Lebanon PM marks 100 days in office as protesters storm ministry

The small eastern Mediterranean nation of just six million people is in the throes of an economic meltdown.

Lebanon Premier Touts Default and Promises Currency Intervention
Lebanon is in throes of an economic meltdown that has crushed businesses, thrown tens of thousands of people out of work and led its currency to dramatically depreciate [File: Bloomberg]

Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Thursday marked 100 days in office by touting his government’s achievements during a speech at the Grand Serail – the seat of government power in Beirut. But a few blocks away, the mood was decidedly uncelebratory, as protesters once again took to the streets to vent their frustrations with a broken apparatus of a state that is not reforming fast enough to quell their anger.

Comparing Lebanon to a rapidly-sinking ship that his three-month-old government is saving against all odds, Diab emphasised his government’s push for anti-corruption legislation, as well as its attempts to secure more than $20bn in aid from the international community to rescue Lebanon’s crisis-ridden economy.

“One hundred days ago, the ship was being rocked by incoming waves, and water was entering it from many big holes. The fuel tanks were empty, the motors powerless,” Diab said. “The ship was sinking rapidly, and the lifeboats were either missing or of no use. One hundred days ago we had no other choice but to take over command of the ship.”

“A few adventurers stood on the deck of the boat in front of scared and worried eyes. They told the passengers, ‘Let us attempt rescue,'” Diab went on. “Each of those adventures went about closing the holes and fixing the malfunctions. They used their bodies as sails and held the helm, and the voyage began.”

As Diab festooned his government in heroic metaphors, outside protesters were storming the country’s energy ministry to express anger with chronic power cuts that have become more frequent over the past week.

The country’s dilapidated and inefficient power sector, which sucks some $2bn in state funds each year, is a constant reminder to the Lebanese of the corruption and political sclerosis that spawned nationwide anti-establishment protests last year that toppled the government of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, paving the way for Diab to ascend to power.

But the challenges facing Diab and his cabinet are profound.

The small eastern Mediterranean nation of just six million people is in the throes of an economic meltdown that has crushed businesses, thrown tens of thousands of people out of work and led the currency to dramatically depreciate. Those hardships have only intensified in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since last summer, the Lebanese pound has lost some 60 percent of its value against the United States dollar.

Diab’s government was officially formed on February 11 under a cloud of controversy as thousands of protesters attempted to block a confidence vote in parliament that ultimately approved Diab’s cabinet.

The anti-establishment uprising sought to rid the country of its old political class that eventually chose Diab as prime minister, and protesters do not regard him or his government as the change agents the country needs.

Still, Diab is linking his credibility to the uprising and trying to spin his government as a natural outgrowth of it. On Tuesday, a video was posted to his social media account that splices scenes of squares packed with flag-waving demonstrators with shots of him walking the halls of power. 

’97 percent success’

Soon after he took office, Diab said he had found the state treasury empty, and wasted no time declaring that Lebanon would default on foreign debt repayments, which it did in March for the first time ever.

The heavily indebted nation has since begun bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund as part of a drive to secure more than $20bn from international donors and lenders.

Diab seized upon his 100-day mark to tick off his achievements, including a financial rescue plan approved by parliament that includes a long-overdue assessment of losses in the banking sector; corruption-fighting legislation and a national anti-corruption strategy; and severing government contracts with the current operators of Lebanon’s telecoms duopoly to cut costs.

Things are worse than they were 100 days ago ... We can't even afford groceries anymore.

by Anis Tabet, a Lebanese film critic

Though many of the laws Diab mentioned during his 100-day victory lap are in the process of being drafted or have been completed, most have yet to be ratified by parliament.

Diab also noted that the government has launched an audit of the accounts of the central bank, the Banque du Liban, for the first time ever and has asked nations that previously donated money to Lebanon to inform the government of any funds that had been unlawfully “plundered”. He has also called for an investigation into billions of dollars transferred abroad despite informal capital controls being in place since November. 

Though Diab said that his government has made good on 97 percent of the pledges made since he took office, patience is an increasingly rare commodity on the streets.

And while few dispute his government’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, a delayed rollout of its coronavirus aid programme saw the value of earmarked cash handouts plummet along with the national currency’s value.

Diab’s government has also failed to implement formal capital controls and has yet to fill key posts at the central bank, including key oversight positions, due to political infighting among the country’s famously fractured parties.

The vast majority of Lebanese have seen their living standards slip to the point where many can no longer afford basic goods. Chants for accountability and justice that rose from a chorus of crowds months ago have mostly been replaced by angered cries of pain and hunger.

“Things are worse than they were 100 days ago,” Anis Tabet, a Lebanese film critic, said on Twitter. “[I’m] not blaming the new government but bragging about nonexistent achievements is ridiculous. We can’t even afford groceries anymore.”

‘Billions spent, no electricity’

No single sector in Lebanon spells out the failure of successive governments more than the electricity sector – and power cuts are only getting worse. Lebanon only produces a maximum of around 2,000 megawatts of electricity, but peak summer demand is in excess of 3,500 megawatts.

This week, fuel barges experienced delays in offloading their cargo, causing electricity output to plummet. State-run power giant Electricite du Liban (EDL) blamed foreign banks for the fuel supply disruptions.

For the past three days, protesters have taken out their anger against EDL, with some breaking into the state power company’s branches from Tripoli in the north to Nabatieh in the south and in central Beirut.

On Wednesday, as Diab was speaking, activists burst into the energy ministry and held a sit-in until they were removed by riot police.

“We came to the energy ministry to say all energy ministers are criminals,” prominent activist Wasef al Harakeh said in a video posted online. “Tens of billions of dollars spent and there is no electricity, our people are sleeping without electricity. Our people are sleeping without food.”

Though Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar has only been in office for 110 days, he was appointed by the same party that has held the ministry for over a decade – and is facing the same street-level anger as his predecessors.

“Thief, thief, Raymond Ghajar is a thief,” the protesters chanted.

Source: Al Jazeera