A Lebanese protester holds a sign in Arabic that reads, “Down with the rule of the bank,” in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Over the past week, Lebanon has seen mass protests against the discredited and dysfunctional government that has failed to tackle growing poverty and hardship, amid rising COVID-19 cases.

Transport workers, many of whom are self-employed, took to the streets on Thursday in a ‘day of rage’ at the start of a nationwide strike to protest dire social and economic conditions.

Workers blocked major highways as well as cities and towns across the country with their trucks and buses. Many public offices, universities, schools and banks were closed because people could not get to work. A driver in Beirut said: “We can barely afford hospitalization or medicine. We implore health associations for our rights that the state is supposed to guarantee for us.

Bassam Tleis, the head of land transport unions, called on the government to honor its promise to compensate them. He said the strike could continue if the government did not respond to their demands for fuel subsidies and money to help them meet rising expenses.

The cost of fuel has soared as the Central Bank cut subsidies in a bid to keep the country’s dwindling foreign currency reserves. It costs more to fill a tank than the monthly minimum wage, which is currently only worth $20. Bechara al-Asmar, the head of the General Labor Union, said the strikers were calling on the government to restore subsidies on bread, fuel and other basic items.

But with union leaders apparently close to Hezbollah and Amal, the Shiite parties, some drivers from other parties refused to join the strike.

Meanwhile, the Nabatiyeh region in southern Lebanon was rocked by a huge explosion when a fire broke out at a private power plant that reached old unexploded ordnance left over from the 2006 war with Israel.

On Wednesday, protests took place in Beirut, the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s poorest city, and in the eastern province of Baalbeck, denouncing the collapse in the value of the lira, the pegged national currency on the US dollar. Later that evening, angry protesters clashed with security forces outside the headquarters of the Central Bank of Lebanon as they attempted to enter the building.

While the official price is 1,500 lira to the dollar, dollars on the black market were selling for nearly 33,000 lira on Monday. The pound has lost more than 95% of its value in the past two years, leading to rampant inflation, including a massive increase in the cost of food, fuel and medicine and the utter devastation of living standards for working people.

Food inflation, more than 550 percent last fall, is among the highest in the world according to the UN’s World Food Programme, while increasingly frequent and prolonged power cuts have forced people to turn to private providers, often paying more than the cost of their rent. On Thursday, fuel distributors refused to unload their diesel until they were paid in dollar equivalent.

On Monday, anger over power cuts – electricity is usually only available for one hour during the day and one hour at night – was such that protesters stormed the main power station in Aramoun , 22 kilometers from Beirut, damaging electrical equipment and shutting down the power grid across the country for hours. They claimed that while areas under the control of the Free Patriots Movement (FPM), the Christian party led by Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, were generally free of power cuts, areas allied with opponents of the FPM did not were not.

The fuel crisis has caused terrible hardship and wreaked havoc across the economy, affecting water purification and sanitation. Drinking water has become increasingly scarce as companies producing bottled water have cut production, forcing people to turn to dangerous coping mechanisms.

On Saturday, anti-vaccination protests took place in Beirut against the government’s requirement for public sector workers to get vaccinated or frequently take PCR tests at their own expense to go to work. Various religious sects promoted the protest. There is no doubt, however, that the financial crisis and the government’s arbitrary and contradictory response to the pandemic that has led to tens of thousands of people losing their livelihoods despite not having access to healthcare adequate health fuel widespread anger. Popular contempt for politicians and plutocrats who hoarded drugs to sell at a higher price also played a major role in vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation.

According to official figures which grossly underestimate the reality, the coronavirus pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 9,330 people in a country of barely six million inhabitants. Only 37% of the population have received two injections, leaving the rest cruelly exposed as the number of cases increases.

The World Bank has described Lebanon’s economic crisis as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s. GDP fell from $55 billion in 2018 to $20.5 billion in 2021, with real GDP falling per capita of 37.1%, a rate usually associated with armed conflicts or wars. At least 80% of the population, including one million Syrian refugees, live in dire poverty.

The government of Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s richest businessman and banker, is barely functioning. It took more than a year to cobble together a government acceptable to President Michel Aoun and his faction after the resignation of Hassan Diab, a non-aligned Sunni politician who became prime minister following mass protests in October 2019 against Lebanon’s sectarian political system.

Diab resigned following the August 2020 Beirut port explosion that killed more than 200 people, when it became clear that his government, in power for only a few months, was being forced to take responsibility. . He remained in a caretaker role. The blast was caused by ammonium nitrate, a key component of fertilizers, mining explosives and bombs, stockpiled at the port since 2014 due to the negligence, inaction and corruption of the kleptocrats who run the country as their own private fiefdom.

As it happens, Mikati’s cabinet has not met since October amid bitter divisions among major sectarian blocs. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed clerical bourgeois party and its ally, the Shiite Amal movement of parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who together form the largest political bloc, have demanded the dismissal of the judge in charge of the investigation into the port explosion.

Mikati has therefore been unable to push through a budget or implement the free-market financial and economic reforms that are the precondition for an International Monetary Fund loan and aid pledged by European and regional powers. . Moreover, any such loan would also force Lebanon to align itself politically with Sunni oil states and against Iran and Syria, a condition Hezbollah refuses to agree to.

The tiny country has long been trapped in wider regional power struggles, including the bitter armed conflict from 1975 to 1990 between shifting alliances backed by rival powers. More recently, he has faced pressure from US imperialism, Saudi Arabia and France, as part of their broader efforts to isolate Iran and Syria, with ever-increasing sanctions against Hezbollah and Syria, whose economy is closely linked to Lebanon. Their de facto economic blockade aims to isolate Hezbollah and bolster the power of its Sunni and Christian allies after they were ousted by the mass social protests that erupted in October 2019 against economic hardship, government corruption and the sectarian political configuration of the country.

The financial elite, through its political parties and the Central Bank, has carried out financial plunder and mismanagement of the economy. The governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon is currently under investigation for embezzlement and money laundering by Lebanon and at least four European countries. These criminal operations by the ruling elite led to government default on its foreign debt, a currency crash that wiped out foreign exchange reserves, soaring inflation, doubling of food prices, and widespread poverty. .

This week, in the face of widespread protests, Washington was forced to admit that Lebanon’s efforts to secure imports of natural gas from Egypt, via Jordan and Syria, under a deal reached in August last just hours after Hezbollah arranged several deliveries of Iranian fuel, would not be subject to sanctions.

While the protests no doubt reflect widespread social discontent, led by trade unions or political groups allied with one or another of Lebanon’s financial oligarchs, the Lebanese working masses face the prospect of betrayal. or brutal repression by the military, which despite sanctions Washington has continued to fund.

The demands of the Lebanese working class and youth, like those of workers who have revolted elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, cannot be resolved outside of the struggle led by the working class, independently of all forces rotten policies, for the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of socialism on a global scale.