Lebanese government holds emergency meeting after raging protests
Lebanon's prime minister, Hassan Diab, held an emergency cabinet meeting on Friday after a night of raging protests that saw demonstrators shut down roads across the country with burning tires.
The protests were sparked by an economic crisis which has seen the Lebanese national currency fall dramatically in value.
Clashes with security forces broke out in several locations on Thursday night as people spontaneously took to the streets after the pound tumbled to a new low against the dollar. Protesters in central Beirut pelted police and soldiers with rocks and smashed some storefronts, drawing volleys of tear gas.
Some protesters set fire to a private bank, while others threw stones at the offices of other banks in an expression of anger at their perceived role in deepening their economic malaise.
“Three glass windows were broken in the front and the back, the fridge and the phones. And they broke the photocopy machines and the chairs... I am not sure yet what is the estimated material loss," said the owner of a travel agency in downtown Beirut.
Security forces reopened blocked roads early on Friday as the protests calmed. The prime minister cancelled his scheduled meetings for the day and called for an emergency session to discuss the crisis. Riad Salameh, the governor of the central bank who has been singled out by Diab for his mishandling of the situation, took part in the meeting.
The renewed demonstrations amid calls for Diab's resignation are a huge challenge for the prime minister, who took over in December after his predecessor, Saad Hariri, resigned amid nationwide protests late last year. His government is supported by the Shia group Hezbollah and its allies and has been weakened by the economic crisis.
Despite efforts to control the currency depreciation in recent weeks, the Lebanese pound fell to more than 6,000 to the dollar on Thursday, down from 4,000 on the black market in recent days. The pound had maintained a fixed rate of 1,500 to the dollar for nearly 30 years.
The crash appeared to reflect the growing shortage of foreign currency on the market amid the crisis. It also signalled panic over new U.S. sanctions that will affect neighbouring Syria in the coming days as well as lack of trust in the government’s management of the crisis.
The heavily indebted Lebanese government has been in talks for weeks with the International Monetary Fund after it asked for a financial rescue plan but there are no signs of an imminent deal.
Lebanon’s financial crisis predates the virus pandemic that put the country in a total lockdown for months, further compounding the crisis. Years of corruption and mismanagement have left the small Mediterranean country with depleted resources, while shrinking investment in the wider conflict-ravaged region.
In addition, falling remittances from Lebanese abroad only increased the shortage of foreign capital.