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Lebanese protest against rescue plan as government seeks IMF help

Lebanese demonstrators protest against the growing economic hardship and to mark Labour Day in the capital Beirut on May 1, 2020.
Lebanese demonstrators protest against the growing economic hardship and to mark Labour Day in the capital Beirut on May 1, 2020. © Mohamed Azakir, REUTERS

Hundreds of Lebanese rallied Friday outside the central bank in Beirut and elsewhere in the country, a day after the prime minister said he would seek a rescue plan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to deal with a spiraling economic and financial crisis.

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The protesters criticized the government's handling of the unprecedented crisis that saw the local currency crash, devastate their savings and send prices and inflation soaring. Scuffles broke out outside a private bank and troops were seen beating and pulling away at least one protester. 

The government “is not even providing the most basic needs", said a protester in Beirut, Ahmad Demashqia. There were also rallies in northern and southern Lebanon to commemorate May Day, the international Labour Day. 

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Friday signed the official request for assistance from IMF. He said the government has taken “the first step on the path to saving Lebanon from the deep financial pit". On Thursday, the Cabinet had adopted a long-awaited rescue plan.

France on Friday said it was urgent that Lebanon implement the reforms, describing the rescue plan as essential for the country's recovery.

"It is on this basis that France stands ready to support the efforts of Lebanon," French foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said in a statement.

But the protesters were skeptical. In the southern city of Sidon, 19-year-old Omar al-Mughrabi said the country needs radical change — not reform of failing or ineffective policies. 

“Going to the IMF is not the solution," al-Mughrabi said. “We don't need any more debt than we already have.”

Lebanon's banking association also expressed opposition to the government’s move, saying it could in "no way" endorse a rescue plan that would "further destroy confidence" in the country.

Lebanon, one of the most indebted nations in the world, defaulted for the first time in March on its sovereign debt. Anti-government protests that erupted in October subsided during a nationwide lockdown since mid-March to blunt the spread of the coronavirus. Lebanon, a country of five million people, has reported only 729 cases and 24 deaths, and began to ease some virus restrictions this week.

 Many of the protesters wore face masks against the virus. 

The lockdown worsened the recession's sharp bite, increasing unemployment and popular resentment. In recent days, protesters ignored social distancing measures and calls to stay home to rally outside the central bank and private banks, setting off clashes with the security forces and the army. In the northern city of Tripoli, a protester was killed earlier this week. 

Prices of basic goods have increased, in some cases by over 60 percent. The Lebanese pound, pegged to the dollar for 30 years, lost nearly 60 percent of its value. 

With a stable national currency, the Lebanese had used their pound and the dollar interchangeably, many keeping their savings in dollars. To deal with a liquidity crunch and a massive imports bill, the central bank decreed that most withdrawals could only be in the local currency. The decision further weakened the pound.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

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