Activists have been blocking main highways and roads across Lebanon for the past week, protesting against the plummeting value of the Lebanese lira, which hit a record low against the dollar and is now one of the world’s most devalued currencies.
In a seemingly coordinated, localised effort, protesters have been constructing barriers and burning tyres and dumpsters throughout the Mediterranean country for several days now, forcing traffic to a standstill.
Protesters gather tyres to block roads around Lebanon. Photo: Matt Kynaston
These are the latest actions in a year and a half of ongoing demonstrations against the country’s governing elite and their role in Lebanon’s ongoing political, economic and financial crises.
“We are trying our best to help the people,” says Abo, 22, a protester in Jal El Dib, who joined dozens of others on a blocked highway on Monday.
A highway blocked by protesters in Jal el Dib. Photo: Lucien Lung
In the past two years, the lira has lost over 85 percent of its value and continues to fall while Abo’s salary has stayed the same.
“When you can’t find work, you don’t have any motivation,” he says. “The situation is so fucking bad.”
A protester holds the Lebanese flag. Photo: Matt Kynaston
These sentiments were echoed in Martyr’s Square, central Beirut, which has often been the stage for demonstrations and civil unrest.
“We are not able to afford medicine or food,” says Bachir, 60, fighting back tears. He has been unable to find work for the last two years. “I don’t have hope. I have hope in the movement, but not in the politicians, they are gangsters.”
Photo: Florient Zwein
Just outside of Tripoli, the country’s second-largest city, protesters constructed a brick wall to stop the traffic and a tent for protesters to sleep in on the Palma Highway, allowing through only emergency services. In the southern city of Saida, some 1,000 protesters gathered, many of whom went on to set up roadblocks late into the evening.
The desperation of the Lebanese was perhaps most visceral in a small southern town of Abbasiyah, where a man soaked himself in gasoline and tried to self-immolate, before being stopped by security personnel and other protesters.
Photo: Matt Kynaston
Since 1997, Lebanon has pegged the value of its currency to the US dollar. However, due to a lack of any meaningful economic development since, combined with gross mismanagement in the financial sector, the lira-dollar peg is under strain.
As revenues began to dry up in 2019, the banks began to limit the availability of dollars. As a dollarised economy, Lebanon’s merchants and businesses still needed dollars to cover their imports, and so the demand for USD soared. This created a “black market” rate that reflects the real purchasing power of the dollar and lira.
Protesters block roads around Lebanon. Photo: Matt Kynaston
As a result of the lira’s decline, the price of everyday goods in Lebanon has skyrocketed, while salaries (for those who can find work) have stayed the same on paper and lost significant value in the market
Meanwhile, the government has failed to propose any kind of plan to address the multiple crises facing the country, and has so far been unwilling to cooperate with international initiatives to help stabilise the country.
Lebanon has not had a functioning government in the seven months since the prime minister resigned in the wake of the devastating Beirut port explosion. In recent months, the prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, has failed to agree on a cabinet formation with President Michel Aoun, meaning that the political and economic reforms needed to secure international aid are stalled.
Photo: Florient Zwein
In response to the nationwide demonstrations, Aoun instead called upon the army to clear the roads of protesters, an order which was dismissed by the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces who refused to be pulled into the political deadlock.
Back on the streets, the protest movement continues to occupy roads and highways. Protesters hope that the collective and coordinated action will in some way ignite the country as it did in October 2019. As the lira plummets, and more are forced into poverty, it is unclear how much injustice the Lebanese will tolerate.