The deterioration of the economic situation with its increasing burdens of the cost of living for the Lebanese citizen is no longer a regular economic story. It has, alas, turned into stories of tragedy narrated by all forms of media on a daily basis.
These stories show a reality where citizens resort to violence and suicide to protest at their intolerable living situation. On one day, we hear about a citizen who sewed his mouth closed to announce the start of a hunger strike, while on another we learn about a man who set fire to himself in protest. In between, we hear about murders and family violence linked to Lebanon’s deteriorating economic situation.
Recently, the Lebanese community was shaken by the news of the suicide of George Zureik, the Lebanese citizen whose self-immolation was a result of his inability to pay for his daughter’s school fees. Zureik died in flames in the courtyard of a school in northern Lebanon, protesting the administration’s refusal to give him his daughter’s Academic Statement. He needed this to transfer his daughter to a different school, because of his poor financial situation and the accumulation of unpaid tuition fees.
Zureik was a taxi driver who had recently lost his job. He asked the school if he could work as a bus driver so he could pay off the fees, but it refused. His wife ended up working on the school’s janitorial staff for the same reason, but the principal removed more than two thirds of her salary as late fees for the tuition, knowing that her pay cheque would be an inadequate LL500,000 (less than $350).
Zureik’s suicide was a shock to the Lebanese community, both politically and socially. Before the Zureik incident, a taxi driver set himself on fire because of an arrest warrant he was unable to pay. Before that, a young man from the city of Sidon set fire to himself in protest at a country he said had ‘no electricity, no water, no jobs, and nothing”. The young man’s injuries were not fatal.
The economic situation in Lebanon has been declining rapidly in recent years due to the inability of the successive governments to put in place an effective economic policy. According to a study done by the World Bank, more than 30% of Lebanese live below the poverty line. This means that more than a million and a half Lebanese people live on $4 a day, amounting to $120 a month. The study also found that 8% of the Lebanese public live in extreme poverty, meaning that more than 360,000 Lebanese people live on less than $2.5 a day, amounting to $75 a month. Despite the sharp increase in commodity prices over the past few years, the last increase in the minimum wage was in 2012 when the government raised the it to LL 675,000, equivalent to $450. According to economist Ghazi Wazni, this is not enough to cover the basic needs of a family.
In an interview with 7Dnews, Wazni explained that the minimum amount needed for a family consisting of a mother, father, and three children in Lebanon is LL1.2 million a month, ($800), twice the current minimum wage. “The difficulty of the Lebanese economic situation is not limited by the inability of meeting basic needs with the minimum wage, but it also extends to the difficulties and problems found in basic services like electricity, water, education, and health care,” Wazni said.
In Lebanon, the electricity continues to be cut off for long periods. In some areas, the electricity is only available for 6 hours a day. Even in the administrative capital, the maximum number of hours people can expect power does not exceed 21 hours per day. The Lebanese also have to buy drinking water, and some areas even have to buy service water as well, especially in the summer.
In this framework, Wazni explained that education is also a great burden on the Lebanese citizen because of the poor state school system. Most citizens have to resort to private education, which is very costly. He added that the Lebanese citizen spends 26% of his salary on food, 22% on education, 16% on rent and housing, 8% on medicine and health care, and 28% on transportation, communications, and electricity.
Because of the difficult living conditions, suicide rates have shot up. Statistics from the Internal Security Forces show that between 2009 and 2018 there were 1393 suicides in the country, which translates into one every 60 hours and an attempted suicide every 6 hours.
He also explained that in addition to the above-mentioned burdens, Lebanon suffers from an unemployment rate of 25% of the labour force, 34% of which are young people. The unemployment rate has been rising year after year because of the economic crisis and its resulting lack of available jobs, which makes the transition into an industrial economy an urgent need.
The hope today in Lebanon is that its new government will enact economic reforms, especially ones related to the Cedar Conference, which lays down certain policies in order to unlock eligibility for international loans and grants. However, 2019 has started with a series of protests against the high cost of living, healthcare, and education, all demonstrating people’s frustration with the current state of the economy.