Lebanon: MPs meet in theatre, protesters out in cars

Protests held again worsening economic, social conditions while parliament approves use of cannabis.

Anti-government demonstrators hold Lebanese flags as they protest in their cars, during a countrywide lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Beirut
Convoys of cars draped with Lebanese flags blaring loud revolutionary songs tour all of the main centres of the six-month old uprising in Beirut [Aziz Taher/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – Protesters took to the streets of Lebanon in their cars on Tuesday, demonstrating against worsening economic and social conditions in the country.

In the capital Beirut, large convoys of cars drove from Martyrs’ Square, the birthplace of the country’s uprising against the civil war-era ruling class in October, to the vicinity of a large theatre complex where MPs met on Tuesday to approve dozens of laws, including legalising the cultivation of cannabis for medical and industrial use.

UNESCO Palace, the theatre, was chosen by speaker Nabih Berri instead of the Parliament building to allow social distancing regulations to be followed amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen 677 reported cases and 21 deaths.

The country has been in partial lockdown since March 15 with an overnight curfew, during which its airport and land borders were closed.

But the lockdown has shown cracks with people taking to the streets over the past week to demand the government’s help in a number of regions as the strain of the country’s worst-ever economic and financial crisis grows.

Protests that occurred almost every day before the COVID-19 lockdown have returned.

On Tuesday, cars draped in Lebanese flags blaring loud revolutionary songs drove around the main centres of the six-month uprising, including Tripoli in the north, Antelias near Beirut, the Chouf region, the Bekaa, and southern Nabatieh and Tyre.

Anti-government demonstrators wave Lebanese flags as they protest in their cars, amid a countrywide lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Beirut
Anti-government demonstrators wave Lebanese flags as they protest in their cars, amid a countrywide lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

“Its a loud shout-out to the country to say that we have not been erased,” Ghassan Salhab, a prominent Lebanese film director who participated in the protest, told Al Jazeera.

He added that the protesters chose to take to the streets in their cars in an effort to maintain social distancing rules while making themselves heard at the same time.

“We’ve seen the level of hunger growing in the country in areas like Tripoli and we felt the need to do something in solidarity.” 

Due to an acute shortage of US dollars, Lebanon’s currency has depreciated by more than 50 percent since last summer. Inflation is set to reach 27 percent, according to finance ministry statistics released late last month.

Tens of thousands have lost their jobs or had their wages slashed, while half the country’s population is projected to fall under the poverty line this year.

Banks have also put in place strict controls since November, limiting US dollars and Lebanese pound withdrawals.

State media reported on Tuesday that a Lebanese man tried to self-immolate at a bank in the country’s Bekka region after it refused to give him his money.

At least two other people attempted self-immolation earlier this month while a Syrian man died after setting himself on fire. All cited worsening living conditions for their actions.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch warned that unless a robust aid programme was established during the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Lebanese could go hungry.

Cannabis cultivation legalised

Meanwhile, the parliament on Tuesday legalised cultivation of cannabis for medical and industrial use, while keeping all recreational production and use illegal.

Last year, former economy minister Raed Khoury said that the sector could bring in about $1bn in revenues for the country.

Yassine Jaber, an MP and the law’s architect, said Lebanon could export cannabis produce to Canada, where the plant is entirely legal.

Cannabis has been cultivated in Lebanon for at least a century in the impoverished Bekaa Valley.

Under the new law, those who have participated in the illegal sector would be barred from entering the new legal market. Experts warn that the move risks creating a two-tier system where those who have traditionally grown cannabis would be marginalised.

The parliament also endorsed a number of bills, including one to create a national anti-corruption commission.

Lebanon regularly ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world.

The new body is tasked with preventing and investigating corruption, with powers to refer cases for prosecution, as well as to offer protection and incentives to whistle-blowers.

The law, however, was watered down after being reviewed by President Michel Aoun. Instead of two members of the commission being elected by their peers, they will be appointed by the Cabinet, which is a blow to their independence to act, according to leading legal expert Nizar Saghieh.

“It was a big challenge to get the bill drafted and through various stages,” Ghassan Moukheiber, a former MP and the bill’s architect, told Al Jazeera. “It will take as much to succeed in a good implementation.”

Parliament also endorsed a World Bank loan to improve Lebanon’s healthcare sector and exempted all donations and aid for the fight against coronavirus from taxes.

Source: Al Jazeera