The clock is ticking on Lebanese leaders to act

Angry protesters have attacked banks as a financial crisis hits and the country is left without leadership

Riot police stand in protective formation while protesters shine green laser lights at them during clashes on Hamra street in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. Lebanese protesters spilled back into the streets on Tuesday after a brief letup, blocking major highways as they denounced the lack of a functioning government at a time of deepening financial and economic crisis. Photographer: Hasan Shaaban/Bloomberg
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As turmoil sweeps the Middle East, the eyes of the world have lost sight of the ongoing uprisings in Iraq, but also in Lebanon. After weeks of relative calm, the Lebanese people have vowed to relaunch nationwide protests in what they have dubbed a “week of wrath”.

The Lebanese have a lot to be angry about. Their country is going through a crippling economic crisis and, for the past thirty years, it has been led by an elite that has largely failed to meet the population's basic needs. Lebanon has been without a government for more than two months after a popular uprising led Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his Cabinet to resign. Mr Hariri stated at the time that he wanted to heed the calls of those calling for a better future for Lebanon. The country has been suffering from electricity shortages for the past three decades, however, in the last week, it has endured even longer cuts, with some Beirut residents reporting less than 30 minutes of electricity per day. An internet shutdown is also on the horizon. Telecommunication companies have expressed fears that the government will be unable to pay them for their services by March.

The Lebanese have a lot to be angry about. Their country is going through a crippling economic crisis and for the past thirty years, it has been led by a corrupt elite

Adding to people’s woes, a financial crisis of unprecedented proportions has hit the country since November. Lebanon has been downgraded by Moody’s and other credit rating agencies twice in a year, and the Lebanese pound has lost half of its value to the American dollar on the black market. A shortage of dollars, to which the pound is pegged and that is used interchangeably with the local currency, has pushed banks to impose informal capital controls. The draconian measures include a cap on foreign currency withdrawals of $200 per week, a ban on transferring money abroad, as well as refusing people access to their frozen accounts. As a result, most companies have downsized or halved their employees’ salaries and many businesses have gone bankrupt.

Frustration is in the air, as Lebanese are forced to queue for hours at their local bank, only to withdraw a couple hundred dollars. Many fear their life savings are as good as gone. The situation has fuelled anger at the banking system, with protesters staging demonstrations in front of Lebanon’s Central bank. Some have even resorted to violence, setting the very banks where they keep their savings on fire, or smashing their windows in desperation.

The Lebanese are also angry at many of their leaders, who seem completely disconnected from the woes of ordinary people. Hezbollah’s elusive leader Hassan Nasrallah has given three televised speeches since the beginning of the month, only to speak about retaliation for the US killing of Iran’s military chief Qassem Suleimani. He has vowed revenge for Suleimani’s death, completely ignoring the struggle of millions of people, many among his constituents, who have lost their jobs and are finding it harder to make ends meet.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has also failed to speak for his people. The founder of the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon’s biggest Christian party, has been part of the political system for decades. He has been in power since 2016, and was a member of parliament for 15 years. But instead of taking responsibility for his nation’s economic problems or providing solutions, he only said that choosing the right people for the next government takes time, and blamed Syrian refugees (whom he refers to as “migrants”) for the country’s many issues.

Many had placed their hopes on Hassan Diab, who was designated prime minister by Hezbollah and their allies in December. Mr Diab had vowed to form a small Cabinet of non-affiliated experts, as demanded by protesters, in six weeks or less. Nearly a month has passed since his nomination, and the country still has no government. Tension between Mr Diab and the Iran-backed parties that nominated him seem to be delaying government formation. The political elites must make room for positive change. The country’s future and the livelihoods of millions depend on it.