BEIRUT, 8 May (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 tires 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 tires across the Lebanese capital on 7 May after Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizballah, 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 Hizballah and Amal parties.
The strike was called by labor 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 of basic commodities have spiked over the past month.
A grocer in Ras al-Nabeh neighborhood of Beirut said a bottle of cooking oil had risen from $4 to $6.50, while the price of sugar had doubled. Where one dollar used to buy 1.5 kilogram of bread, it now buys 1.1 kilogram. 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.
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 Hizballah supporters from the mainly Shia Muslim southern suburbs of Beirut, blamed the government for Lebanon’s worsening living conditions.
“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.”
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 polarized politicians are from reaching a deal to end the 18-month political crisis.
Tensions between Hizballah and the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora escalated this week after the latter banned the guerrilla and political group’s private telephone system, calling it a threat to the state.
Hizballah said the network was part of its military defense against Israel, which it fought in a July 2006 war, and that tampering with it was collaboration and tantamount to disarming the group. Hizballah’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 Hizballah to 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.
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