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Lebanon PM holds emergency meeting as protests intensify

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab on 5 May, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon [Presidency of Lebanon/Handout/Anadolu Agency]
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab on 5 May, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon [Presidency of Lebanon/Handout/Anadolu Agency]

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab called an emergency cabinet session this morning after a night of escalating protests over the dire economic situation and currency collapse. According to Naharnet, Diab cancelled all appointments to hold the meeting to discuss the financial crisis.

The move comes after the value of the Lebanese Pound (also known as the Lira) fell to a rate of 7,000 Lira to $1 at some money exchange dealers yesterday, according to a report by Arab News. That’s more than 150 per cent more than in recent weeks, during which the black market rate stayed at around 4,500L to $1. Officially, the currency is pegged at 1,507.5 Lira to $1 but it has lost more than 60 per cent of its value since anti-government protests began last October.

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The rapid devaluation of the Lira pulled thousands of Lebanese citizens onto the streets in protest last night, in numbers not seen since October. Roads across the country were blocked and several branches of Lebanon’s Central Bank were set on fire and vandalised.

In Beirut, protesters chanted their opposition to sectarianism, in a surprising display of unity considering last week’s clashes between Amal and Hezbollah supporters, the army and protesters.

According to the Daily Star, protests took place across the capital, including in some southern suburbs which are traditionally Hezbollah strongholds. Demonstrations also took place in cities and towns across the country, including Tripoli, Sidon and Tyre.

Protesters complained of the rising levels of hunger and unemployment caused by the economic crisis and exacerbated by the coronavirus lockdown. According to World Bank estimates, more than half of Lebanon’s population live in poverty and need financial aid for day-to-day necessities.

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This morning, many money exchange dealers across Lebanon were closed in protest against the spiralling exchange rate, even as major roads reopened. Nevertheless, the Head of the Money Changers’ Syndicate has said that its members are committed to selling dollars at a rate of 3,940 Lira to $1, rather than the 7,000 rate seen yesterday, with the Central Bank set to inject enough cash into the market to meet demand.

Local Arabic outlet Al-Jadeed, however, reported this morning attempts to oust Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, who has been blamed widely for the economic crisis, while last night’s protests called for Diab and his government to resign. It remains unclear if resignations will be forthcoming.

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