Lebanon, it seems, is close to political and economic paralysis. Rampant corruption, poor health care, and soaring unemployment have turned the country into a powder keg. Anchal Vohra reports from Beirut.
Barely a week passes these days without people in Lebanon taking to the streets. In one such protest last week in Beirut, demonstrators marched from the Labour Ministry to the Health Ministry, chanting slogans and displaying placards lamenting the country’s deteriorating economic conditions.
The majority of the protesters were young and many of them unemployed.
Take Zeenat. She studied French — the second most spoken language in Lebanon after Arabic — and would like to teach the language as a professional, if she could only get a job. “There are just no openings, no jobs,” she told DW. “We do not even have the money to live on.”
The Lebanese pound is pegged to the US dollar to lure non-resident Lebanese to invest back home. Expatriates’ remittances are a pillar of the country’s economy, but the currency valuation also makes Lebanon a very costly place for the residents who do not earn enough because of poorly paid jobs. Lebanon’s industrial sector, experts have said, is vastly underdeveloped. Were it to pick up, well-paid jobs would follow.
While accurate statistics from the government are hard to come by, according to civil society actors, at least one-third of the country’s youth is unemployed.
The protests have gathered pace not just in the capital Beirut but also in Sidon and Nabatieh in the south, and Akkar and Tripoli in the north. They’re reminiscent of the rallies in 2015 which led to the formation of a civil society campaign against the ruling political class. The latest protests are being led by citizen groups which emerged from the movement.
Tarek Serhan’s “You Stink” is one of them. It was inspired by the garbage crisis but soon became an umbrella group for many other social problems. He said that the mood of resistance in the country grew following the news of the death of Mohammed, a 3-year-old boy of Palestinian origin.
“We started to go back to the streets when Mohammed died,” he told DW. “One hospital passed him to another and refused him treatment.”
The death of a 3-year-old
Mohammed suffered from hydrocephalus, a chronic neurological condition. On December 14 he was admitted to Tripoli’s Islamic Hospital for urgent surgery. The hospital said that they did not have a bed in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and said they couldn’t operate on him.
Subsequently, his family approached hospitals across Lebanon, only to be allegedly denied admission under different pretexts.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) pays for the education and health care of five million people of Palestinian origin in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. They said that tried everything to procure a bed for the boy in several hospitals but none was available. By the time they found a bed in the Tripoli Governmental Hospital three days later it was too late. Mohammed died in the emergency ward even before being transferred to the ICU.
The Health Ministry said that the boy had reached a critical stage and could not have been helped.
His family, however, blamed the hospitals for intentionally denying him treatment, leading to his death. The boy’s mother, who chose to be identified as Umm Mohammed or Mohammed’s mother, said that while she accepted “God’s will,” she cannot forgive the hospitals.
“I curse these hospitals,” she told DW. “They stole my most beautiful boy from me.”
Some accused the hospitals of discrimination against the Palestinian family, others were angry at the UNRWA for not moving quickly enough, while most were simply shocked that a child died because there was no bed available in an ICU.
Mohammed’s death brought into sharp focus the country’s crippled healthcare system, which is largely privatized and difficult to access for poorer Lebanese citizens.
Policy paralysis in Lebanon
Economists have said that improved living standards — whether jobs or better health services — depend on Lebanon’s overall economic performance.
However, major economic reforms are pending because the country — even eight months after the elections — still does not have a government.
In May last year, an alliance backed by the Shia militia and the Hezbollah group won the most number of seats in parliament. Since then, they’ve been in a political deadlock with Prime Minster-designate Saad Hariri, a western-backed Sunni leader, over ministerial positions.
In April last year in Paris, international donors granted Lebanon $11 billion (€9.7 billion) in financial assistance. That money has been put on hold because the transfer of funds was conditional on the Lebanese government introducing a preliminary series of reforms.
The World Bank has said that in order to restore the confidence of investors and donors, Lebanon must end the political impasse. There have been rumors that if the political crisis is not resolved soon, the funding may be reallocated.
Vicky Khoury, a member of the Sabaa political party which is also organizing the protests, demanded that the elected form a government at once. “This is not a joke,” she said. “Look at our economic condition. We need a government now.”
Even though the protesters have little trust in the political system and its institutions, they have demanded an emergency plan for job creation and a health card for all. They have said that until these demands are met, they will continue their demonstrations.