Cash-strapped Lebanese drivers block roads in ‘Day of rage’

Lebanon’s transport unions demand the government subsidise their fuel prices and provide cash assistance.

Lebanon transport unions day of rage
Public transport drivers have especially struggled to cope with soaring fuel costs [Kareem Chehayab/Al Jazeera]

Beirut, Lebanon – Truck and bus drivers across Lebanon have blocked roads and highways with their vehicles, urging the government to help them cope with skyrocketing fuel prices.

Lebanon’s transportation unions called for a “Day of rage” on Thursday to paralyse the country and pressure authorities into subsidising fuel prices and providing financial compensation to help them cope with mounting expenses.

“We are destroyed,” bus driver Ali Al Jaroosh told Al Jazeera as he blocked an intersection near downtown Beirut. “We get paid in liras [Lebanese pound] but cover our costs in dollars.”

Lebanon transport unions day of rage
Roadblocks on Dawra highway [Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]

Last September, the head of the land transport unions, Bassam Tleis, said Prime Minister Najib Mikati promised that the government will fulfil their demands and compensate them.

But Mikati’s rescue government has not met since October and has been unable to implement financial reforms to unlock billions in international assistance.

It also continues to struggle to keep the local currency from spiraling – the Lebanese pound has lost about 95 percent of its value in just more than two years as it continues to depreciate rapidly.

At one of the roadblocks, Tleis told reporters that protests will continue until their demands are met.

Lebanon transport unions day of rage
Bassam Tleis speaking to local media [Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]

Alfred Hokayem, a 56-year-old truck driver, was among a dozen people blocking the otherwise-busy Dawra highway on the outskirts of Beirut.

“Today is a warning,” Hokayem told Al Jazeera. “This will escalate. We will riot.”

Drivers of public transport have especially struggled to cope with soaring fuel costs, as the Central Bank continues to gradually lift subsidies since last summer to ration the country’s dwindling foreign reserves.

Filling up the fuel tank now costs more than the monthly minimum wage which is worth about $20.

Food inflation in Lebanon is among the highest in the world, exceeding 557 percent as of last autumn, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.

On top of that, rampant power cuts since last summer have forced households to pay excessive costs to private generator suppliers, often higher than their own house rents.

“The government needs to stabilise the dollar so we can eat and live,” van driver Mehdi Ismail told Al Jazeera. “How can we fill our tanks with fuel and feed our kids?”

Inflation in Lebanon is also hurting other sectors. On Thursday, fuel distributors refused to unload cargo until prices were adjusted to the devalued Lebanese pound. The Economy Ministry further raised bread prices as well.

The International Monetary Fund will hold a virtual meeting with the Lebanese government on Monday as negotiations continue for a bailout programme.

Lebanon transport unions day of rage
Roadblocks on Dawra highway [Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera