Banks in Beirut: How the Lebanese banks stoked public anger through the pandemic

The absence of proper public services, the closeness of state and business, the extreme inequality of the elite against the population, and the influence of global capital, are all contributing factors to the current protests.

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Anti-government protesters break a bank security camera during ongoing protests against the Lebanese central bank's governor and against the deepening financial crisis, at Hamra trade street, in Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

On 4 August 2020, two explosions occurred in the port area of Beirut Lebanon, killing nearly 200 people, injuring thousands more, and leaving nearly 3,00,000 people homeless. The explosion came from an abandoned ship, the MV Rhosus, which contained nearly 3000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. The explosion has been called one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in human history.

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The crater at Beirut port this morning where the explosion took place( Twitter)

The MV Rhosus was an abandoned ship confiscated by the Lebanese government in 2014. The reasons for its abandonment are unclear, but the original owner claimed bankruptcy, and the ship was considered unfit for sailing. Lebanon state did not use proper safety protocol, effectively leaving a large live bomb on its port.

Immediately after the explosion, protests erupted in Beirut. These protests are a continuation of the protests from last year, where people have expressed anger at the political elite of the country, which they accuse of looting their country. These protests seem to have erupted in anger immediately following the explosions with many people on the ground have been saying that the initial protests were very violent.

Lebanon PM announced the resignation of the government

As a result of the protests, the Prime Minister, Hassan Diab declared two weeks of emergency. He then resigned on 10 August 2020 and will remain as a caretaker Prime Minister until a new government is formed. Many other ministers also resigned.

Hariri’s resignation had not ebbed the protests. Protesters have said that their protests target not just a particular party, but the constitution of Lebanon itself.

To understand, it is important to look at the financial system in Lebanon.

From its partition from Syria, Lebanon has always held a strategic position for Western powers in the Middle East. Originally it was carved out to be a nation for the Urban Christian Maronite community in western Syria but has been at the crossroads of the western powers, reunification movements with Syria and hostility between other countries, including Isreal, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia. Following a 15 year civil war that ended in 1990, Lebanon adopted a constitution that promoted a free market, to protect the business interests of western powers and their allies.

Since 1990, Lebanon adopted a constitution that promoted a free market, to protect the business interests of western powers and their allies. Protesters have said that their protests target not just a particular party, but the constitution of Lebanon itself.

While the Banque du Liban, Lebanon’s central bank, has fixed the Lebanese Pound to LP 1500 to the USD or 20 LP to the INR almost consistently, the amount of foreign currency reserve has been consistently low. A lot of foreign currency circulates in the economy, and the bank gets a lot of foreign currency from savings. The country has a huge black market, which many members of the Lebanese elite have been able to profit from. The divide between the ultra-rich and other people in Lebanon is one of the starkest in Asia.

For most of the country, this has led to an association of power with corruption by the rich, the state and other parts of the establishment. Those with political connections they manipulate the system in a way that suits them. The vast majority of the country is forced to pay high taxes to keep the government going. The protests last year, famously called the WhatsApp protests, were sparked by the imposition of taxes on WhatsApp calls.

Like many other countries in the Middle East, the structure of the state has been constructed under the influence of foreign powers to promote a certain kind of politics. The parties in Lebanon can be divided into two, one is supported by the United States, and Saudi Arabia and the other is supported by Iran and Syria.

The absence of proper public services, the closeness of state and business, the extreme inequality of the elite against the population and the influence of global capital, are all contributing factors to the current protests. Protesters have long understood that any alliance with a political party, a foreign country or any other member of the elite would delegitimize their movement. This can be a trying time for a movement. When protests become reduced to expressing dissent to the current status quo, the ability to imagine and chart a future path stops.

Who are these protesters?

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Lebanese anti-government protesters on May 1, 2020, marking International Workers’ Day (Labour Day). PC: AP

It is important to look at the class nature of the protesters that are there. Most of the protesters come from the Lebanese Middle class. The Middle class of Lebanon has long been in a very precarious state. Unlike immigrants and refugees from Syria, which are incredibly poor and have to live in dire poverty within the country consistently, the Middle class has bounced in and out of poverty based on the global economy. In many ways, they feel the crisis with a mix of good days and bad. Their frustration is as much about precarity as it is about poverty. Lebanon, in terms of economic inequality, ranks as one of the worst countries in the world where the top 1% and the top 10% of almost exclusive control over the nation’s wealth.

This means that in times of economic crisis when banks start defaulting and this class starts losing their savings. Already at the beginning of 2020, banks limited withdrawals to only to about LP 2,00,000 per week (Rs. 10,000) and only LP 6,00,000 per month (Rs. 30,000), citing fear of capital flight. The cost of living in Lebanon is around twice that of India. The limit was challenged as being illegal and the restrictions were eased, but almost immediately, the COVID 19 Pandemic made matters worse. A nationwide lockdown that began 15 March and ended 26 April hurt the local economy making people reliant on their savings.

The exorbitant wealth of the elite, which is very visually obvious in the city of Beirut. We should note here that the area around the city of Beirut constitutes nearly a third of the country’s population.

It is usually the vast majority of the people that lose out. There’s a substantial portion of the Lebanese people who circle the poverty rate, and it’s not to say that they are always close to being impoverished, but given the wide economic fluctuations that the country has seen over the past few decades. They also complain that there are few public services to help them out, and there is also a lot of corruption. This is a very precarious population. This includes many small business owners who may have difficulty making ends meet, and are very much at the mercy of the broad economy. Recently, owing to the economic problems suffered worldwide. The Lebanese pound plummeted, leading to a large flight of capital from Lebanon, something that the government has not been able to control.

On the other side, there is a substantial portion of Lebanon’s working class, which include Syrian refugees and other working immigrants who do not have space in these protests.

Lebanon’s debt adds a complication to matters, as it gives western powers a string to pull in times of largescale change. There is some pressure coming in on getting Lebanon to take up the American Dollar, as a way to combat inflation, debt, and a flagging economy. This will further the problems Lebanon has had in provisioning public services and controlling the financial sector of the economy. Given the class composition of the Lebanese protests, there does not seem to be a strong source of resistance to these pushes.

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