BEIRUT -- Hundreds of Lebanese rallied Friday outside the central bank in Beirut and elsewhere in the country, a day after the prime minister said he will seek a rescue program from the International Monetary Fund to deal with a spiraling economic and financial crisis.
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 Labor 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.
But the protesters seemed 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, 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 5 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%. The Lebanese pound, pegged to the dollar for 30 years, lost nearly 60% 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.