TRIPOLI, Lebanon—Protests against growing economic hardship erupted in the Lebanese city of Tripoli on April 28, with banks set ablaze after a night of rioting that left one demonstrator dead, according to security and medical sources.
A collapse in the currency, soaring inflation, and spiraling unemployment are convulsing Lebanon, in a deep financial crisis since October 2019. A shutdown to fight the CCP virus has made matters worse for the economy.
Overnight, protesters in Tripoli set several banks and an army vehicle on fire. Soldiers fired into the air and used tear gas and rubber bullets, a security source said. The man who died was in his 20s, and the cause of death wasn’t immediately clear, the source said.
Protesters returned on April 28, setting two banks on fire and smashing their facades, prompting the army to redeploy. Dozens of soldiers positioned themselves in a street lined with several banks and some fired rubber bullets and tear gas.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab urged Lebanese to refrain from violence and said “malicious intentions behind the scenes” were “shaking stability.”
“We are faced with a new reality, a reality that the social and living crisis has made worse at record speed, especially with the rise of the U.S. dollar exchange rate to record levels on the black market,” Diab said in a statement.
Lebanon’s pound has lost more than half its value since October 2019 and slid sharply over the past week, triggering small protests despite a CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, lockdown, and pleas by officials for people to remain home.
U.S. dollars sold for 4,200 Lebanese pounds on April 28 according to one importer, despite a central bank directive capping the price at 3,200. Several currency dealers were arrested on April 27 for violating the cap, prompting their trade association to announce an open-ended strike.
The unrest threatens to tip the country back into violence even as Beirut looks to pass an economic rescue plan and enter negotiations with foreign creditors after defaulting on its hefty debt obligations in March.
In a phone call to Diab on April 28, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Paris was ready to convene an international support group meeting for Lebanon as soon as CCP virus lockdown measures were lifted.
Diab’s government, formed in January with the support of the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah, has struggled to enact reforms demanded by foreign donors to release billions of dollars in pledged financing.
“People have lost their purchasing power and the state has no plan to do anything. Banks are closed and not giving money to people. I think this government should resign,” said Tripoli lawyer Fahed Moukaddem.
Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad said after a cabinet meeting that “final touches” were being put to the rescue plan, a draft of which this month estimated losses in the banking sector at $83 billion.
Tripoli, a port city 50 miles north of Beirut and long dogged by poverty and unemployment, was the stage for protests against Lebanon’s ruling elite in October 2019.
“This is not a riot, this is expressing (anger) that the dollar has reached 4,000 Lebanese pounds … How are people going to eat? And this is the holy month of Ramadan,” said Abou Hussein, a Tripoli activist.
The army stated that overnight a firebomb was thrown at one of its vehicles and a hand grenade hurled at a patrol. It blamed “infiltrators” and called on peaceful protesters to leave the streets.
It stated that 40 soldiers were wounded in Tripoli and elsewhere after patrols sent to reopen roads were attacked with stones. Three banks and several ATMs in Tripoli were burned overnight and nine protesters arrested, a statement said.
A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut said: “The frustration of the Lebanese people over the economic crisis is understandable, and the demands of protesters are justified. But incidents of violence, threats, and destruction of property are deeply concerning, and must stop.”
The U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Jan Kubis, said the violence was a warning for Lebanon’s political leaders.
“This is the time to provide material support to increasingly desperate, impoverished and hungry majority of Lebanese all around the country,” he wrote on Twitter.
The banking association declared all banks in Tripoli shut until security is restored. Only a handful of branches have been open during the CCP virus lockdown.
Banks have been a target of savers angered by being frozen out of their deposits. One each in the southern cities of Sidon and Tyre were attacked on April 25 and 26.
By Walid Saleh
The Epoch Times contributed to this report.