Lebanese take to the streets as currency hits a new low

BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of Lebanese poured into the streets to protest the tumbling of the national currency to a new low against the dollar Thursday, blocking roads and highways in several places across the small country that had started slowly opening up after months of coronavirus restrictions.

In Beirut and other cities, protesters burned tires and wood and chanted against government officials to protest the economic crisis while waving the Lebanese flags. Shortly after midnight, growing numbers of protesters advanced in central Beirut pelting police and soldiers with rocks, while drawing volleys of tear gas. Some protesters threw stones at offices of private banks in an expression of anger at their perceived role in deepening their economic malaise.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab cancelled his scheduled meetings for Friday and called for an emergency session to discuss the financial crisis. The governor of the central bank urged foreign exchange bureaus to stick to the rate he had ordered.

Despite efforts to control the currency depreciation in recent weeks, the Lebanese pound tumbled to more than 6,000 to the dollar on Thursday, down from 4,000 on the black market in recent days. The pound had maintained a fixed rate of 1,500 to the dollar for nearly 30 years.

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The crash appeared to reflect the growing shortage of foreign currency on the market amid the crisis . It also signaled panic over new U.S. sanctions that will affect neighboring Syria in the coming days as well as lack of trust in the government’s management of the crisis.

The heavily indebted Lebanese government has been in talks for weeks with the International Monetary Fund after it asked for a financial rescue plan but there are no signs of an imminent deal.

By late Thursday, hundreds of protesters poured into the streets of the capital, Beirut, blocking main intersections in various districts. In Beirut, some demonstrators drove on motorcycles by the central bank while others gathered at the downtown center of the anti-government protests that had lasted for months before coronavirus restrictions prompted authorities to break up their encampment. Protesters gathered in the southern city of Nabatiyeh and other cities in Lebanon.

“We tell everyone, come down to the streets. … What are you waiting for to take to the streets to say this government has not been able to do anything,” said Ali Abbas, a Beirut protester. “This government must fall … and we must have a true independent government.”

Tensions grew late into the night, with clashes erupting in central Beirut. Demonstrators threw rocks at soldiers and police, and security forces responded with tear gas in an effort to disperse the crowd, but protester numbers continued to increase in the early hours of Friday.

As numbers swelled, demonstrators directed their rage at financial institutions — some pelting private banks with rocks. Videos posted online showed protesters throwing stones at bank branches in the southern city of Nabatiyeh and in Tripoli and Akkar in northern Lebanon, breaking their glass exteriors. Fire raged in at least one empty branch of a private bank in downtown Beirut.

Lebanon’s financial crisis predates the coronavirus pandemic that saw the country in a total lockdown for months. Years of corruption and mismanagement have left the tiny Mediterranean country with depleted resources, while shrinking investment in the war-riddled region and falling remittances from Lebanese abroad only increased the shortage of foreign capital.

Nationwide protests broke out in October, forcing the government to resign. The new government, sworn in at the start of 2020, had put together a reform program, decided to default on Lebanon’s sovereign debts and began talks with the IMF.

But Lebanon’s economy is also closely tied to the country’s complex sectarian politics, where jockeying for power is often mired in regional politics. The Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group is dominant in the government and parliament and is already facing U.S. sanctions.

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Associated Press writer Fadi Tawil in Beirut contributed to this report.

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