Sunday May 08, 2022

80% of Lebanese live below poverty line

80% of Lebanese live below poverty line

A Lebanese expat poses with a flag after casting a vote in Lebanon’s parliamentary election at the Lebanese embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 6. Reuters

Few Lebanese believe next Sunday’s parliamentary election will install enough reformers in the 128-member national assembly to effect change and save the country from the downward slide which began nearly four years ago and inspired six months of revolutionary discontent. On October 17th, 2019, hundreds of Lebanese gathered in downtown Beirut to demonstrate against their country’s parlous economic situation following the government’s heavy-handed imposition of a tax on WhatsApp calls to restore the depleted coffers of the state, ushering in the “WhatsApp Revolution.” Although the government promptly revoked the tax, it was too little, too late.

On the 18th, tens of thousands of angry men, women and children poured into the capital’s “Bank Street” and central Riyadh Solh Square while youths, many wearing surgical masks, roamed Beirut’s streets on mopeds, set up barricades, burned rubbish, and called for mass revolt. They chanted the slogan of the 2011 Egyptian uprising, “As-shab yurid isqat an-nizam!” (“The people demand the fall of the regime.”) The revolutionaries were rowdy, cheerful, celebratory and largely peaceful.  They believed the entrenched political class had no choice but to listen to their voices.

Hundreds of thousands joined the “revolution” in Tripoli, Sidon, Tyre and villages around the country but their demands fell on deaf ears. The regime remained and has been accused by the World Bank of inflicting on Lebanon a “deliberate depression,” thereby causing “one of the top ten, possibly top three most severe economic collapses worldwide since the 1850s [which] has come to threaten the country’s long term stability and social peace.”

Since the heady days of 2019 when Lebanese were buoyed with hope, Covid has locked down protests and Lebanon has had three prime ministers but no reforms. The currency has lost 90 per cent of its value, causing the inflation rate to soar from 10.4 per cent in 2019 to 239.68 per cent in January 2022 — but then to retreat to 208 per cent in March. Due to a shortage of hard currency in the banking sector, no matter how many accounts he or she has, a depositor can withdraw only $400 month in dollars and the equivalent of $400 in Lebanese pounds. There are no restrictions on “fresh dollars” received after October 17th, 2019, revolution day. This has eased the financial squeeze for the thousands of Lebanese who received remittances from abroad but not for those who do not. The formerly self-supporting middle class struggles to remain afloat.

Eighty per cent of Lebanese now live below the poverty line. Food prices rose by 628 per cent from October 2019 to October 2021 and have soared since Russia invaded Ukraine as Lebanon depends on these two countries for its supplies of grain and sunflower oil. Nearly half the population is hungry. Due to the wheat shortage, the government was forced in mid-April to provide $15.3 million in credit to importers to guarantee bread supplies. But this was set to last only a few weeks.

Thanks to the sharp increase in the price of oil, the price of fuel in Lebanon has increased by more than a third since the Ukraine war. Power provided by the government is fitful and diesel for generators is in short supply and expensive. The electricity situation is so serious that the government has allocated $16 million to the Electricite du Liban to provide power for half a day during voting on May 15th. The company may have to rely on private generators for the rest of the day and for counting during the night after the polls close.

Deterioration of the water distribution system and the lack of power has contributed to a shortage of potable water for more than 70 per cent of Lebanese. The water infrastructure is on the brink of collapse.  Many Lebanese families, businesses, and manufacturers depend on water provided by private firms and delivered by lorry, boosting the cost of water beyond the budget of the poor.

During second Lebanon’s civil war (1975-90), thousands of its citizens emigrated to the US, Europe, Australia and the Gulf states but since the failed revolution, young people have been going to Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and Serbia as well as traditional destinations.  During the first year after the uprising, 17,700 Lebanese went abroad to find work and live. The massive explosion of ammonium nitrate at Beirut port in August 2020 which killed 219, wounded 6,000 and rendered 300,000 homeless provided impetus for the exodus. The number of those leaving rose to 65,000 through December 2021, researcher Mohammed Shams al-Din told Al-Monitor. Others put the figure at 77,000.  

According to Annie Aznavourian, Armenia was added to the list of destinations where conditions are favourable for Armenian and non-Armenian immigrants. Universities in Armenia and Georgia are attracting Lebanese students since tuition fees are much lower than in Lebanon. A disproportionate number of the emigrees are medical personnel. The World Health Organisation estimates that 40 per cent of doctors and 30 per cent of nurses have departed, stripping the country’s already stressed health system of personnel. Doctors and nurses easily find good jobs at decent wages in countries where they settle.

Professionals of all types are also leaving, creating what Foreign Policy dubbed a “terminal brain drain.” After requests for passports reached 8,000 daily, the issuing office limited the number and, recently, suspended the process as booklets are out of stock because the government failed to pay the company producing the travel documents.

Small numbers of desperate Lebanese have joined Syrians and others in dangerously overcrowded boats in attempts to sail to Cyprus or Turkey with the aim of reaching Europe. Fearing a fresh influx of migrants, Cyprus reached an agreement with Lebanon to force the smugglers’ boats to turn back before they reach the island. There have been fatalities. Meanwhile, several thousand prosperous Lebanese have, once again, come to the island to settle, establish businesses and send their children to school.

This, the “second wave,” began after the Beirut port blast and continues as the situation in Lebanon deteriorates.  The “first wave” took place during the civil war when between 70-100,000 sought refuge in Cyprus, the majority in the port city of Limassol where schools were opened for Lebanese children. The Cypriot parliament adopted a law giving preferential tax rates to companies formerly based in Lebanon and cut red tape for those registering. While most of the “first wave” war migrants left when the war ended, some remained and became Cypriot citizens. “Second wave” economic migrants are likely to wait to see if Lebanon’s ship of state will sink or sail.  

    

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