With many falling further into poverty amid strict coronavirus curfews, protesters are urging the government to do more to help those struggling
By Maha El Dahan and Issam Abdallah
TRIPOLI, Lebanon, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Lebanon's poorest city, Tripoli, was again racked by violent protests last week, and some politicians and experts warn that unrest could spread if more is not done to support people facing deepening poverty amid coronavirus restrictions.
The country was already in financial meltdown before the pandemic struck, with national debt spiralling, unemployment high and a tumbling currency stoking inflation.
For residents of Tripoli, on Lebanon's northern coast, the 24-hour curfew imposed from Jan. 11 to control the spread of COVID-19 was the final straw, preventing many from working.
"We are headed towards famine," said Haytham Kurdi, a 49-year-old fish kiosk owner in the city.
"The fish that we get is $3. That used to mean 4,500 pounds and we used to sell for 6,000 so we make a dollar profit. Now $3 is around 25,000 pounds and someone who earns 30,000 to 40,000 pounds a day, how can they buy a couple of kilos of fish?"
Protests last week culminated in the burning of Tripoli's municipality building as demonstrators clashed with police.
"There is practically a total absence of government action, so the situation in Tripoli is ... worrisome and it reflects an extreme form of what is happening elsewhere in the country," said Toufic Gaspard, an economist who has worked as an adviser at the IMF and to a former finance minister.
If subsidies on basic foodstuffs like bread are eased because of dwindling reserves and dollar shortages, more Lebanese will feel the pinch.
Nationwide protests erupted in October 2019, amid financial meltdown, bringing cities including the capital Beirut to a standstill as tens of thousands of people vented their anger at politicians they blamed for ineptitude and graft.
Today, roughly half of the workforce relies on daily wages mostly paid in local currency, and a recent study by aid organization CARE found that 94% of Lebanon's population are earning less then the minimum wage.
"Should subsidies be lifted, the scene from Tripoli will be repeated everywhere," MP Faisal Karameh told local media.
France's Emmanuel Macron is leading efforts to unlock foreign aid to help Lebanon out of its crisis.
But the initiative has been hampered by political paralysis in Lebanon, which has been unable to form a new government since the last one quit in the aftermath of an Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion that destroyed large parts of the city.
The caretaker government said it was giving 230,000 of the poorest families 400,000 liras a month, or less than $50 at the market rate, to help them make ends meet. Lebanon has a population of around 6 million.
Many are still falling through the cracks.
"If you walk down the street you will see people looking through garbage for something to eat," said Bilal Tasieh, a 46-year-old carpenter from Tripoli.
A government decision to close supermarkets and grocery shops during lockdown, making daily essentials only available through delivery services, has drawn criticism.
"If I am poor then delivery is out of the question for me, it costs 10 to 15% more," said Nasser Saidi, a leading economist and former minister.
(Reporting By Maha El Dahan in Beirut and Issam Abdallah in Tripoli; additional reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Mike Collett-White)