Protesters gathered near the US embassy in Beirut yesterday to denounce what they regard as foreign interference in Lebanese affairs and remarks by former US ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman.
Demonstrators burnt pictures of Mr Feltman, US President Donald Trump, as well as the US and Israeli flags. Local media reported that the protest brought together people from across the political spectrum and protesters from the uprising, amid a heavy security presence.
Last week Mr Feltman told US legislators that the protests and “reactions to them by Lebanese leaders and institutions fortunately coincide with US interests”.
“Sustained US interest, attention and messaging can make a difference as the Lebanese struggle to decide how to proceed beyond the home-grown protests,” he said.
“The trick for us is nuance. It would be unwise to interfere directly in Lebanese political decisions, which would make it too easy for [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah to cite credible examples in predictable attempts to discredit the protesters and their demands as US-directed.”
Protests outside the embassy are a continuation of nationwide demonstrations that began on October 17 and in which hundreds of thousands took to the streets against the Lebanese ruling classes. Despite some skirmishes, the protests have remained mostly non-violent.
People want a technocratic government after the resignation of Saad Hariri from his post as prime minister on October 29. The former prime minister introduced a reform package, including halving officials’ salaries, taking steps to fix the defective electricity sector and establishing an anti-corruption committee before having to resign.
Protesters have also demanded an overhaul of the sectarian political system, which assigns government positions to Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. Early parliamentary elections and a return of what is perceived as “looted public funds” are also part of the protesters’ demands.
The ailing Lebanese economy is the main driver of frustration owing to a lack of job growth, and with ineffectual reforms, many Lebanese students have no option but to wait for change or wait for visas so they can emigrate.
Lebanon is one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world in terms of debt to GDP. The Lebanese pound, pegged to the US dollar, is under pressure as the Lebanese economy faces its most severe crisis since its civil war.
Imports are paid for in US dollars, but a scarcity of available dollars at the official exchange rate has pushed up prices as wheat millers and fuel distributors are forced to pay exorbitant prices for dollars at money-exchange houses.
Tenants who are required to pay their rent in dollars are struggling to find ATMs that dispense the currency. Most Lebanese are forced to get their dollars at a steeper exchange rate – more than 15 per cent higher – if they find them at all.
Banks have begun restricting withdrawal amounts to cushion a banking run that could push Lebanon towards seeking an international bailout.