Hundreds of people swarmed into downtown Beirut Wednesday to protest Lebanon’s dire economic conditions as the collapse of the country’s currency posed an increasing challenge for a government reeling from years of chaos. Security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters as some tried to storm the government’s headquarters.
Videos on social media showed protesters trying to break through the fence around the building and hurling stones at security forces as others ran away from the tear gas filling the air.
“People are trying to express their voices, because nobody is listening to them,” Wadih Al-Asmar, president of the EuroMed Rights group, told CBS News. “The majority of Lebanese are struggling to survive.”
Lebanese authorities did not release any information about injuries or arrests, but some people suffered from tear gas inhalation during the clashes.
A group of retired Lebanese military personnel called for the demonstrations and other groups joined in, all protesting the difficulties of daily life amid an economic crisis that began years ago, with many demanding an increase to their state pensions, which have shrunk in real terms as the value of Lebanon’s currency has plummeted.
“We protested to send a message to the government,” retired General Maroun Badr, one of the leaders of the protest group made up of retired military officers, told CBS News. “We were asking for a raise to be able to cope with the taxes and fees. Our pensions aren’t enough.”
Over the past three years the Lebanese pound has lost more than 95% of its value against the dollar, and it continues to strike new lows.
“The situation for the military personnel and for civilians is terrible. We can’t continue like this. Reform is needed to cope with inflation, just to be able to survive,” said Badr, who joined the protest himself. “A delegation representing us met with the government to discuss our demands. We will wait until next week, and if our demands are not met, we will go back to the streets and escalate.”
Last month, supermarkets in Lebanon were pricing items in U.S. dollars amid the unprecedented collapse of the local currency as they couldn’t keep up with the daily price changes.
“I don’t think retired army personal or any other group alone is going to be a game changer,” al-Asmar, of the human rights group, told CBS News. “The problem is much deeper and more complicated.”
Al-Asmar sees little reason to hope the protests will sway the government – long accused of corruption and mismanagement – to make the sweeping changes he believes are needed. He said as the financial crisis deepens, people are being pushed to think more about their own interests, so if the government can make limited concessions to end the demonstrations, it will likely survive the unrest.
“Politicians are happy with the status quo, as most Lebanese can’t even afford to demonstrate,” Al-Asmar said. “With many having to do two or three jobs to survive, they can’t demonstrate for more than three hours or so.”