was supportive of freedom of expression but would protect stability and confront any acts of vandalism.

“Where are we headed, what are your plans?” the army chief asked, addressing Lebanese officials, according to a statement released by the army.

The president has been the target of sharp criticism from protestors who have taken to the streets to demand change.

34-year-old Ali, a father of one who joined demonstrators in Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut, said he is protesting against rampant corruption that has plagued the country since the end of the civil war in the early 90’s.

“We’ve been protesting for six days now, why doesn’t the president care? Why are our leaders ignoring our needs?” he said.

Ali said he could barely make ends meet with his monthly income of 1.4 million lira, the equivalent of around 140 US dollars at today’s market rate.

“My rent is 800,000. How am I going to pay for it? We need a real solution,” he told The National.

Protesters used burning tyres, rubbish bins and cars to shut down the main highways leading into and out of the capital, Beirut, since the early morning, as well as key roads in the Bekaa region and in south and north Lebanon.

Some set up tents along a main highway north of Beirut, according to state-run National News Agency (NNA).

In Tripoli, which has been home to some of the largest protests to grip the country since 2019, demonstrators scuffled with security forces, according to local media reports.

Raeb Abou Assi, a 28-year-old protestor from the mountainous Chouf region, said he joined protestors in Beirut because the ruling elite has killed his dream of a better future.

Abou Assi says he was laid off from his job in aluminum business five years ago and has since been working as a security guard.

“The authorities have been lying to us, look at what they have reduced us to,” he told the National, pointing at dozens of protestors who had been burning tyres.

Anger has mounted over the political paralysis in Lebanon, with no breakthrough in negotiations to form a Cabinet almost seven months after a massive explosion in Beirut forced the resignation of Mr Diab’s government.

The caretaker prime minister threatened on Sunday to stop performing his duties to pressure politicians leaders to form a new government.

“What are you waiting for?” Mr Diab said in a televised speech.

The failure to form a Cabinet has blocked the implementation of key reforms that the international community is demanding before providing Lebanon with financial aid.

The economic situation sparked months of protests in October 2019 but they lost momentum after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.