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LAST YEAR

by Executive Editors

January February 

Lockdown and labor protests

Following the government decision to extend a total COVID-19 lockdown and curfew to the first week of February, exasperated citizens left without the possibility of securing income from daily labor or sales activities took to the streets and blocked roads in protest across the country. At the start of the year a lockdown was implemented for the January 14-25 period, in response to a skyrocketing rise in COVID-19 cases during the holiday season. The extension of the lockdown was decided in a desperate attempt to flatten the curve of infection but was perceived as economically detrimental by laborers and business owners already struggling to remain afloat and deprived of any compensation or social safety net. The resigned Lebanese government did resolutely nothing. 

COVID-19 vaccination starts 

After a long wait, the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Lebanon and the Ministry of Public Health initiated a nationwide and widely promoted vaccination campaign prioritizing medical personnel and senior citizens. The good news was marred by reports of expected nepotism and abuse by public figures, ineligible for priority vaccination, rushing ahead of others to get jabbed. When called out, some of these politicians responded publicly as expected with dismissive remarks and, in some cases, insulting language. Further complications arose from the insufficiency of imported doses amid high demand and need, while different political figures worked through alternative channels to secure additional doses for their electoral base. This prompted the private sector once again to step in and secure vaccines at their own expense for their employees free of charge or at competitive prices.

Journalist murdered 

Lokman Slim, a prominent journalist, activist and vocalcritic of Hezbollah politics was found shot in his car in southern Lebanon on February 4. Slim had previously received explicit death threats from Hezbollah supporters and had issued a statement holding the group’s leadership, along with the Lebanese army, responsible for his personal safety His murder adds another heinous crime to the list of assassinations of people able to testify on nefarious activities in recent months, amid nationwide certainty that it too will also go unsolved. The inability to single out any suspects, much less secure a conviction, or even launch prosecution, meant “the elephant remained in the room,” and the guilty would continue to kill with impunity and pursue their unbridled efforts to advance their own agendas. Slim’s assassination was only the most recent case of attacks against journalists and freedom of expression since the beginning of the October 17 protest movement. His funeral and requiem were attended by a slew of artists, activists, foreign ambassadors, and multi-confessional religious delegations. 

The Lebanese pound in free fall 

In March, the dollar exchange rate reached 10,000 Lebanese pounds on the parallel market for the first time. This figure, regarded by some as the symbolic point of no return for the national currency’s depreciation sounded the alarm for both businesses and citizens who once again took to the streets and blocked roads in protest. This depreciation below 10,000 pounds had been anticipated by a number of economists and analysts but had managed to be delayed in the wake of the August 4 Beirut Port explosion, following an influx of US dollar notes to the country from international donors and expatriates. In the months that followed, this accelerated inflation has been steadily contributing to the depreciation of the Lebanese pound. The subsequent lifting of all lockdown measures and reopening of most businesses did nothing to slow down further depreciation or the dwindling of purchasing power.

April May

No more gasoline? 

The spiralling depreciation of the Lebanese pound and shortage of hard US dollar currency began threatening fuel importers’ ability to afford additional supplies at the subsidy rates effective then. Unscrupulous distributors and gas station owners radically reduced and rationed supply across, pretexting acute shortages even as reports increased of fuel hoarding, black market sales and smuggling of fuel to Syria (along with US dollar banknotes, flour, and a slew of subsidized goods). Panicking commuters queued for up to six or eight hours – sometimes parking their vehicles in line overnight – at gas stations to fill their tanks at steadily increasing rates, provided daily rations lasted. Main roads and highways saw heavy congestion from queues at gas stations, sometimes spread over three lines and extending kilometers. Scenes of vehicles, including ambulances, having run dry and been abandoned mid-road or towed by hand were repeated in different parts of the country, and so were scenes of violence at gas stations, a few of which with tragic endings. Once more, the resigned Lebanese government expended minimal efforts to address the situation.

No more electricty? 

The fuel crisis spilled over to the electricity sector, increasing outages and blackouts, with private generator owners struggling to fill the gaps and beginning to raise subscription fees while reducing supply. The continuing depreciation of the Lebanese pound began to make it more difficult for many citizens to afford price hikes. Some socially minded businesses started welcoming even non-paying customers, specifically students, freelancers and remotely-based employees, to allow them to recharge their laptops and mobile devices or simply escape the relentless summer heat. Again, the resigned Lebanese government remained predictably idle and hoped to stall until a new government would be formed under Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri. 

Judicial mishaps 

Two Lebanese judges made headlines in this period. Like his predecessor Judge Fadi Sawwan, Judge Tarek Bitar who replaced him in leading the Beirut Port explosion investigation, started facing political pressure from officials and former ministers called on to testify or be investigated. Recurring monthly demonstrations by the families of the victims began to take on a clear character of support for Bitar in challenging systemic impunity and the judge managed to overcome many of the early legal hurdles thrown at him. On the other hand, the controversial Judge Ghada Aoun, Mount Lebanon’s state prosecutor, engaged in a highly mediatized campaign to hold bankers accountable for transferring funds outside Lebanon. Judge Aoun’s perceived bias and untimely agenda divided citizens and eventually led nowhere. Both cases put the issue of an independent judiciary in the spotlight.

Tourism hopes hang on returning expatriates 

Despite the escalating fuel and electricity crisis, the hospitality and tourism sector was betting on a good summer season to recoup some of their losses and stay in business. Import restrictions and the depreciation of the Lebanese pound exacerbated shortages of medical supplies (worsened from the hoarding of supplies by households and, in speculation, by some distributors and pharmacists) as well as other essential goods. Expatriates returning to the country after a year of lockdowns flocked to Rafic Hariri International Airport laden with suitcases of over-the-counter and prescription medication, hygiene products, baby formula, and “fresh dollars” to succor their families. Restaurants and nightlife venues filled up, buoyed by the multiplied purchasing power of these expatriates’ US dollars.

June July August 

Hariri out, Mikati in 

Nine months after his designation as new Prime Minister in the wake of the resignation of the previous Hassan Diab government, and following endless disagreements with President Michel Aoun on his cabinet’s constitution, Saad Hariri finally conceded and withdrew his candidacy on July 15, and was replaced two weeks later by Najib Mikati as prime minister desingnate. By then, with talks of elections in 2022 already thriving, these developments had virtually no bearing on energy, fiscal, or social policies of any kind, barely causing a bump in the upward curve of the Lebanese pound’s unrestrained depreciation, while fuel, electricity, and medication shortages held strong. Queues at the passport office of the General Directorate of General Security started swelling as demand for passports increased dramatically, fuelled by rumors of passport papers running out with hopes of escaping the increasingly untenable situation resting on hypothetical immigration. Hassan Diab’s care takeover government idly watched on.

Deadly gasoline

At least 30 people were a clear stand on demands to replace Bitar. Mikati, however, maintained his refusal to get implicated in the judiciary process. Meanwhile, human rights groups expressed their fears that Bitar would eventually be removed, further stalling the investigation, especially after some of the relatives of the victims of the explosion suddenly wavered in their support of Bitar, a turn-around they justified as efforts to avoid further conflicts and violence while others condemned as betrayal and acting under political pressure or threats. Despite these tensions, demonstrators still gathered peacefully in Nejmeh Square on October 17 to renew their demands for reforms, justice and accountability against the backdrop of an economic and social crisis worsening by the day.

August 4, one year later

One year after the deadly August 4 blast, justice for the victims of the disasters remained elusive, amid a flurry of attempts to remove Judge Tarek Bitar presiding over the investigation. On July 2, Bitar had announced legal procedures against a number of high-ranking politicians and security officials, among them General Security Chief MajorGeneral Abbas Ibrahim. Following caretaker Minister of Interior Mohammed Fahmi’s refusal to lift the immunity of Ibrahim, families of the victims of the explosion protested outside Fahmi’s residence in Beirut and clashed with anti-riot police, even managing to break through the perimeter after Fahmi’s evacuation. Protest movements continued through July until August 4, 2021 where demonstrators gathered en masse in Beirut to commemorate the tragedy. The day was marked by the unveiling of a monument to the victims on the site of the explosion, a massive 25 meter-tall sculpture made from debris of the explosion, that was nine months in the making funded by private companies, with support from state institutions. The monument sparked mixed reviews and the unveiling ceremony was boycotted by some of the families of the victims who held another ceremony simultaneously on the highway overlooking the port. Later in the day, security forces in Nejmeh Square, once again, clashed with demonstrators demanding truth, justice, and an impartial investigation. Later in the month of August, the Lebanese and visitors suffered terse moments as central bank Governor Riad Salameh announced an upcoming complete withdrawal of fuel importations subsidies. However, fears peaked, and the summer holiday season resumed with tourists and expats experiencing their visits without feared increases in violent protests.

September October 

The battle for justice spills over to the streets

The tug-of-war between supporters and opponents of Judge Tarek Bitar in the August 4 Beirut Port explosion investigation intensified over the months of September and October, culminating in roadblocks and a violent demonstration denouncing the politization of the investigation on October 14, that ended in armed clashes between the Tayyouneh and Ain El Remmaneh areas of Beirut near Adlieh. Residential neighborhoods in the district suffered business and property damages, while rooftop shooters apparently targeted demonstrators causing at least six deaths. The violence ignited political and confessional tensions, and somehow dampened motivation for a strong second commemoration of the October 17 protests. Since his appointment as lead investigator, Bitar was forced to suspend his probe repeatedly in the face of lawsuits filed by former ministers suspected of negligence over the August 4 explosion. Following the latest violent confrontations, Hezbollah representatives announced they would boycott meetings of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s newly formed cabinet until his government took a clear stand on demands to replace Bitar. Mikati, however, maintained his refusal to get implicated in the judiciary process. Meanwhile, human rights groups expressed their fears that Bitar would eventually be removed, further stalling the investigation, especially after some of the relatives of the victims of the explosion suddenly wavered in their support of Bitar, a turn-around they justified as efforts to avoid further conflicts and violence while others condemned as betrayal and acting under political pressure or threats. Despite these tensions, demonstrators still gathered peacefully in Nejmeh Square on October 17 to renew their demands for reforms, justice and accountability against the backdrop of an economic and social crisis worsening by the day.

Blackouts and breakdowns 

Electricity: The electricity crisis reached its peak in October with the first total blackouts across all regions. Private generators instigated serious rationing due to high fuel prices following the full elimination of fuel subsidies and rising fuel prices. Inefficiencies and high costs of imported fuel across the energy sector took their toll on households and businesses alike, with increased closures anticipated. The situation fuelled (forgive the pun) a nationwide dialog about alternative solutions from renewable energy sources, specifically solar energy. Energy was the subject of a high-impact Special Report by Executive in partnership with Konrad-AdenauerStiftung (KAS-REMENA) that engaged technical, legal and financial experts. Fuel: With subsidies removed, gasoline seemed to magically rematerialize in gas stations after a summer of shortage, albeit in a sketchy manner at first, but fewer citizens could still afford it without the lifeline of remittances by their expatriate relatives. This was reflected in the increased demand for bus transportation by parents for their children as schools started reopening. Waste: The cost of fuel disrupted waste pickup and management operations, resulting in garbage piling up on sidewalks and burned or dumped erratically. On a positive note, diminishing purchasing power caused the overall volume of household waste to diminish, as reported by different recyclers. Arts: Rising costs strained the arts sector that was already struggling with production difficulties linked to COVID-19 restrictions and a dwindling turnover at artistic events. During the October 14 violent clashes in Beirut, the entrance area of the Sunflower Theater in Tayyouneh, one of the city’s cultural mainstays, was seriously damaged and eventually closed off, marking another blow to the sector.

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Executive Editors

Executive Editors are the virtuosos behind Executive’s compelling narratives. Over decades, our editorial team has applied a blend of seasoned expertise, intellectual wit, and a discerning eye to bring you insightful and engaging stories that eschew sensationalism
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