Unrest Rocks Arab Cities as Desperate Citizens Protest
In Tunisia, Lebanon and Sudan demonstrators slam poor living conditions, governments near bankruptcy
Demonstrators stormed the streets of several Arab cities this week, in Tunisia, Sudan and Lebanon, protesting against poor living conditions and financial distress.
In Tripoli, Lebanon’s poorest and second-largest city, several main roads were blocked with burning tires on Monday evening, in protest against the deteriorating living conditions and the extension of the coronavirus lockdown until February 8, after it was scheduled to end on January 24.
Thirty people were injured in clashes between protesters and security forces, after the latter intervened to enforce the closure, as popular markets operated in violation of the regulations.
Marwan Iskandar, chief economic commentator for Beirut’s An-Nahar newspaper, told The Media Line the crisis in Lebanon has become dire, as many people have lost their jobs, and those working abroad unable to transfer funds to support their families remaining in the country.
“Also, the Beirut port explosion has affected many people, beyond the 200 who died,” he said of the August disaster that destroyed large parts of the port and the city, leaving up to 300,000 people homeless.
The political stalemate in the country has hurt the government’s ability to address these difficult economic conditions, Iskandar said. “The struggle and confusion of political forces in Lebanon prevented the possibility of reforming the situation,” he said.
The domestic political conflict prompted many officials to transfer their money abroad, although this was forbidden at the time by unofficial currency controls. “There was no law or official decision to do so, but a bureaucratic practice by the banks in order to prevent these transfers when the protests began in 2019,” Iskandar said.
The Lebanese have been suffering from a suffocating dollar liquidity crisis, one of the factors behind the ongoing October Revolution protests that began in 2019, sparked by a planned tax on the use of internet-based communications programs such as WhatsApp, and then expanding to express deep dissatisfaction with economic mismanagement, corruption and sectarianism.
Iskandar also pointed to the smuggling of state-subsidized goods to Syria, especially petroleum derivatives, which has cost Lebanon $3 billion in losses every year. “Over the course of six years, with the subsidies, the country lost $22 billion,” he said.
In addition, Lebanon’s foreign currency reserves have been exhausted, making it impossible to pay for the 60% of food and 100% of oil products that the country normally imports.
The coronavirus crisis also has affected the situation, as the unemployment rate has reached 50% due to the health closures, Iskandar said.
In Tunisia, new protests erupted on Monday after a demonstrator died during a clash with police, sparking more violent confrontations in Sbeitla, a small town in the west-central region, as young men tried to storm and burn down a police station.
Haykal al-Rashidi was allegedly hit by a tear-gas canister while participating in the demonstrations that erupted this month on the 10th anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution, demanding economic and social reform. The Public Prosecutor’s Office in Kasserine ordered an autopsy to determine the cause of death.
Attorney Donia Osman, a Tunisian analyst and activist who has been active in the protests, told The Media Line they erupted because Rashidi died from an injury to the head after several days in a hospital intensive care unit.
“The government is dealing with the protests with great force and violence. We saw many arrests of young men between the ages of 13 and 20, among the more than one thousand arrests, which is unacceptable,” Osman said.
She added that the government lacked any economic, political or even health plan to combat the coronavirus crisis. “We have over 100 deaths per day,” she said.
Osman said that the government resorted to a four-day closure, starting on January 14, which was the day Tunisians were supposed to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution. “This decision was purely political, knowing that a four-day quarantine is meaningless, and this is what made citizens protest even more,” she said.
She added that the protests came because the goals of the revolution have not been achieved, and the government is acting “as if there is a desire to bury the revolution and its goals.”
The 28-day Tunisian Revolution was triggered in December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor, set himself on fire in the central city of Sidi Bouzid after being mistreated by police. His self-immolation and subsequent death brought many out into the streets to demand social justice.
Osman said that repression has continued in Tunisia, institutions were not reformed, and the slogans of the revolution remain just slogans.
The unemployment rate in Tunisia rose to 15.1% in the first quarter of 2020, and to 18% in the second quarter, with the coronavirus crisis playing a large role, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics. Youth unemployment reached 36.5% in 2020, according to the International Labor Organization.
The capital Khartoum and other Sudanese cities have been witnessing protests for days, denouncing the deteriorating economic and living conditions.
On Tuesday, the army deployed in force in Khartoum and streets leading to the General Command headquarters of the armed forces were closed, in anticipation of the expansion of protests.
The demonstrators closed the main streets for the fourth consecutive day and chanted slogans calling for improved economic conditions. The economic situation in Sudan has worsened during the last four weeks due to the high price of food commodities and the scarcity of bread, cooking gas and fuel.
Jihad Mashamoun, a Sudanese analyst and writer at Al Sharq Strategic Research, told The Media Line that protests escalated because the government had raised the price of bread, other commodities, electricity and fuel.
“I believe the protests will escalate further, as elements of the old regime were attempting or will attempt to use them in order to make the situation more challenging for the [current] government to govern the country,” Mashamoun said.
At the same time, he said that there is no clear sign of a government plan to remedy the situation, especially since its hands are tied, given the demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
“Also, the government is making sure the leaders of the military, who are an extension of the former regime, do not attempt to use this protest to dissolve it [the current government] from power,” he said.
Mashamoun said the government should be transparent with the public about why it raised prices and to highlight the challenges it has been facing, as well as talk about its plans to overcome the people’s economic challenges.
“Previously the government promised to continue with its current budget, including goods subsidies, but in reality it increased the prices,” he said.
The Sudanese transitional government previously eliminated government subsidies for fuel, and reduced them for flour and electricity, which increased the inflation rate in the country to more than 269% by December 2020.
The deterioration of economic conditions has been exacerbated by the depreciation of the national currency, as one dollar now costs about 310 Sudanese pounds.