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Lebanon's people line up in 'queues of humiliation' as their country unravels

Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIRUT — Fill 'er up? Be ready to wait in line at least an hour — assuming the gas station is open, that is.

Need medication? Something as basic as aspirin could set you on a daylong hunt from pharmacy to pharmacy.

Even a grocery run is an ever-accelerating race against ballooning prices and a failing currency. And whatever you do, you'll need to time it around power cuts that can last up to 23 hours a day.

This is life in Lebanon these days, where a 21-month-long, government-engineered economic implosion — the World Bank calls it “a deliberate depression” — has transformed everyday tasks into a gantlet of fuel, power, water, medicine and basic goods shortages that residents dub tawabeer al-thul, or “queues of humiliation.”

Those lines stretched long this week as the country geared up to celebrate Eid al-Adha, a festival during which Muslims sacrifice a sheep to commemorate Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac at God’s command. With the Lebanese lira’s street value down to less than 10% of its official value against the dollar, it’s a ritual few can afford.

"Every month it's getting worse, so long as the dollar [rate] gets worse," said Abbass Ismail, a 37-year-old computer repairman trudging home from Beirut's Sabra market on the eve of Eid.

 

"This cost 100,000 lira," he said, looking down at his four stuffed grocery bags. At the official exchange rate, that would have been $66. In reality, it's about $4.50. Even then, "not everyone has this kind of money to spend. I don't think there's Eid. It's only Eid for the haves."

It was little better across town in Hamra, an upscale neighborhood with a usually bustling shopping thoroughfare.

"The days when people used to buy in large amounts, that's gone," said Sarah, an employee at a traditional sweets shop, who gave only her first name. The store had extended its hours to allow for Eid shoppers, she said, "but even if we stay open till 3 a.m., it won't matter."

Behind Lebanon’s financial crisis is a power-sharing political system that in 1990 corralled the country’s dizzying mix of sects and loyalties into ending the 15-year civil war. But it turned governance into a patronage game: Instead of rebuilding the country’s ravaged infrastructure, warlords-turned-statesmen used ministries as personal piggy banks to hand out favors to their allies.

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