How Tripoli emerged as the epicentre of Lebanon's national crisis

How Tripoli emerged as the epicentre of Lebanon's national crisis
Fuelled by widespread anger at growing economic hardship and corruption, Tripoli is leading the way in Lebanon's new wave of protests.
6 min read
06 May, 2020
A mural reading 'We are tired' in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli. [Getty]
A new wave of unrest has rocked Lebanon's second-largest city Tripoli, fuelled by frustration over growing economic hardship due to the national currency depreciation and skyrocketing prices amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Protesters from around Lebanon rallied in Tripoli in solidarity on Sunday days after security forces killed one demonstrator, 26-year-old Fawaz Fouad al-Samman, and injured others in a violent crackdown.

Fatima al-Samman, the late Fawaz's sister, told The Daily Star at the rally: "The one percent is depriving all the poor people from their rights and of the opportunity to live a dignified life. They are the ones who killed Fawaz and are putting the security forces to work".

Protests against economic deterioration erupted in the northern city and spread to other Lebanese cities last week. Violent clashes broke out in Tripoli as army soldiers fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators who smashed and set banks on fire, which resulted in three consecutive nights of protests. 

Banks have been a focal point of street anger as Lebanese civilians have been unable to easily access their funds for months due to capital controls amid an unprecedented devaluation of the Lebanese pound, which has reached a record low of around 4,000 pounds to the US dollar.

The one percent is depriving all the poor people from their rights and of the opportunity to live a dignified life

The rate is increasing every day, causing rising inflation and eroding citizens' purchasing power. A lockdown to fight the novel Covid-19 pandemic has only made economic conditions worse in the country.

"Throughout the lockdown, people have been holding a grudge against the government because the situation has turned really bad," Loubaba El Wazir, a psychology student from Tripoli who has joined popular rallies regularly, told The New Arab.

"Many took to social media anticipating that a second wave of protests would come soon and take a violent turn". 

The 21-year-old said that, besides banks, homes of politicians were also targeted by protesters in the recent unrest in Lebanon's northern capital, citing demonstrations staged outside the residences of deputies such as former prime minister Najib Mikati and MP Faisal Karami, which quickly developed into violent scuffles with the army.

Read more: 'Coronavirus the least of our worries': Lebanese defy 
lockdown for second wave of protests

"This government has resorted to violence to clear the streets. We're only going to see it escalating if Lebanese elsewhere don't demonstrate as hard as in Tripoli," a local resident named Zeinab said, alluding to last week's brutal security crackdown. 

Natalie Rahid, 22, an architecture student and activist from the Tripoli area, has been helping with covering local protests and sharing media content on social networks since the early protests in autumn 2019.

She pointed out that the protest movement has become more radical in the current phase of the uprising since the government continues to ignore people's demands. 

"When the city's residents began to rise up again, they were saying 'we'd rather take to the streets and die from a virus than stay quiet at home and die from hunger'," the activist told The New Arab.

The recent sharp collapse of the local currency brought about further price hikes, and triggered small protests in the country despite the lockdown measures imposed by authorities to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

Read more: 'Starving is worse': Syrian refugees pushed to the edge of survival under Lebanon's lockdown

With a nation heavily dependent on imports, life has turned very expensive as the Lebanese pound dramatically weakened. 

Some Tripolitans say that food prices have doubled, while others have gone up four-fold. Rice increased from 2,000 LBP ($1.30) to 6,000 LBP ($4) per kilo; sugar now costs 4,000 LBP ($2.65) per kilo instead of 2,000 LBP ($1.30); cooking oil was before 8,000 LBP ($5.30) for two litres whereas it is now 20,000 LBP ($13.30), and lentils went up to 7,000 LBP ($4.60) from 2,000 LBP ($1.30). 

Living conditions have worsened to the point that people can hardly buy anything. They can't take it anymore

"This is the time to provide material support to increasingly desperate, impoverished and hungry majority of Lebanese all around the country," UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis tweeted in the aftermath of the events in Tripoli. 

El Wazir highlighted that, while during the first wave of uprising protesters were standing against the sectarian political elite, now it is "the poor economy" and "soaring prices" pushing them to the streets.

Read more: Lebanon's revolution is on hold but far from over 

"Living conditions have worsened to the point that people can hardly buy anything," she said. "They can't take it anymore". 

The student protester also mentioned that certain food items are either becoming unaffordable or are starting to disappear altogether from the local market. 

According to World Bank estimates, the current economic and financial crisis could put 45 percent of the Lebanese population under the poverty line and 22 percent in extreme poverty. 

Protests against the economic crisis erupted in Tripoli last week. [Firas Abdal/TNA]

The top 1 and 10 percent of the Lebanese adult population receive 25 and 55 percent of national income on average respectively, based on data collected between 2005 and 2014. Local daily Annahar claims that unemployment is now at 40 percent. 

A mainly Sunni Muslim port city, Tripoli is one of the country's most deprived areas, gripped by widespread unemployment and crippling poverty as high as 50 percent. 

The city was a central stage for nationwide demonstrations against Lebanon's ruling elite in October last year, driven by decades of corruption and mismanagement that have led the debt-ridden country to its worst economic crisis since the civil war.

Following the Covid-19 outbreak, the Lebanese government has been pursuing a strict containment strategy for weeks, but it has also come under criticism for mishandling its aid program for the poor.

A mainly Sunni Muslim port city, Tripoli is one of the country's most deprived areas, gripped by widespread unemployment and crippling poverty as high as 50 percent

Without the state securing financial assistance for the largest part of the population, strict coronavirus restrictions have further exacerbated the country's deep and long-running crisis amid layoffs, business closures, and thousands of people unable to work facing food insecurity. 

Citizens depending on daily earnings are the hardest hit by the halt in economic activity. 

"Most workers in Tripoli are day labourers. Quarantine orders have kept them out of work causing them great harm," Rahid said, emphasising that they are the most affected segment of society. 

"These people were the first to go back to the streets, they have nothing to lose anymore," the activist added. 

Read more: Lebanon's economic collapse: What happened?

Driven by widespread anger at ongoing government inefficiency and corruption, Tripolitans are determined not to keep quiet and continue their revolution. 'This is just the beginning' is what protesters are vowing these days, tired of being failed. 

Even in the midst of a health crisis, residents refuse to be locked down while the economic crisis is spiralling and the local currency is crashing, all of which is deepening their hunger and bringing more misery to their lives.

Lebanese authorities eased restrictions on Monday as restaurants and cafes partially reopened. To date, 741 Covid-19 cases and 25 deaths have been registered. 

The cabinet approved an economic reform plan last Thursday, aiming to unlock foreign aid, restructure the debt, and cut back on spending. Lebanon is seeking to obtain $10 billion in financial support, in addition to $11 billion in grants and loans pledged by international donors in 2018.

But the five-year austerity plan includes measures likely to be unpopular, such as a freeze on recruitment in the public sector. It has also been calculated according to an exchange rate of 3,500 pounds to the dollar.

With high inflation and a further contraction of the economy likely, the poorest sectors of society and the middle class will likely pay the price.  

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec