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Alessandra Bajec

Lebanese struggle to cope with country's biting crisis

Mark and Roudy are university graduates who now sell flatbread in downtown Beirut [Getty]

Date of publication: 10 March, 2020

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With their country mired in the worst economic crisis since the end of its 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanese are struggling to adjust to the new reality facing them.
With Lebanon's economic crisis worsening, and its middle class slowly disappearing, people are struggling to find ways around daily pressures.

Vik, 42, has enjoyed working as a branch manager in a big music company in Beirut for the past 12 years.

Last autumn, from full-time staff he became part-timer after the business started to slow down, and the company management had to cut back hours.

Early signs of recession were in the air three years ago.

Vik was told he would earn less than half of his normal pay, which meant for him downscaling to a $400 monthly salary.

A "take it or leave it" offer that gave no option other than staying in the job, without possibility to claim compensation leave or benefits.

"I used to make up to $5,000 and lead a decent life, but everything has changed now," the part-timer tells The New Arab, as he lets out a sigh.

"With my modest wage, I have to take care of my elder parents and fiancee, and cover lots of expenses," he continued. "I walk 25-30 minutes to my workplace so I am not using taxis. When I get to the store, even basic products are highly-priced."

Dwindling hopes

With Lebanon's economy collapsing, businesses struggling to stay open, and rising inflation, life is increasingly difficult for the largest part of the population amid the worst economic and financial crisis to hit the country since the end of its 1975-1990 civil war. 

Long-expected after years of external borrowing causing unsustainable levels of public debt, the crisis culminated last year as capital inflows from abroad diminished and nationwide protests erupted in October against state corruption and economic mismanagement.

"I want to be able to live with dignity. I won't leave Lebanon, things will change," Vik voiced resilient, "nothing lasts forever. We fall, we'll rise again."  

But many others feel differently.

A wave of Lebanese, including some of the most highly skilled, have been driven abroad by the national crisis, which has been growing over the past months.

More of them consider where they might be able to build a better future.

Scenes of educated young people forming queues in front of embassies in Beirut trying to leave the country as soon as possible are not uncommon these days.

More and more people are thrown out of work, prices are soaring, purchasing power has dwindled, and living standards have fallen.

The crisis culminated last year as capital inflows from abroad diminished, and nationwide protests erupted

Last month, Zuhair Berro, head of Lebanon's Consumer Protection Association, reportedly said that prices had increased by 40 percent in the past three months.

He added that even before the crisis, prices were already 30 percent higher than in neighbouring countries.

A vanishing middle class

The crisis is hitting every sector and segment of society, with the middle class having the most to lose from it.

Nicole is now a full-time student in finance and management. Until late November, she was working for an agency supplying promotional staff while studying.

The job was flexible and helped to fund her higher education for one year and half. But then the employer had to downsize after losing clients.

"My situation has changed 360 degrees. We are a family of seven, my father is not working right now," the student pointed out.

"I can't go out any more or buy clothes, everything has doubled."

When she turned jobless, Nicole spent most of her savings on last semester's tuition and medical visits.

Being enrolled in a private university to gain quality education, she is expected to pay as much as $750 every month.

She now barely has enough left to cover the next tuition due.

"I may have to drop out of my faculty for the coming semester. How can I register if I don't have the money?" she said.

Like her, many other students have financial difficulty paying their tuition fees.

"The middle class is vanishing right now. I bet the poor are dying because if we can't get by, how can they?" she also argued.

The 20-year-old holds out hope though, at the moment, she sees no options to turn to and improve her situation.

When job hunting, all the advertised jobs she comes across require a degree which she does not have yet.

Her parents are trying to sell a piece of land property but nobody is buying.

My situation has changed 360 degrees

Coping mechanisms

Amid the recession and liquidity crunch, banks have imposed tight limits on access to US currency, the Lebanese pound has rapidly dropped, and firms in desperate need of loans and imports have either shut down entirely, laid off staff or slashed wages.

Read also: Lebanon prosecutor grills bankers over capital flight

More than 785 food-and-beverage businesses have closed down in the last five months, Lebanon's Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs and Patisseries notified two weeks ago.

In its statement, the syndicate indicated that in January alone 240 establishments were forced to close.

Furthermore, 220,000 jobs had been lost in the country between mid-October and late January, with over 60,000 people out of employment since the end of November, based on findings from two surveys conducted by Lebanese research company InfoPro.

Half of the companies surveyed have cut salaries by more than 40 percent.

Many employers have also decided to pay their employees in Lebanese pounds, translating into substantial losses in their salaries for average citizens who confront a falling free-market rate in the local currency.

"The most common thing to find at the moment is employees working half time, getting half of their stipend, "noted Lea Bou Khater, a social and economic development researcher at the Consultation and Research Institute (CRI).

"This is the first step, what will follow with the crisis exacerbating is probably more layoffs."

The researcher mentioned some of the main coping mechanisms for dealing with Lebanon's recession.

Lebanese are getting money out of the bank in small amounts due to the weekly limits on withdrawals of dollars, and storing it in their houses until the Lebanese pound has stabilised to exchange it then.

At present, the demand for dollar has created a parallel market in which the dollar is being sold on the black market at close to 2,000 Lebanese pounds which is higher than the official exchange rate (around 1,500 pounds per dollar).

Citizens are also reducing their consumption due to the skyrocketing prices.

Between January 2019 and January of this year, prices of common food staples have doubled, based on data compiled by CRI. 

Besides that, people have stopped paying their loans since the bank would only take loan payments in dollars and, on top of it, apply the same (not reduced) default interest rates.

Those who could afford having a health insurance have stopped paying for it.

Many are taking legal actions against their banks. Others are getting organised, forming new labour unions to protect their rights.

220,000 jobs had been lost in the country between mid-October and late January, with over 60,000 people out of employment since the end of November

In addition to Lebanese, a growing number of migrant workers are leaving the country. They are the most penalised by the hard-hitting crisis.

Not only their earnings are plummeting in value because of the de facto de-valuation of the Lebanese pound, but the money they make is becoming worthless to send to family in their home countries when exchanged into foreign currency.

Saj stoves and survival

Some Lebanese have reinvented themselves finding alternative ways around the deepening crisis.

Mark Darido, a 24-year-old hospitality management graduate, and Roudy Hanna, a 22-year-old computer science graduate, have been selling saj (traditional Lebanese flatbread) since late January in downtown Beirut.

They both lost their jobs a month into Lebanon's revolution.

Mark, a former sales manager, was fired for his active involvement in the anti-government protests.

Previously working as a business development executive in the media sector. Roudy was sacked after the company experienced financial troubles.

Pushed by their hard circumstances, the two young men teamed up to cope and set up a saj corner in Martyrs' Square, the epicentre of the uprising in Beirut.

When they started, a local TV crew approached them for an interview and realised they had no idea how to make saj. So a cameraman dropped his equipment to teach them quickly.

The two stuck a sign on their saj stove that reads: "We got fired but we won't give up" next to their university certificates.

Wearing ties and selling in the street, they want to send a message of hope highlighting that Lebanese people have a lot of potential and are determined to improve their lives, no matter how.

"We come in our suits every day to say we have the potential to build our country, we will stay in Lebanon, whatever the cost," Mark said.

Many unemployed young graduates have been coming to the saj stall, and asking to stick their diplomas to voice their complaints.

The two saj vendors called on people to plaster copies of their degrees on a concrete wall that security forces set up to block protesters from reaching the parliament building.

"This is when the idea of creating the 'wall of qualifications' came about," Mark explained. "We have so far around 68 certificates pasted on the wall".

Mark and Roudy make little profit from their activity with the revolution dying off in the recent period, less and less people coming to the square, and fewer earnings coming.

It is enough to cover the cost for making saj and small expenses, but too little to pay the rent and bills.

"We give away for free more than we sell. But there are some good customers buying our saj for double or triple the price, encouraging us to keep doing what we do," Mark specified.

According to most recent figures, 1.5 million Lebanese (one third of the population) live below the poverty line.

Last year, the World Bank estimated that poverty could rise to as much as half of the population in 2020 if confidence was not restored in Lebanon's economy.

Meanwhile, with middle class shrinking and a rising number of Lebanese facing extreme poverty, the national crisis may force a large shift within the Lebanese society.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec

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