Global Affairs

Rising food costs in Lebanon spark riots

Thousands of protesters across Lebanon blocked roads and marched through the streets as a response to rising food prices and to the lira’s rapid devaluation. The demonstrations that broke out quickly turned into riots as the protesters vandalizing and setting banks on fire. Tripoli saw the largest number of protests last Monday, amid claims that it is “one of the most neglected regions in Lebanon”.

Banks have been a frequent target of attacks since the economic crisis began last October. This is due to widespread anger among people who were left unable to access their savings as the local lira collapsed against the US dollar and prices consequently soared. Banks have been limiting withdrawals of the lira for the past six months and have cut out withdrawals of foreign currencies entirely.

One man died as a result of the violent clashes, his sister claiming that he died after being shot by Lebanese soldiers. The army has admitted to the use of live fire, but claimed that they shot in the air, and not at protesters. They claimed that they only used tear gas and rubber-coated bullets on demonstrators.

The Red Cross reported it was working on evacuating people in Tripoli. The organisation said its paramedics treated 22 people on the spot, and transported 4 people to hospitals.

The Lebanese army has reported 54 wounded soldiers, with 40 troops injured in Tripoli alone. The army stresses that even though it respects people’s rights to protests, it “will never tolerate any violation of security”.

Molotov cocktails have been used by protesters across the country with an army vehicle being set alight using Molotov cocktails in Tripoli. A further five Molotov cocktails have been thrown at least at five banks. In Southern Sidon, protesters were filmed outside of a branch of the Central Bank, chanting “Molotov, Molotov, instead of a candle, Molotov”.

The protests began as largely peaceful demonstrations last October as the Lebanese people called for political change and an end to corruption. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus made an already severe economic crisis become “the worst crisis to hit Lebanon since the end of its 1975-90 civil war”. The protests resumed two weeks ago after the government started easing the weeks-long lockdown.

The protests led to road closures that prevented some medical teams from conducting coronavirus tests across the country. The Health Ministry urged protesters to let paramedics work, as this step is crucial to evaluating the extent of the virus’s spread.

Locals are demanding an overhaul of the entire Lebanese political system, coupled with the formation of an independent, non-sectarian cabinet. They are also hoping to see an end to government corruption more generally.

George Ghanem, a protester from Zouk Mosbeh, has said that “our demands are simple and we are not asking for the impossible”, citing the need for early parliamentary elections and an independent judiciary.

“We want to live in dignity … we will continue and no one will remove us from the street”, he added.

Another protester held a placard reading: “My salary buys me two cartons of milk”.

Abdelaziz Sarkousi, another protester, said that “what you’re seeing is a result of accumulated problems. We had a revolution, people were suffering, then came the coronavirus and people were locked in their homes for a month and a half without the state securing food and drinks or anything else for them. Now we have reached a state where unfortunately you cannot control people anymore. People are hungry!”

As Lebanon’s local currency crashes, food prices soar. The Lebanese lira hit a new record last week, with 4,000 lire to the dollar on the black market, despite the fact that the official price remained fixed at 1,507 lira to the dollar. This has led millions of people to lose more than half the value of their salaries and savings.

It is important to note that imported food accounts for around 80% of Lebanon’s food supply, which makes any devaluation of the lira potentially problematic. Currently, some products have almost doubled in price. This surge in prices has also affected locally-produced goods, as they might have an imported component, such as packaging.

The Lebanese government has officially signed a request for assistance from the IMF as part of a plan to save the country from bankruptcy. Despite this apparent step forward, protests have continued to wreak havoc across the country.

Hong Kong is facing similar inflation in the prices of food and other basic goods and, as a result, the newly jobless are turning to the help of charities. The situation is similar to that of Mexico, where rising food prices, coupled with newly-lost incomes as a result of the lockdown, are making life increasingly difficult for many people.

Food prices are rising across the world as a product of disrupted supply chains, falling currencies, and limits on key exports. The currencies of many other countries, including Mexico, Brazil, India and Indonesia have plummeted in the past few weeks. This again is a crucial issue for imported food as global food prices are set in dollars.

Russia, a top wheat exporter, is limiting exports of the grain to ensure that it has enough for the country’s own people. However, this action is contributing to rising wheat prices worldwide.

The World Food Program’s executive director, David Beasley, has claimed that the coronavirus sparked “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II”, adding that a famine is a “very real and dangerous possibility”. Analysis carried out by the WFP shows that the coronavirus crisis may cause an additional 130 million people to be pushed “to the brink of starvation” by the end of this year.

The UN food relief agency has warned the Security Council that the world is facing “a global health pandemic but also a humanitarian catastrophe”.

The WFP chief has asked the Security Council for help in dealing with this humanitarian emergency. The food relief agency has asked for the provision of access to vulnerable communities and coordinated action to support life-saving assistance. The WFP has also asked the Security Council for $350 million in funding, which would be used to set up a “network of logistic hubs and transport systems to keep the worldwide humanitarian supply chains moving.”

The UN’s 2020 Report on Food Crisis points to a clear link between rising levels of food insecurity and conflict, explaining how the rise in food prices coincide with the rise of protests in Lebanon.

Ana Silvia Gheorghe

Ana is a Global Affairs Editor for the Oxford Blue for the summer vacation and Michaelmas 2020. She is going into her third year studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St Edmund Hall.