Lebanon’s prime minister blamed economic problems on years of declining energy prices and tax revenues from the lifting of customs duties on fuel, just a week after deadly riots forced him to partially restore some of the subsidies.
Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi told thousands of people on Sunday that Lebanon must not “continue living with its eyes closed” to tackle its economic woes.
The country’s cabinet last week restored some subsidies for gasoline and electricity, though without giving further details on their resumption. Al-Rahi’s advocacy of the partial restoration of subsidies has been widely criticized by other Christians.
Thousands of people converged on Beirut’s Beit Lahia district on Sunday, blocking several roads as part of Lebanon’s biggest protest march since decades, protesting the high cost of living and high unemployment.
The protest was organized by civil society groups and youth organizations in an effort to confront political gridlock and corruption.
Several activists burned tires across several parts of Beirut and caused traffic chaos on major roads. The mostly Christian city of Sidon was also hit by traffic gridlock, with protesters blocking entrances to surrounding areas, including the international airport.
The country’s largest labor union, the Syndicate of Young Workers, also joined the march as part of its effort to increase pressure on political elites to show flexibility. The Syndicate has been leading protests demanding the implementation of the constitutional article that obliges the government to balance revenue and spending.
The treasury, run by the finance minister, has consistently failed to meet the budget deficit targets of 3 percent of GDP. A recent report on official data from January-May 2019 predicts a budget deficit of 8.5 percent of GDP, which is still above the rate approved by parliament in the 2015 budget.
Al-Rahi, speaking on al-Mayadeen television, said the government has to find a way to introduce foreign revenues. “We still have time but we can’t waste it, otherwise everything we achieved … will be lost,” he said.