As inflation continued to rise and the Lebanese pound continued to fall with few government measures to cushion the collapse, residents across the country called for strikes and demonstrations to mark the deterioration of their livelihoods. In February, land transport unions called for general strikes and sit-ins, including in Beirut, Tripoli, and several other cities across the country as the prices of gasoline became higher than the monthly minimum wage. Buses and taxi services ground to a halt as drivers blocked highways with vehicles strewn across the roads for two consecutive days.
Harsh winter weather
Unprecedented cold temperatures swept through the country in March, bringing snow and icy conditions with Lebanon’s poorest communities hit the hardest. Temperatures were well below the seasonal average and snow covered villages situated at low altitudes of 350 meters and 450 meters above sea level in villages in Akkar and the Bekaa valley. The harsh weather conditions were amplified by the collapse of electricity infrastructure leaving many without the power to heat homes, alongside the rise in cost of diesel oil for heating stoves. For Lebanon’s refugee population, the weather compounded their beleaguered living conditions with tents unsuitable for rain and snow, flooding and leaving families isolated in the cold.
A delegation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) arrived in Beirut from March 28 to April 7 to continue discussions for an economic reform program for Lebanon. It concluded in a staff-level agreement on comprehensive economic policies worth $3 billion, covering a 46-month period of an ‘Extended Fund Arrangement’. However, the agreement is subject to the Lebanese government enacting a range of financial reforms, including addressing the billion-dollar losses in the banking system.
The program also must be approved by the executive and management level at the IMF which will not happen without the required reforms. Some of the measures agreed to be taken by Lebanese authorities prior to the IMF board’s consideration include parliamentary approval of emergency bank resolution legislation, an externally assisted bank-by-bank evaluation for the 14 largest banks, parliamentary approval of a reformed bank secrecy law, and the unification of exchange rates by the Central Bank.
Rise in illegal migration
On April 23, a boat carrying 60 would-be migrants capsized off the coast of Tripoli, causing the deaths of at least seven people, including a young girl, with many remaining missing. The head of the naval forces said the boat used by the people smugglers was designed to only fit six passengers.
According to the head of the naval forces, the sinking occurred as two naval patrol boats chased the migrant boat, which led to a collision as the driver of the migrant boat tried to maneuver their way out but crashed and cracked the hull of the migrant boat causing water to rush in. The account was disputed by survivors, who said the navy had deliberately crashed into the migrant boat to force it back.
The United Nations refugee agency said that the figures making journeys across the Mediterranean to Europe from Lebanon more than doubled for the second year in a row in 2022. For the first nine months of 2022, 2,670 individuals “departed or attempted to depart irregularly from Lebanon” by boat, compared to the same period in 2021 which saw 1,137 people leave.
May June July
Lebanon held much-awaited parliamentary elections on May 15, despite concerns the elections would not be held on time amid the political and economic crisis. There was notable support from the Lebanese diaspora in 48 countries, with a turnout of around 63 percent – much higher than the 2018 response. Overall, the turnout stood at around 49.68 percent, putting it on par with the 2018 elections, despite the vote being the first since the October 2019 mass demonstrations and the economy’s collapse.
The results saw some change in the power balance of the 128-seat parliament. The Lebanese Forces gained 19 seats to become the largest Christian party, overtaking the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of former president Michel Aoun. FPM’s position as Hezbollah’s prominent Christian ally left the Shiite group’s bloc without the 65 seats needed for a parliamentary majority, coming out with 58.
Beyond popular expectations, 13 candidates who presented themselves as independents were voted in, and subsequently formed the Forces of Change group. Some of the figures had no prior political experience but were connected to the October 2019 anti-establishment protests. However, efforts to form a cabinet have stalled and Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati has been unable to form a government.
With the start of July came the implementation of the highly anticipated hike in telecommunications fees, as the tariff for mobile phone and internet subscriptions adjusted to the Central Bank’s Sayrafa dollar to Lebanese pound exchange rate. It meant prices jumped for consumers paying for internet and minute bundles after the Telecommunication Minister Johnny Corm had said the sector would not survive if there was no price increase. Prior to the change, the tariff followed the official Central Bank’s LL1,500/$1 exchange rate, causing it to lose revenue as the lira plunged against the dollar on the parallel market.
The economic crisis has also threatened internet and mobile coverage cuts due to diesel shortages, and the vandalism and theft of infrastructure.
Residents faced months of disrupted bread supplies with queues outside bakeries or empty shelves amid speculation the country was short on wheat. As the Russian-Ukranian war triggered global market instability and threatened global supplies, fears rose over the impact on Lebanon.
With most of Lebanon’s wheat supply from Ukraine and Russia, authorities rushed to seek alternative sources, although storage capacity remains limited since the grain silos were damaged in the 2020 Beirut port explosion and a suitable substitution has yet to be arranged. Flour millers maintained the problem lied with the government’s weakening ability to subsidize wheat imports which was delaying production, not with a shortage of wheat itself, while the speculation was causing customers to panic buy and thereby resulting in shortages.
On July 26, after several talks, the World Bank agreed to loan $150 million to the government to secure wheat supplies for six months. The World Bank said the loan was “to ensure the availability of wheat in Lebanon, in response to the turmoil in the global commodity market, and to maintain affordable access to bread for poor and vulnerable families.”
The program, known as the Lebanon Wheat Supply Emergency Response Project, was later approved by parliament and cabinet in October.
The economic crisis took a surreal turn in August when angry and sometimes armed depositors stormed banks in the hope of retrieving US dollar savings accounts which had been locked away since the economy began to tumble in 2019. Banks have imposed monthly withdrawal limits or only allowed customers to take out dollars exchanged into Lebanese pounds at a rate considerably lower than the black market, creating a huge haircut.
Across Lebanon, a wave of incursions was triggered when citizen Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein entered a branch of the Federal Bank in Hamra with a shotgun and a canister of petrol, threatening to set himself on fire unless the bank allowed him to withdraw his money. Negotiations went on for hours as Hussein held the bank employees’ hostage and a crowd of supporters gathered on the street outside. In the end, Hussein came to an agreement with the bank which allowed him to retrieve $39,000 which he said he needed to pay hospital bills. The following week, a judge ordered his release from jail after the Federal Bank withdrew their complaint against him.
September also saw a flurry of bank raids across Lebanon, from Beirut to Saida to Aley, with depositors demanding access to their savings. Most of the incidents resulted in the depositors retrieving partial amounts of their savings in fresh cash dollars. Although some were arrested because of the offence, they were later released. The Depositor’s Outcry, an activist group established to help depositors get access to their funds, encouraged the raids. In response to the incidents, the Association of Banks in Lebanon announced a three-day strike and urged the government to pass legislation to alleviate the economic crisis.
One activist, Sali Hafez, caught the attention of the country after she held up Blom Bank in Sodeco at gunpoint, demanding her family savings to pay the medical treatment for her sister, who was suffering from cancer. Footage of the incident shows her standing on top of a desk, brandishing a gun and telling the employees to hand her cash. After successfully withdrawing $13,000, she later told reporters that the gun she was holding was just a toy gun.
Migrant boat tragedy
More than 90 people died when a boat sank off the coast of Syria, which had been carrying migrants from northern Lebanon. According to Syrian authorities, about 150 people, mainly Lebanese and Syrian and Palestinian refugees, including children and the elderly, were on board the small boat which had left from Miniyeh near Tripoli.
The Lebanese Red Cross recieved bodies which had washed up on the coast of Syria to return them to their families in Lebanon. Large funerals were held in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian camp, north of Tripoli for the victims of the tragedy.
The Lebanese army said it had arrested a man believed to be responsible for the smuggling operation, which had planned to travel to Italy.
The incident also cemented Tripoli’s new role has a hub for illegal immingration across the Mediterranean.
New exchange rate announced
In September, the finance minister revealed plans to adjust the official exchange rate from LL1,507 to the dollar as adopted in 1997, to a rate of LL15,000 to the dollar. The devaluation is part of an IMF demand to unify exchange rates. Lebanon has been juggling various rates, including the Central Bank’s changing Sayrafa rate, which falls below the black market, meaning customers using it often take significant losses considering the black market rate sets street prices. The adjustment came into force in February 2023.
Lebanon experienced its first confirmed case of cholera on October 5 since the disease was squashed nearly thirty years ago. The disease was suspected to have entered Lebanon from Syria, following a major outbreak over the border. Hundreds of cases were initially detected in the northern districts of Akkar and Tripoli, before it spread among the refugee camps in the Bekaa valley and other areas in Lebanon. The public health regression was blamed on the economic crisis which has seen a major decline in living conditions, including in water quality and safety checks. The health sector has been at the brunt of this decline, coming under strain from a shortage of medicines, staff, and resources.
By November, 2,421 suspected cases were reported, with 18 deaths. The Ministry of Public Health released an awareness campaign to encourage residents to wash foods with bottled water and avoid rotten foods.
Lebanon received its first package of 600,000 cholera vaccine doses from the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund in November, with further vaccine shipments arriving.
A final maritime border deal
Lebanon and Israel made history in an unprecedent agreement to officialize their maritime border in October. Negotiations over the distribution of offshore territory had been inconclusive for years; dogged by disagreements between the two foes over historic boundary lines and claims for larger territory. Alongside American mediation, the two parties divided up waters of an oil-rich corner of the Mediterranean Sea, known as the Levant Basin, to mark their exclusive economic zones. The significance of the deal was heightened amid expectations of oil and gas exploration and the possibility of Lebanon joining “the club of oil-producing nations.” While the political class seized the opportunity to laud the government, commentators were quick to emphasize that the agreement did not guarantee Lebanon would be able to produce oil.
Votes for a new president underway
Lebanese parliamentarians began voting to elect a new successor to President Michel Aoun, whose six-year term came to an end on October 31. Aoun’s departure was welcomed by many who hold him responsible for the country’s worst crisis since the civil war, while his Christian supporters camped outside Baabda Palace to wish him farewell.
With parliament divided and lawmakers unable to agree on a successor, the year ended with ten rounds of inconclusive voting as deputies instead chose to protest vote or abstain, among a feeble trickle of votes for certain contenders. The institutional deadlock is on top of an already deep political paralysis given that the country has been without a fully functioning government since the May elections.
One contender for the presidential position has consistently stood out during the voting rounds – that of Michel Moawad, who has managed to garner the support of around a third of deputies, though he needs two-thirds to win the initial round before qualifying for further voting sessions. Moawad’s support comes from a parliamentary bloc comprised of independent MPs and those opposed to the establishment parties, and others connected to the October 2019 demonstrations. Lebanese Army General Joseph Aoun has also been widely touted as a possible successor and has reportedly gained the backing of the United States and France.