Lebanon's Tripoli beset by protests, poverty

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

Lebanese protestors converge on Tripoli's al-Nour Square to protest economic conditions and corruption. [Muhammad Fathi/Al-Mashareq]

Lebanese protestors converge on Tripoli's al-Nour Square to protest economic conditions and corruption. [Muhammad Fathi/Al-Mashareq]

The northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, already one of the country's poorest, has been especially hard hit by the double impact of the financial crisis and the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

As living conditions worsen, many of the city's roughly 730,000 residents have been taking to the streets to participate in daily protests.

"We have reached a point where we no longer care about the coronavirus as much as we seek to secure a loaf of bread to satisfy the hunger of our children," Tripoli native and former coffee cart vendor Adel al-Sarraj told Al-Mashareq.

Al-Sarraj, who was forced to sell his cart to buy food for his five children and medicine for his mother, has been camped out at the city's al-Nour Square, where protestors have converged to protest government corruption.

"We are all today searching for a loaf of bread, food, electricity and medical care, but have no money because we lost our jobs," he said, adding that Tripoli is "boiling because of the continued deterioration of the economic situation".

The dollar shortage has sparked inflation, triggering a rise in the price of basic food items, he said, noting that the price of a bundle of bread has risen from 1,500 Lebanese pounds ($1) to 2,000 ($1.33).

Threat of 'extreme poverty'

Across Lebanon, the situation is not much better.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on July 10th warned that the country's economic crisis was getting out of hand, AFP reported.

She called for urgent internal reforms and international support to prevent further mayhem, warning that vulnerable populations are threatened with extreme poverty.

"This situation is fast spiralling out of control, with many already destitute and facing starvation as a direct result of this crisis," she said. "The alarm has been sounded, and we must respond immediately before it is too late."

Tens of thousands of Lebanese have lost their jobs or part of their salaries, while a crippling dollar shortage has sparked spiraling inflation.

Bachelet said an unemployment crisis would propel poverty and indebtedness with "grave implications" in a country with fragile social nets.

She said vulnerable Lebanese, along with 1.7 million refugees, were increasingly unable to meet their basic needs, as were 250,000 migrant workers, many of whom have lost their jobs or been left homeless.

Many blame the current crisis on Hizbullah, which dominates the country's political life, and whose direct and indirect involvement in regional wars to serve Iran's agenda has hindered the establishment of a stable and thriving state in Lebanon.

As a result, Arab and Western assistance has been suspended and economic co-operation between Lebanon and other partners has been restricted.

Growing demand for help

In Tripoli, meanwhile, "poverty is growing at an alarming rate", said Rawiya Ghandour, who heads the Tripoli branch of the Ajialouna (Our Generations) charity.

As a result of the current crisis in Lebanon, she told Al-Mashareq, "the middle class has become poor and the affluent class has become the middle class".

"We see this deterioration in the growing demand for food and medical assistance we provide," she said.

Poverty in Tripoli was "deeply rooted" before the outbreak of protests and the coronavirus crisis, which only served to exacerbate the situation, said Mohammed Murad, president of the Tripoli and North Lebanon Bar Association.

He told Al-Mashareq that chronic poverty in the city can be attributed to "burgeoning unemployment among young men and women due to the lack of employment opportunities in the public and private sectors".

Unemployment rates have reached 70% in Tripoli, he said, pointing out that this has been fueled by a lack of investment and production projects.

Lebanon is at risk of a massive collapse, he added, stressing that the risk is "accelerating by the day with the decline in the exchange rate value of the pound against the dollar".

"As the situation worsens, it will become more suffocating for people, because the belt of poverty and hunger is expanding in Tripoli," Murad said.

Mounting anger in Tripoli

Tripoli residents have faced "deteriorating economic conditions and lack of job opportunities for a long time", said Ahmed al-Obeid, a leader of the "Revolution of the Deprived" movement that formed the nucleus of the Tripoli protests.

"Today we are witnessing a tragic situation, to the point that some families are bartering a bundle of bread and clothes for milk for their children," he told Al-Mashareq.

According to activist Linda Makari, poverty "is spreading at a striking rate in Tripoli, due to the decline in the exchange rate of the pound, power outages and severe shortage of food supplies".

Anger is growing among city residents, she told Al-Mashareq, as the vast majority of them now live below the poverty line.

This anger is further fueled, she added, when Tripoli residents see trucks smuggling raw materials, food and fuel to Syria, even as they go hungry.

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