Lebanese take to the streets over tumbling currency

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Beirut: Hundreds of Lebanese poured into the streets to protest the tumbling of the national currency to a new low against the dollar on Thursday, blocking roads and highways in several places across the small country that had started slowly opening up after months of coronavirus restrictions.

In Beirut, protesters also burned tires and pieces of wood, chanted slogans and waved the Lebanese flag to protest the unprecedented economic crisis. Some wore face masks.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab cancelled his meetings for Friday and called for an emergency session to discuss the financial crisis, while the central bank governor urged foreign exchange bureaus to stick to the rate he had ordered.

The Lebanese pound tumbled to more than 6,000 to the dollar, down from 4,000 on the black market.

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 — but also signalled panic over new US sanctions that will affect neighbouring Syria in the coming days and 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.

By late Thursday, hundreds of protesters poured into the streets of the capital, Beirut, blocking main intersections in various districts.

In Beirut, some demonstrators drove on motorcycles by the central bank while others gathered at the downtown epicenter of the anti-government protests that had lasted for months before coronavirus restrictions prompted authorities to break up their encampment.

Also, protesters gathered in the southern city of Nabatiyeh.

“We tell everyone, come down to the streets. … What are you waiting for to take to the streets to say this government has not been able to do anything,” said Ali Abbas, a protester.

“This government must fall … And we must have a true independent government.”

Lebanon’s financial crisis predates the coronavirus pandemic that saw the country in a total lockdown for months. Years of corruption and mismanagement have left the tiny Mediterranean country with depleted resources, while shrinking investment in the war-riddled region and falling remittances from Lebanese abroad only increased the shortage of foreign capital.

Nationwide protests broke out in October, forcing the incumbent government to resign.

The new government, sworn in at the start of 2020, had put together a reform program, decided to default on Lebanon’s sovereign debts and began talks with the IMF.

But Lebanon’s economy is also closely tied to the country’s complex sectarian politics, where jockeying for power is often mired in regional politics.

The Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group is dominant in the government and parliament and is already facing US sanctions.