BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dozens of protesters poured back onto the streets of Beirut in their cars on Tuesday, furious at rising poverty and hardship, as parliament convened for the first time during Lebanon’s coronavirus lockdown.
People flocked to the streets in other parts of Lebanon too, including the northern city of Tripoli, resuming protests that had abated in recent months after shaking the country since October.
Men and women popped out of their car windows, waving Lebanese flags and chanting “revolution”, protesting in their vehicles to maintain physical distance as the country combats the outbreak of the highly contagious coronavirus.
They drove from central Beirut towards the first legislative session that had been relocated from the parliament building to a theatre hall, also to allow for social distancing.
“No one has a job anymore…Salaries keep doing down. We’re in the streets because nothing has changed since we left,” said Ali Haidar, a protester wearing a face mask in central Beirut.
“The state left us with two choices: we either die from hunger or we die from the disease…Let us at least die taking a stand.”
The pandemic has compounded woes in Lebanon, which had plunged deep into financial crisis months before. The Lebanese have had to contend with the value of their savings tumbling, a tanking currency, painful price hikes and job losses.
Before the outbreak, the World Bank had projected 40% of Lebanese people would be in poverty by the end of 2020, a forecast which the economy minister believes is now outdated.
Lebanon’s economic troubles, rooted in decades of state corruption and waste, came to a head last year after capital inflows dried up and protests erupted against a ruling elite in power since the 1975-1990 civil war.
“We’re all taking precautions and sitting in cars,” said Nur Bassam, 30, a protester taking part in the convoy in Beirut.
“But things have become unbearable, we should speak up…, especially for people sitting at home who can’t work and provide food for their families.”
Since mid-March, people can only leave their homes to buy food or medicine, so as to curb the spread of the virus which has so far infected 677 people and killed 21 in Lebanon. An overnight curfew also bans going outside between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., with security forces enforcing curbs.
In Tripoli, one of Lebanon’s poorest cities, protesters who have gathered every evening for the past few days spoke of worsening hunger and desperation. Many said they could not stay at home without work or support as the economic crisis had left them with little or no means to cope.
“When the shutdown was announced, we all abided by it,” Michel Mahfouz said at a demonstration. “But the hungry people in Tripoli could not abide by it, because it is just delusional plans on paper.”
(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Issam Abdallah, Walid Saleh; Editing by Mark Heinrich)