As Lebanon's Economy Worsens, Protests Turn More Violent

Jan 21, 2020
Originally published on January 21, 2020 8:15 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Lebanon, people are being told they can't take their own money out of banks, even as prices for everyday items are going up. Now, this is a country that had a stable middle class. But at this point, the situation is being compared to the Great Depression, and people are protesting. NPR's Deborah Amos brought us this from Beirut.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The first signs of the crisis came when businesses started closing down. Then many malls shuttered right before Christmas, says 32-year-old Mere-Eye Jaroush in her stainless steel kitchen designed by her husband, a civil engineer. Now the creditors are calling.

MERE-EYE JAROUSH: They're saying, we are just reminding you about your payments. If you can please pass by the bank, we are always here. You can find us at this branch or whatever. And you'll be like, OK, but I don't have money.

AMOS: Her husband, Juliano Juma, lost his job two weeks ago. They thought they could hold on - young and ambitious, financially secure enough to have a baby 18 months ago. Then Jaroush, a physical therapist, got her notice, too.

JAROUSH: So I'm going to be also released from work, just like my husband.

AMOS: That's both of you.

JULIANO JUMA: Yeah.

JAROUSH: Yes. Every day we have something just going down, like a big snowball, and taking everything away with it.

AMOS: Everything means rising food prices and shortages, including electricity and hot water. Jaroush, a new mother, has had to make hard spending choices.

JAROUSH: I have - like, vaccines for my baby, I was postponing it because we need money to eat, not to put on the health.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

AMOS: There are already critical shortages of medical supplies. Hospitals have cut nonessential surgeries. Doctors stage sit-ins to warn that cancer drugs will run out in a month's time because hospitals are short of dollars to pay suppliers abroad.

JUMA: (Non-English language spoken).

JAROUSH: (Laughter).

AMOS: What's the English word for diapers? - her husband asks.

JUMA: If I want to get him some diapers, I have to travel all over Lebanon and get them for double of their prices.

AMOS: Do you think, at some moment, that the economy will collapse here?

JAROUSH: It already collapsed.

JUMA: We already collapsed.

(LAUGHTER)

AMOS: You think it already collapsed?

JUMA: Yeah, of course.

JAROUSH: Yeah, it - like, very high prices. People are getting kicked out of their houses. We are already inside the crisis.

AMOS: So you feel like you've gone over the cliff?

JUMA: Yeah. This is the worst time Lebanon has gone through.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

AMOS: The protests, peaceful for months, have become more violent in recent days. Scores were injured over the weekend as riot police used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to stop thousands from protesting in front of the Parliament building. The protesters' demand for a new government - a crisis plan - has gone unanswered, as the power of the streets runs up against the entrenched power of a political system that depends on bribery and patronage and won't give it up, says Mona Fawaz, a professor and an organizer of protests.

MONA FAWAZ: I think it's a game of their own survival. And I don't think they realize how urgent things are. It's almost as if they live on another planet. They're really very dissociated from the hardship that people are experiencing in the everyday.

AMOS: Hardships now documented. The World Bank warns that Lebanon's poverty rate may rise from one-third to half of the population if the crisis isn't addressed quickly. The country's middle class is at risk, says Fawaz, with job loss among the educated now at 35%.

FAWAZ: I think one of the worst conclusions or consequences of this crisis will be a massive outflow of educated people - people who are fantastic, who have incredible capabilities, could really invest in this country but are unable to demonstrate or find the space or a way to do it and for whom living here is becoming harder and harder.

AMOS: Living is hard for just about everyone now, as banks have imposed currency controls. A limit on weekly withdrawals is driving anxiety and anger. At 79, Ramsey, who only wants his first name broadcast, comes every week on his walker to collect a small sum.

RAMSEY: Yeah. The limits they allow, I got them.

AMOS: Are all of your savings in this bank?

RAMSEY: Yeah. I get sleepless nights. Anyway, I'm not optimistic. Things look very bleak.

AMOS: Do you support the protesters?

RAMSEY: Yes. Yes, I do.

AMOS: But the early days of hope for change are giving way to fears that the political class won't budge. And the economic pain is likely to get much worse.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.