Gas station strike paralyzes Lebanon as crisis deepens
BEIRUT – Angry motorists blocked roads with their vehicles in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon on Friday, creating traffic jams to protest a strike by owners of gas stations demanding an increase in gasoline prices as the local currency drops and the nation slides deeper into a financial crisis.
The road closures around Lebanon came as President Michel Aoun headed a meeting of the country’s top economic officials to discuss the rapidly deteriorating economic and financial situation in the country.
Nationwide protests that began Oct. 17 over widespread corruption and mismanagement have worsened Lebanon’s worst economic and financial crises since the 1975-90 civil war ended, as did the resignation of the government late last month. Although Hariri resigned his government on Oct. 29, Aoun has not yet set a date for binding consultations with heads of parliamentary blocs to name a new premier.
The protests were initially sparked by new taxes but quickly evolved into calls for the entire political elite to step aside.
Friday’s meeting was attended by the ministers of economy and finance as well as the Central Bank’s chief and the head of the banking association as well as the economic adviser of outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Lebanon is one of the world’s highest indebted countries and the country’s banking sector has imposed unprecedented capital control amid a widespread shortage of dollars. People have not been allowed in recent weeks to withdraw as much as they want from their bank accounts.
The price of the dollar has dropped 40 percent on the black market after it was stable at 1,507 pounds to the dollar since 1997.
During the meeting, Aoun put forward some suggestions to come out of the crisis and it was decided that the central bank governor would take needed measures regarding coordination with banks to issue circulars to preserve stability, said a statement read by Salim Sfeir, the chairman of the Association of Banks in Lebanon.
“The meeting discussed financial and banking conditions that the country is passing through that has begun to negatively affect most sectors,” the statement said adding that Lebanon will remain committed to its free market economy.
The shortage of liquidity has led to drops in businesses and over the past months scores of institutions have closed and thousands of employees were either laid off or had their salaries cut.
Gas stations began an open-ended strike Thursday as owners are demanding that they be allowed to hike prices saying they are losing money because of the shortage of dollars in the market.
In Beirut and several areas across the country, motorists parked their cars in the middle of the road, saying they ran out of petrol. In other areas angry protesters blocked roads to express their anger against closure of gas stations.
Politicians, meanwhile, have failed to agree on the shape and form of a new government. Hariri had insisted on heading a government of technocrats, while his opponents, including the militant Hezbollah, want a Cabinet made up of both experts and politicians.
U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis said he met Friday with central bank governor Riad Salameh and discussed with him measures “urgently needed to stop the further deepening” of the economic crisis and to increase the ability of the banking sector to cope with the pressures.
“Formation of a credible and competent government that can regain the trust of the people and of the international partners of #Lebanon is the priority,” Kubis tweeted.
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