Middle East

In Lebanon, financial collapse and security concerns loom

BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of Lebanese women marched across a former front line in the Lebanese capital Wednesday carrying white roses and Lebanese flags to denounce overnight clashes between rival groups that injured dozens of people. They pledged no return to civil war.

But amid a political impasse after 40 days of protests, sectarian and political rivalries are awakening, with scuffles breaking out daily, including in areas that were deadly front lines during the country’s 1975-90 conflict.

The tiny Mediterranean country is also reeling under the worst financial crisis in decades with unprecedented capital controls, and as tempers flare, there are real concerns Lebanon could be sliding toward a prolonged period of instability.

“We are standing before two dangers that are racing with each other, the danger of financial collapse and the danger of security collapse. It is an unprecedented situation,” said Nabil Bou Monsef, deputy editor- in-chief of the An-Nahar newspaper.

The overnight clashes — mostly fistfights and stone throwing between supporters and opponents of Lebanese President Michel Aoun — erupted in cities and towns across the country, injuring dozens of people, and 16 people were detained for their involvement, the Lebanese Red Cross and the army said.

President Michel Aoun has yet to hold consultations with parliamentary blocs on choosing a new prime minister after the government resigned a month ago.

Outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was Aoun’s and the militant Hezbollah’s favorite to lead a new Cabinet, withdrew his candidacy for the premiership, saying he hoped to clear the way for a solution to the political impasse after over 40 days of protests. Protesters have resorted to road closures and other tactics to pressure politicians into responding to their demands for a new government.

The most recent violence first began Sunday night after supporters of the two main Shia groups, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, attacked protesters on Beirut’s Ring Road. During the civil war, that thoroughfare had connected predominantly Muslim neighborhoods in the city’s west with Christian areas in the east.

Intense clashes took place Tuesday night between people in the Shia suburb of Chiyah and the adjacent Christian area of Ein Rummaneh, where stones were hurled between supporters of Hezbollah and rival groups supporting the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces. A shooting in Ein Rummaneh in April 1975 triggered the 15-year civil war that killed nearly 150,000 people.

Also on Tuesday night, supporters and opponents of Aoun engaged in fistfights and stone throwing in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest, injuring 24 people. Seven were hospitalized.

In the mountain town of Bikfaya, 10 people were injured, including five who were hospitalized, after scuffles and stone throwing between Aoun’s supporters and supporters of the right-wing Christian Lebanese Phalange Party, according to the Red Cross. The violence broke out after a convoy of dozens of vehicles carrying Aoun supporters drove into the town, which has been historically a Phalange stronghold.

On Thursday, about 300 women marched on the former front line between Ein Rummaneh and Chiyah after meeting each other in the middle and exchanging white roses. Some held banners that read: “All one nation” and “All one pain.”

“No to civil war!” they shouted.

But in the absence of a government and any political solution, analysts say more turmoil and instability is inevitable.

“I expect more chaos. As long as the country is without political cover, it is subjected to dangers. There is no government and there is complete failure in the constitutional process of forming a government,” Bou Monsef said.

The growing security concerns also reflect a fast deteriorating financial crisis in a country that is among the most indebted in the world. Amid dollar shortages, Lebanese banks have imposed unprecedented financial controls to preserve liquidity, further paralyzing the country and forcing up prices amid fears of financial collapse.

Businesses and households have been thrown into disarray. Residents say they don’t know how they will come up with dollar payments needed to pay for tuition, health insurance and housing loans. Companies are struggling to transfer salaries to staff, others have cut salaries or are simply laying off employees.

Some experts have suggested that a so-called haircut, in which the state takes a cut of depositors’ money to cover its debts, is inevitable to deal with the crisis. Central Bank Gov. Riad Salameh has denied this was an option.

On Wednesday, dozens of protesters gathered outside the Central Bank in Beirut’s commercial Hamra district, calling for fiscal measures that will not affect small depositors and the poor. Next to them, barbers and hairdressers were giving men and women free haircuts amid concerns about depositors’ savings.

“They are imposing on us certain restrictions where people are not able to purchase medicine, and are unable to go to the hospital, while the big businessmen are able to transfer their money,” said Rebecca Saadeh, a protester, as a hair dresser cut her hair.

“People are desperate to get dollars to pay their rent or to buy food, which is spiking fabulously and then they accused us of protesting,” she said.

The Lebanese army said in a statement that 16 people involved in the violence were detained, adding that 33 troops were injured in Tripoli after soldiers were hit with stones and molotov cocktails. It added that 10 other soldiers were injured as they separated crowds in Chiyah and Ein Rummaneh, while eight were injured in Bikfaya.

Clashes between Lebanese protesters and Hezbollah supporters are putting Lebanon’s military and security forces in a delicate position, threatening to crack open the country’s dangerous fault lines amid a political deadlock.

Hariri had resigned Oct. 29 in response to the mass protests ignited by new taxes and the severe financial crisis. His resignation met a key demand of the protesters but plunged the country into uncertainty, with no clear path to resolving its economic and political problems.

Hariri had insisted on heading a government of technocrats, while his opponents, including Hezbollah, want a Cabinet made up of both experts and politicians.

Bou Monsef said Hezbollah believes that a Cabinet comprised of technocrats that excludes the group would be a gift for America, which wants to keep it out of government.

“Some are betting, especially the parties of the state, that the more the uprising is weakened the conditions that Hariri has put will weaken as well,” said Mustafa Alloush, an official with Hariri’s Future Movement.

Reporting by Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam; Associated Press writers Hussein Malla and Fadi Tawil contributed reporting

Image: Lebanese women shout slogans as they hold an Arabic placard that reads:”No to violence, no to sectarianism, no to civil war,” during a protest at a former Beirut frontline between Christian district of Ain el-Rummaneh and a Muslim Shia district of Shiyah, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday, Nov. 27 (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

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