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Specter of civil conflict in Lebanon looms as economic meltdown gives way to violence

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Hellish scenes threaten to get worse.

Increasingly, Lebanese officials and politicians are raising the specter of internal conflict. That comes just 31 years after the end of the country’s terrible 15-year civil war. This black chapter ended with a modus vivendi that critics say systematized government corruption, culminating in a financial collapse that has once again pushed Lebanon to the brink.

In a statement to CNN this week, Lebanon’s interim minister Mohammed Fahmi said there was a higher likelihood of “security breaches such as explosions and assassination attempts” in the country.

This fear is echoed by many well-known politicians who cite conversations with intelligence agents. In a televised speech on Wednesday, Hezbollah’s secretary general, backed by Iran, backed Hassan Nasrallah he also warned of the civil war, made a bleak forecast of the security situation, and called on the country’s fractured political class to come together to thwart the financial downturn.

But on the streets of Lebanon, this same political elite is overwhelmingly unpopular. Even ardent supporters of conventional parties are calling for a review of the country’s denominational power-sharing system, which allocates seats per sectarian group. Deputies publicly admit their failures, and some of them say they should leave office too. Left-wing groups, such as the Communist Party, have called for an “escalation” of the country’s popular uprising, which began in October 2019 with the aim of overthrowing the ruling class.

President Michel Aoun (L) meets with Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri at the presidential palace on March 18.
But there is little or no agreement on the future of governance in the country. A cabinet formation process has been at a standstill for four months over disputes between them Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and President Michel Aoun. Hariri has promised that his future government will stop the collapse of Lebanon and get back involved with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which last year stopped negotiations with the government on a bailout.
But Hariri faces the grueling task of initiating spicy economic reforms at a time when his popular mandate has dwindled greatly. The incipient parties that have it emerged in recent years to try to replace the elite they also seem to lack the political influence needed to move away from the status quo.
This leadership crisis has exacerbated Lebanon’s financial problems on a spectacular scale. On his Fall 2020 Report, the World Bank called Lebanon’s economic depression “deliberate.”

The report details exactly what this means: a rapid slowdown in economic growth, a closed currency, small depositors who bear most of the economic losses, an impressive depletion of the country’s resources, including human capital, and a rate of poverty exceeding 50% in 2021.

A woman and her daughter begging at the Hamra Street commercial in Beirut on March 16, Tuesday, March 16, 2021. More than half of the population now lives in poverty.
An army official pushed back protesters trying to break down a bank door during a protest demanding local banks allow their money to be withdrawn on 26 February.

According to the World Bank, the catastrophe could have been largely avoided. Lebanese leaders have avoided, even for some of the most cynical observers, adopting policies that could mitigate the financial decline.

The state has done little or nothing to alleviate poverty. No formal capital controls have been implemented for almost a year and a half after banks began limiting cash withdrawals to depositors in a discretionary manner. That practice which provoked the flight of capital from the super-rich, while the working and middle classes watched their deposits helplessly, losing most of their real value.

The country also does not have an official exchange rate platform, leaving the fall of the lira at the mercy of the shady black markets and the ever-present possibility of currency manipulation.

The buildings are glimpsed in the dark during a blackout in Beirut on July 5, 2020.

The economic outlook is becoming more bleak almost daily. The country’s currency on the black market has now lost 90% of its value in October 2019. As Lebanon burns through its foreign reserves, the interim Minister of Energy, Raymond Ghajar, raised this month the possibility of electrical outages 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, plunging the country into “total darkness.”

Food, fuel and medicine subsidies that served as the country’s lifeline can also soon disappear. This week, caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab he said Lebanon would reduce these subsidies and added that most could only be maintained until June.

The loss of subsidies could be the most important moment that will threaten to incline Lebanon into similar scenarios in Venezuela, and aggravate the lack of food, fuel and medical care.

Families living on a minimum wage (now less than $ 50 a month) will not be able to afford staple foods as inflation skyrockets. The already forced security forces, which have to contend with the frustrations of their new level of impoverishment, will have to deal with rising crime rates and the possibility of political tensions spreading in the long run.

The only light of hope is the possibility of an imminent political resolution that in turn will produce efficient and effective government. But for most who are familiar with the largely elite record of the political elite, this seems like a pipe dream. In the absence of leadership, the economy could continue to move toward the unknown.

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