Tunisia president: ‘There will be no single way to resolve political crisis’

BEIRUT: As Ramadan approaches, Beirut and other cities are missing the decorations that used to fill the streets for this occasion. Instead, pictures of candidates running for parliamentary elections are plastered everywhere. Only a few modest banners are raised, reminding people to donate to charities during the holy month. Lebanon is struggling for the third year in a row with a crippling financial crisis, which has pushed many below the poverty line, resulting in an increasing number of beggars on the streets. The crisis has also greatly affected the middle class, whose incomes have declined with the depreciation of the local currency against the dollar, while others have been laid off as hundreds of institutions, factories and shops shut down. With the rise in unemployment on one hand, and the dollarization of the most basic needs — including the monthly subscription to the electricity generator and fuel — on the other, most Lebanese are barely surviving. SPEEDREAD Lebanon’s financial system has collapsed since 2019 under the weight of sovereign debt and the system of corruption that governs it. Neighborhoods with more than an hour of electricity supply a day from the government are considered lucky. Fuel prices have risen significantly. Taking a cab costs 36,000 Lebanese pounds ($23) for a round trip — it was 2,000 Lebanese pounds ($1.30) pre-crisis. Neamat, a mother of five shopping for vegetables in a popular market in Tariq Al-Jdideh, told Arab News: “May God help us. Every Ramadan is harder than the previous one. A bundle of bread now costs 10,000 Lebanese pounds, and I need two every day. The prices of fruits and vegetables are insane, although everything is local. One kilo of cucumbers costs 35,000 Lebanese pounds, a head of lettuce 20,000 Lebanese pounds. A kilo of chicken breast is around 200,000 Lebanese pounds and our local butcher told us prices are expected to increase even more this month. A gallon of vegetable oil costs 500,000 Lebanese pounds.” Neamat said: “With the Ukrainian crisis, prices rose even more; as if we needed any more adversities in Lebanon while our youth are unemployed.” Lebanon’s financial system has collapsed since 2019 under the weight of sovereign debt and the system of corruption that governs it. Meanwhile, politicians are yet to reach an agreement on a recovery plan that is good enough for the International Monetary Fund to bail Lebanon out. The Lebanese pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value and prices have dramatically increased as Lebanon relies heavily on imports. The military’s monthly salary has decreased to the equivalent of $50; previously it was $900. When the Lebanese discuss the price of goods, they do not spare their officials. Zuhair Al-Masry, a retired international football referee, told Arab News: “Last Ramadan, the exchange rate was around 16,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar. It has now risen to 23,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar. The cost of fuel has doubled, and the prices of all goods increased. A gallon of jallab, a popular fruit syrup during Ramadan, used to cost 25,000 Lebanese pounds last year; it now costs 140,000 Lebanese pounds. One kilo of plain Arabic sweets used to cost 35,000 Lebanese pounds; it’s now 100,000 Lebanese pounds. Sometimes I envy those who have diabetes.” Mohammed Al-Hallaq, the owner of a small shop in one of Beirut’s popular neighborhoods, told Arab News: “The price hike is unprecedented. People cannot bear it, but they will definitely fast and so far no one has died of starvation. God bless us during this holy month.” Mustafa, a concrete dealer who no longer has work due to the economic crisis, complained that he will not be able to afford everything he needs for Ramadan. “They said that aid will come during Ramadan from the Gulf countries. I don’t know why they left us alone to suffer this injustice.” Umm Imad, an elderly woman who lives in the southern suburbs of Beirut, said: “People who receive their salaries in dollars, including families of Hezbollah members and employees who work in institutions that pay part of their salaries in dollars, and families who have relatives working abroad and sending them dollars, are doing well. They can afford to buy meat and fish during Raman; their iftar meals will be the same as every year, unbothered by what other people are going through.” Shops that sell Arabic sweets, which are usually very popular during Ramadan, have changed their recipes to include more affordable ingredients. They are using almonds instead of pine nuts, a kilo of which costs $100, while Aleppo pistachios are replaced by the less expensive Sudanese pistachios, so that customers do not pay much for sweets and shop owners can still sell their products. Najah Zahra, branch manager at Al-Baba Sweets, said: “We are trying to take into account the prevailing living conditions. The costs of raw materials such as sugar, flour and oil have been affected by the rise in the dollar exchange rate and the Ukraine crisis. Even getting enough materials requires double effort.” Zahra said: “Our chefs are inventing new items at a lower cost and in a slightly smaller size so customers can still afford them.” Maher Al-Taweel, who has been following the conditions of the mosques supervised by Dar Al-Fatwa, expected Taraweeh prayers to be held by candlelight. “There is no electricity at night; what are people to do for suhur? Not all mosques can afford to pay over two million Lebanese pounds a month for generators. Some well-off citizens have provided UPS devices for some mosques to provide minimum lighting. Others have bought solar panels to light mosques at their own expense. Still, many mosques will hold Ramadan prayers by candlelight,” he said. Al-Taweel said: “No Ramadan decorations in the streets this year. They have become a luxury as they are priced in dollars. Those who used to put decorations up would rather give the money to charities, which have been very active on social media this year in a bid to reach as many people as possible.”

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