Riots broke out in Lebanon’s second-largest city Tuesday, threatening to renew nationwide protests over growing poverty and further cripple an economy already in freefall from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Clashes in Tripoli erupted after a tense funeral was held for a 27-year-old man killed during overnight riots. Fawwaz Samman was shot by soldiers during confrontations that began Monday night, and he died in a hospital hours later.
Tripoli is one of the most neglected and poorest regions in Lebanon. The violence reflected the rising poverty and despair gripping the country amid a crippling financial crisis that has worsened since October, when nationwide protests broke out because of widespread corruption and mismanagement of resources.
A lockdown to stem the spread of COVID-19 has thrown tens of thousands of people out of work, further aggravating the economic crisis.
Late Tuesday night, dozens of protesters gathered outside the central bank headquarters in the capital Beirut throwing stones toward the building before Lebanese soldiers dispersed them. Protesters in other parts of Lebanon cut major roads including the highway linking Beirut with southern Lebanon.
The Lebanese Red Cross said its paramedics evacuated four injured persons to hospitals and treated 22 on the spot in Tripoli.
The protests intensified Monday as Lebanon began easing a weeks-long lockdown to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the country, which has reported 717 cases and 24 deaths so far.
In Tripoli on Tuesday, protesters set fire to two banks and hurled stones at soldiers who responded with tear gas and batons in renewed clashes triggered by an economic crisis, crash of the local currency and a sharp increase in prices of consumer goods.
The national currency has lost more than 50% of its value, and banks have imposed crippling capital controls amid a liquidity crunch. But it appeared to be in a free fall over the last few days, selling as low as 4,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar on the parallel market, down from a fixed peg of 1,500 pounds to the dollar in place for 30 years.
“What you’re seeing is a result of accumulated problems. We had a revolution, people were suffering, then came corona and people were locked in their homes for a month and a half without the state securing food and drink or anything else for them,” said protester Abdelaziz Sarkousi, 47. “Now we have reached a state where unfortunately you cannot control people anymore. People are hungry!”
Earlier in the day, hundreds marched in the funeral procession for Samman and gunmen fired in the air in a display of anger and mourning. The man’s body was brought from his parents’ home and placed briefly in front of his motorcycle repair shop before he was laid to rest in a Tripoli cemetery.
“The army command expresses its deep regret for the fall of a martyr,” the military said, adding that an investigation has been opened into Samman’s death.
Smaller protests also erupted elsewhere in Lebanon, including in Beirut’s city center, where hundreds of demonstrators gathered Tuesday evening.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in reaction to the clashes that the world body urges protesters to “exercise their right to protest peacefully and security personnel to protect peaceful protests and to act proportionally in maintaining law and order.”
In a statement about the overnight riots, the Lebanese army said “troublemakers who had infiltrated the protesters to attack banks” also threw firebombs and grenades at the military, setting a military vehicle on fire. It said 54 troops were injured across the country and that the army detained 13 people.
Public anger has mounted against banks in Lebanon after they imposed capital controls on people’s deposits.
The tiny Mediterranean country of about 5 million people is one the most indebted in the world. Nationwide protests broke out in October against the government because of widespread corruption and mismanagement of resources.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government came to office in January after his predecessor, Saad Hariri, stepped down. He was quickly engulfed in a nationwide health crisis over the novel coronavirus, a crisis that deepened the country’s economic recession. (Source: Mainichi Japan)