Photo: Reuters

Lebanese rage over PM appointment

Lebanon is home to the Arab world’s biggest proportion of Christians. This holiday season is bringing more pain than joy for many, and the hardship can be felt everywhere from shopping malls to streets that are shining less bright this Christmas season.

The country’s new Prime Minister Hassan Diab has begun consultations that will determine his future coalition, following his controversial appointment largely through support of the heavily armed Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most influential group and its allies in the parliament. His first task will be to tackle the country’s worst economic and financial crisis in decades that has sparked nationwide protests.

Communities have been forced to take drastic measures. Next to Beirut’s central Martyr’s Square on Christmas Eve, a group of volunteers offered free meals featuring Manoushe, a flat bread with toppings, to passersby. One of the volunteers, identified as Kerem, told Reuters, “The idea started after a man committed suicide because he couldn’t afford 1,000 Lebanese pounds to buy his daughter Manoushe. We don’t want others to do the same, so we started giving it away free of charge.”

Nearly a third of the population is now living below the poverty line. High unemployment and reduced pensions are fueling rage in the streets. “People are angry,” said the leader of the Jdeideh municipality, Raymond Atieh. He explained a lack of enthusiasm for Christmas decorations this holiday season, saying, “People are getting fired, paid half-salaries or not working at all. The social situation is so bad that you have to think twice about spending money on aesthetics.”

Once bustling streets are now quiet as many stores and cafes have closed their doors. Paul’s Restaurant, on Beirut’s popular Gemmeyze street, still attracts some clients, but certainly not the numbers it used to. According to the venue’s operations manager Celcelia Sfeir, there has been an 80% drop in business since last year. She said that seven branches were forced to close down for three weeks during the recent wave of mass protest sweeping the nation, which she referred to as “the revolution.”

Nationwide protests have been raging since October with demonstrators demanding a complete eradication of corruption and nepotism among the ruling elite, they hold accountable for the country’s $86.2 billion debt. Lebanon has the third highest debt to the GDP ratio in the world.

Attacks on Lebanon’s banks have been common, which many activists hold responsible for the collapse of the national economy. Following an imposition of capital controls, some accuse the banks of holding their money ‘hostage.” “Our money at the banks are being hijacked, literally hijacked,” said economist Kamil Wazne. “When you are dealing with people’s money, you are dealing with something more important than their lives – and now, that trust has broken, and it’s not going to be repaired anytime soon,” he said.

The Lebanese pound has lost roughly 30% of its value against the U.S. dollar on the local black market, as a shortage of the U.S. currency compelled banks to limit weekly withdrawals to a maximum $300. The current exchange rate between the U.S. dollar to the Lebanese pound stands at one to 1,505.5.

Lebanon’s central bank has also ordered branches nationwide to cut interest rates on both foreign and domestic currencies, which lead to a warning from ratings agency Fitch and Moody’s of a further deterioration in the status of Lebanon’s top banks.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri unveiled an economic reform package in October in a hope the measure would elicit $11 billion in funds from international donors, that has yet to materialize. He resigned at the end of that month after this and other recovery programs failed to mollify protests, which initially erupted over tax increases on October 17 and then rapidly expanded to wider grievances over the deteriorating economic situation.

For now, the entire banking sector remains frozen until Lebanon’s new Prime Minister Hassan Diab, former Education Minister (2011-2014) forms a new government and attempts to rebuild confidence in the country’s banking sector.

President Michel Aoun controversially designated Diab as the country’s next leader on 19 December. Sectarian tensions in the already deeply-divided nation were further accentuated when the 60-year-old professor at the American University of Beirut was elected by a 69 to 128 vote count – predominantly from the pro-Syrian bloc led by the powerful, Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Troops fired tear gas in Beirut the following day (December 20) to disperse hundreds of youths who were protesting against Diab’s designation. Thousands more gathered at the Martyrs and Riad Al Solh Square in the Lebanese capital on Sunday (December 22), in continued opposition to the appointment. Activists carrying Lebanese flags marched to the parliament building while shouting anti-government slogans. Others threw rocks and shot fireworks at the soldiers during clashes in the streets of the Corniche al Mazzraa district, where fires were ignited after tires were set aflame.

Rafi Tabakian’s clothing store in the Burj Hammoud commercial hub of Beirut is usually packed with customers during the holiday season, but shoppers are in short supply with Lebanon’s economy in ruins. Tabakian, who has been in business for 30 years, says sales dropped 80% in December alone despite a major cut in prices. “We see customers entering, asking the cost and then leaving,” he said. “God help them really. For me personally I am doing my best not to make them (customers) feel like they are less, I prefer to sell them on credit rather than not. I am not supposed to make my children go through the same pain that we went through (when we were children ourselves) but this is what I have ended up doing,” he added.

The worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war has also significantly affected the travel industry. Hotel bookings, flights and events have plunged during what is usually a busy commercial season, as many from Lebanon’s large diaspora normally return home for the holidays. Head of the national hotel association, Pierre Ashkar, said December bookings have plummeted from the usual 65-75% occupancy rates to just 7-15% this year.

Charbel Daccache, a priest in Mount Lebanon’s largely Christian town of Adma, said it is better to help feed the poor in tough times “than to decorate and throw glitter.” And even though holiday celebrations are certain to be muted this year, the clergyman nevertheless urged hope, saying, ”It’s not the end of days. Some days are harsh, others are better. People should remain vigilant during the harsh days, and never give up.” Adding, “We don’t want to lose hope. We should not spend the holidays in sadness,” he reminded his community, “This is a celebration of happiness.”