Unrest grows in crisis-hit Lebanon amid COVID lockdown

Tripoli: Lebanese security forces fired volleys of tear gas at rock-throwing youth in the northern city of Tripoli on Thursday amid outrage over the death of a 30-year-old protester after violent confrontations with security forces the previous day.

The scope of the protests in Tripoli, now in their fourth day, appeared to be widening even as the nation grapples with both the pandemic and the worst economic crisis in Lebanon’s history.

The protests resumed Thursday, shortly after Omar Taibi, who was shot by security forces on Wednesday night, was laid to rest. More than 220 others were injured in the clashes as frustrations boiled over amid deteriorating living conditions and strict coronavirus lockdown measures. 

The violence marks a serious escalation in demonstrations denouncing the extended shutdown that exacerbated already dire conditions amid the unprecedented economic and financial crisis. Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city and the most impoverished, has been a centre for demonstrations and rioting against Lebanon’s political class. 

Dozens of young men have been taking part in the nightly protests, throwing rocks at security forces and in some cases torching vehicles. On Wednesday, protesters repeatedly tried to break into the municipal building. Some lobbed hand grenades at security forces, who responded with water cannons, volleys of tear gas and finally, live ammunition. 

The National News Agency said 226 people were injured in the confrontations, including 26 policemen. Taibi, who was hit by a bullet, died of his wounds Thursday, it said. 

Earlier on Thursday morning, security forces brought reinforcements and put up barbed wire around the municipal building, known as the Serail. Two torched cars stood nearby. Shops and cafes were open and traffic appeared normal on the streets in clear defiance of the government’s lockdown measures. 

Maher Atiyeh, a 39-year-old cafeteria employee, stood looking at the wreckage of his torched car. He said as the rioting picked up Wednesday night, police called and asked him to come and remove his car, parked near the municipal building. 

 I didn’t make it in time, they burned my car, he said, wearing a red baseball cap and red mask. 

Atiyeh said there’s real suffering in Tripoli, the poverty is real, but added he was against violence. They should protest peacefully, not like this. The country is destroyed, people are hungry and such violence only hurts us more, he said. 

Dozens of mourners, most of them without masks, took part in the funeral of Taibi, whose body was carried in a coffin wrapped in green cloth. Gunfire rang out as some of the men fired into the air in a traditional expression of grief. 

The government has imposed a nearly month-long nationwide lockdown and round-the-clock curfew that lasts until February 8, amid a dramatic surge in coronavirus infections. The measures come on top of a crippling economic and financial crisis that preceded the pandemic in this small country of nearly 5 million people and over 1 million refugees. 

The Lebanese currency has crashed, losing over 80% of its value. Banks have imposed controls on withdrawals and transfers to protect dwindling foreign reserves. Unemployment and inflation have skyrocketed and tens of thousands have been thrown into poverty. About half of the population is now below the poverty line. 

While the protests are ostensibly against the lockdown measures, they reflect the growing anger over authorities’ inaction and negligence in the face of Lebanon’s meltdown. The cash-strapped government has done very little to compensate or help the poorest sectors of society cope with the lockdown measures. 

 We are not allowed to work. We stay at home, we beg to get bread, said Rabie Alkheir, a taxi driver. The 55-year-old said if he misses a day of work he misses providing a proper meal for his family. 

Meanwhile, a power struggle is taking place between the president and prime minister-designate. Fighting over Cabinet seats has blocked the formation of a new government, which is crucial to enacting reforms that would unlock foreign financial assistance. The government resigned in August, following the massive explosion at Beirut port that killed over 200 people and wounded thousands. 

The troubles have piled up since, including the recent surge in coronavirus cases largely blamed on a decision to relax lockdown measures during the holidays. Some 80,000 expatriates traveled to the country to celebrate Christmas and New Years with family and friends. 

Jan Kubis, the UN’s special coordinator for Lebanon, said the violence in Tripoli is yet another message to the political elites to form an effective government without further delay. 

Hospitals in Lebanon are now overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, reporting near full occupancy in intensive care-unit beds. Oxygen, ventilators and medicine are in short supply. Nearly 290,000 infections have been recorded since last February and 2,553 deaths amid record-breaking COVID-19 daily fatalities.

Lebanon’s ruling class has faced rising popular anger since protesters took to the streets in October 2019 in the largest-ever nationwide protests in the country. Demonstrators accused them of mismanaging and robbing the country of its resources and driving it into poverty. The protests later died down, in part because of the pandemic but also because the political class held on to power and divisions emerged among the demonstrators.