Africa Asia Middle East عربي Français PlusNews Film & TV Radio Photo Subscribe Site Map



humanitarian news and analysis
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Advanced search
Please take our short audience survey
 Thursday 05 June 2008 Latest reports:
 
Home 
Africa 
Asia 
Middle East 
Weekly reports 
Interviews 
In-Depth reports 
Country profiles 
Maps 
IRIN jobs 
Most popular 
Really Simple Syndication Feeds 
About IRIN 
Donors 
Subscriptions 
Contact IRIN 
 
HyperLink
LEBANON: High prices, low wages feed violent political stand-off


Photo: Lucy Fielder/IRIN
Food prices have risen by at least 40 percent in Lebanon over the past year
BEIRUT, 8 May 2008 (IRIN) - Ramzi Ali was nearly 13 when his parents took him out of school to work as a motorbike mechanic.

"Conditions are hard, and political tensions are destroying the country," said Ali, now 14, as he manned a barricade of burning tyres in central Beirut on 7 May. "My parents just couldn't afford to keep me at school any more."

Anti-government protesters blocked roads with burning tyres across the Lebanese capital on 7 May after Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, and an allied Christian party, threw their weight behind a general strike called by the country's union federation to demand higher wages and decry high prices.

A pall of smoke hovered above a city of shuttered shops and empty roads, as workers either obeyed the strike call or stayed at home for fear of the sectarian violence that flares up periodically in Beirut and stokes fears of civil war.

Gunmen exchanged fire in central areas of Beirut that are mixed Sunni and Shia Muslim, and therefore divided between supporters of the Sunni Future Movement, part of the pro-Western governing coalition, and the Shia opposition Hezbollah and Amal parties.

The strike was called by labour unions after rejecting a last-minute government increase in the monthly minimum wage from US$200 to $330. Recent research by Lebanese economic consultancy InfoPro found that wages averaged $500 while the actual minimum wage was around $320, making the increase irrelevant to most workers.

Prices up

Prices of basic commodities have spiked over the past month.

Reuters video short on strike in Beirut

Watch larger version of video

A grocer in Ras al-Nabeh neighbourhood of Beirut said a bottle of cooking oil had risen from $4 to $6.5, while the price of sugar had doubled. Where one dollar used to buy 1.5kg of bread, it now buys 1.1kg. Chickpeas and grains that are a staple of Lebanese diets, meat and vegetables have also risen.

According to the consumer association, prices have risen by 43 percent over the past 21 months, while the official unemployment rate stands at 10 percent. Independent estimates put it at 20 percent.

Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh also said last week that the inflation rate had risen by 10 percent, due to a rise in oil prices on international markets, food prices and the weakening of the dollar against other currencies.

Personal testimonies

Mahmoud, an unemployed 20-year-old at the barricade who preferred not to give his full name, said rising prices and low wages made it harder for young men to get ahead.

"At this rate, I'll never get married," he said. "You have to work several jobs at once just to make ends meet, and it's hard even to find one… Women don't want to marry a man who can't afford even to rent his own home," he said.

Both young men, who said they were Hezbollah supporters from the mainly Shia Muslim southern suburbs of Beirut, blamed the government for Lebanon's worsening living conditions.


Photo: Hugh Macleod/IRIN
Striking taxi drivers in southern Beirut
"Every time we protest about price rises and low wages, or the policies of this government that's on Western life-support, we're told we're stirring Sunni-Shia strife," said Mahmoud.

Because the strike was associated with the opposition, some government supporters were showing their defiance.

In a pro-government part of the eastern area of Achrafieh, Raymond Charbel, a 68-year-old father of three, defied the strike to keep his run-down dry-cleaning shop open despite the dearth of customers.

Food to feed his family had become harder to afford, he said, saying lemons - much used in Lebanese cooking - had more than doubled from about $0.75 a kilogram to $1.75. "Inflation and economic ruin is affecting everybody, so what good is closing down the roads so no one can work?" he asked.

Causes of the crisis

Rami Zurayk, professor of land and water resources at the American University of Beirut, said the crisis resulted from a combination of global commodity and oil price rises and economic mismanagement by successive governments since Lebanon's 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

Those policies had focused on sectors of the economy that directly contributed to national growth, rather than on job-creation, development and investment in such sectors as farming, he said.

"So inequality between the people of Lebanon has continued to increase over time," Zurayk said.

Gradual economic disintegration was a catalyst for the political problems and the sectarianism that plague Lebanon, he argued.

"Bad economics produces a situation in which politicians become powerful, because you have to hide behind a sect, a leader, and become a client in order to survive. In turn, the bad economic situation is hijacked by political parties in order to apply pressure."


Photo: Lucy Fielder/IRIN
Lebanese political divisions deepened in the aftermath of last summer's war between Hezbollah and Israel
Tensions


A stand-off on the flashpoint Corniche Al-Mazraa road between government and opposition supporters, with the army separating the two, illustrated how far Lebanon's polarised politicians are from reaching a deal to end the 18-month political crisis.

Tensions between Hezbollah and the government of Prime Minister Fouad al-Saniora escalated this week after the latter banned the guerrilla and political group's private telephone system, calling it a threat to the state.

Hezbollah said the network was part of its military defence against Israel, which it fought in a July 2006 war, and that tampering with it was collaboration and tantamount to disarming the group. Hezbollah's weapons lie at the heart of the political standoff.

The government also this week vowed to sack the security chief at Beirut international airport over allegations of aiding Hezbollah place cameras there to monitor private jets. Airport employees stopped working for six hours while opposition protesters blocked roads to the airport, leading to the cancellation or delay of 19 incoming and 13 outgoing flights.

lf/hm/ar/cb


Theme(s): (IRIN) Early Warning, (IRIN) Economy, (IRIN) Food Security, (IRIN) Governance

[ENDS]

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
HyperLink
Countries
FREE Subscriptions
Your e-mail address:


Submit your request
 More reports
  • 25/May/2008
    MIDDLE EAST: IRIN-ME Weekly round up 179 for 17 - 23 May 2008
  • 20/May/2008
    LEBANON: Rights group calls for law banning sectarian incitement
  • 19/May/2008
    MIDDLE EAST: IRIN-ME Weekly round up 178 for 10 – 16 May 2008
  • 16/May/2008
    LEBANON: Palestinian refugees stage demo near Israeli border
  • 13/May/2008
    LEBANON: Army “under tremendous pressure” but still united
     More on Early Warning
  • 04/Jun/2008
    YEMEN: Dengue fever outbreak in south fuelled by "ignorance"
  • 03/Jun/2008
    ISRAEL-OPT: Palestinians give up on legal building route - UN
  • 26/May/2008
    YEMEN: Deaths of African migrants continue - Somali consul
  • 25/May/2008
    MIDDLE EAST: IRIN-ME Weekly round up 179 for 17 - 23 May 2008
  • 22/May/2008
    IRAQ: Ministry issues drought warning
    Share:

    Services:  Africa | Asia | Middle East | PlusNews | Radio | Film & TV | Photo | E-mail subscription
    Feedback | E-mail Webmaster | Terms & Conditions | Really Simple Syndication News Feeds | About IRIN | Bookmark IRINnews | Donors

    Copyright © IRIN 2008. All rights reserved.
    This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States. Republication is subject to terms and conditions as set out in the IRIN copyright page.