Virus sinks Lebanon demos hotspot deeper into doldrums

Tripoli (Lebanon) (AFP) –


In Lebanon's anti-government protest hotspot Tripoli, Amim Mahbani has struggled to rescue his clothes shop from a freefalling economy. Now the novel coronavirus has left its very survival in peril.

Lebanese authorities have ordered shops to close for two weeks to fight COVID-19, compounding a crisis that traders in the country's poverty-stricken second city Tripoli say was already in full swing.

"We've shuttered our shops, but no one was entering them anyway because of this grinding economic crunch," Mahbani said.

"The government announcing a health emergency has just come to finish us off," the 52-year-old father of three said, following Sunday's orders from Beirut.

Dubbed the "bride" of Lebanon's months-long protest movement for its vibrant anti-government rallies, Tripoli has been plunged into economic despair.

"Traders are simply no longer able to sustain financial losses," said Mahbani, who has been forced to lay off eight of his nine employees.

As Lebanon faces its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, prices have skyrocketed, the Lebanese pound has plunged in value and unemployment is rampant.

This is the case across the country, but Tripoli has been disproportionately hit because more than half of its population had already been living at or below the poverty line for years.

In the city's Azmi street and surrounding areas, shops have shuttered and others been starved for business.

- 'Never been as hard' -

Outside a lingerie store, Sherine pleaded with passersby to step inside before the ordered shutdown.

Her eyes darting left and right, she scoured the street for desperately needed customers.

"If I can sell, then I'll be paid a salary," the 28-year-old shop assistant told AFP. "If I don't, then the store owner won't pay me."

Her only colleague had already been fired and she feared her turn would be next.

Tripoli, a port city on the eastern Mediterranean, had already suffered for several years from an economic downturn.

From 2007 to 2014, it was the scene of frequent clashes between Sunni and Alawite residents of neighbouring districts.

The spillover of Syria's war in 2011 fuelled violence and unleashed a wave of attacks, including a 2013 twin bombing on two Tripoli mosques that killed 45 people.

Despite all this, Hussam Zaher -- who owns a women's boutique on the same street -- said business today was exceptionally bad.

"It's never been as hard as these days," said the 60-year-old, who has owned the shop for around a quarter of a century.

"My problem as a business owner is the liquidity crunch," he told AFP. "People who have money are spending it just on food, while things like clothes have become secondary."

- 'Lives flipped upside-down' -

As a result, more than 120 shops in and around Azmi street have shuttered for good, said Talal Baroudi, who heads an association of merchants in the area.

"The shops that have survived in the face of the economic crisis... are considered semi-closed because of the lack of business," he told AFP.

"Most merchants have stopped stocking up on goods altogether."

Faced with a liquidity crunch, Lebanese banks have since September imposed stringent controls on dollar withdrawals and halted transfers abroad.

Account holders have been forced to deal in the nose-diving Lebanese pound, which has lost more than a third of its value on the black market.

With limited access to her money, Wafaa Merehbi said her outings have been reduced to window shopping.

"Our purchasing power is zero," said the 64-year-old. "We are using the $100 dollars the banks allow us to withdraw (every week) to eat."

Ismail Mukaddam said business at a nearby menswear store he has owned for the past 45 years was doomed.

"Our lives have been flipped upside down," the 70-year-old said. "Things have never been this bad, not even at the peak of the civil war."