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Lebanon: Hundreds protest devaluation of lira and pensions

Security forces fire tear gas as crowd gathers in downtown Beirut to protest deteriorating living conditions
Protesters wave Lebanese national flags during a demonstration by retired Lebanese army and security forces veterans in Beirut on 22 March 2023 (AFP)

Hundreds of Lebanese on Wednesday gathered near government headquarters in Beirut to protest against deteriorating economic conditions, before riot police and troops dispersed the crowd with tear gas.

Most of the protesters were depositors and retired security personnel demanding inflation adjustments to their pensions.

The protesters, carrying Lebanon's flags and the emblems of the security forces, gathered between parliament and the government headquarters in downtown Beirut, and repeatedly tried to break through the fence leading to the Grand Serail (the palace of the prime minister).

Anger has been widespread in Lebanon as economic and living conditions continue to deteriorate more than three years into a severe financial crisis, with no signs of it abating. 

The protesters were outraged at the declining value of state pensions paid in the local currency, which has lost more than 98 percent of its value against the US dollar since the beginning of the financial meltdown.

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Meanwhile, Lebanese depositors have had limited access to their savings since late 2019 after banks imposed informal capital controls.

Some protesters hurled stones, while the retired soldiers and policemen clashed with riot police and troops, who responded with tear gas as some tried to cross the fence into the compound housing government offices.

"If he fires on us, he's firing on our rights and on his rights at the same time," army veteran Ahmad Mustafa, 60, told Reuters.

"He's suffering just like me," he said, clutching two of the tear gas canisters fired just moments earlier.

The protesters also decried unrelenting increases in prices across the board, the worsening state of healthcare, and public schools closures due to teachers striking for better pay since December.

The Lebanese lira, officially pegged at 15,000 to the dollar, has been trading on parallel markets at more than 100,000 against the greenback, a steep plunge from the 1,507 peg before the collapse.

New low for lira

On Tuesday, the currency hit an all-time low of 140,000 to the dollar, before an intervention by the country's central bank.

The currency plunge has been devastating for those on fixed incomes, triggering price hikes on imported fuel, food, medicine and other basic goods.

Earlier this month, the government allowed supermarkets and shops to price items in dollars as consumers struggled to keep up with the daily fluctuations in prices. 

Decades of financial mismanagement, unsustainable borrowing, and corruption by Lebanon's financial and political elite have fuelled one of the world’s worst economic crises, according to the World Bank. 

In late 2021, the United Nations estimated that nearly half of Lebanon's population have been pushed into poverty since 2019.

Lebanese Army troops and members of the security forces are receiving salary support in US dollars from the United States and Qatar for the first time.

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