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Lebanese face long “offensive” queues to buy bread

#Lebanese #face #long #offensive #queues #buy #bread

In bankrupt Lebanon, Khalil Mansour has to queue for hours every day just to buy bread for his family, and some days he can’t afford it.

In a country that was once nicknamed the “Switzerland of the Middle East” for its thriving banking sector before the financial crisis hit in 2019, the chronic lack of staples of the Lebanese diet was hard to bear.

Lebanon defaulted on its national debt in 2020 and its currency has lost around 90 percent of its black market value.

The World Bank has branded the financial crisis as one of the worst since the 19th century, while the United Nations now estimates that four out of five Lebanese live below the poverty line.

Faced with calls from international creditors for painful reforms in exchange for the release of new aid funds, the embattled government has been forced to end subsidies on most essential commodities — though not yet on wheat.

The price of subsidized bread has increased, albeit less than without subsidies, but bakeries have started to ration staples.

A bag of flat Arabic pita-like bread now officially sells for 13,000 Lebanese pounds (43 US cents). It costs more than 30,000 on the black market.

“Last week I had to go three days without bread because I can’t afford to pay 30,000,” said Mansour, 48.

For Mansour and most Lebanese, buying bread means standing in long queues outside bakeries for hours, and sometimes by the time it’s their turn, the bakeries have run out of bread.

“Today I queued for three hours, yesterday two and a half. What now?” Mansour said on Friday outside a bakery in Beirut.

“I have to support my family. What else can I do?” asked Mansour, who earns the equivalent of $50 a month in a pastry shop.

– ‘Wild West’ –

Most bakeries limit bread sales to one or two bags per customer, and each bag contains six flatbreads.

Subsidized bread is often bought in bulk and resold on the black market by unscrupulous traders.

“The queues have gotten worse in the last two weeks,” said bakery owner Mohammed Mehdi. “We are facing enormous bottlenecks.”

The 49-year-old said the bakery business has become like the “Wild West”. “Some customers come armed with guns and knives,” he complained.

Lebanese media often report fights breaking out in bakeries and even shots being fired by customers demanding more bread.

In Taalbaya, east Lebanon, a customer stormed into a bakery on Tuesday, angry because he could no longer buy bread, a report said.

The customer pushed an employee, then looted the bakery and forced the army to intervene, he added.

“What is happening is an insult … and it is even more difficult than the fuel shortages” that have gripped Lebanon over the past year, Mehdi said.

– “Incitement” –

According to the industry, Lebanon imports 80 percent of its wheat from war-torn Ukraine.

But the country’s capacity to store wheat took a serious blow when a deadly explosion at the port of Beirut in August 2020 severely damaged the country’s main grain elevators.

The government and the bakeries have shared the blame for the bread shortage.

Bakeries accuse clammy authorities of not providing enough subsidized flour.

The Commerce Department dismisses the claim, accusing bakeries of hoarding subsidized flour for use in unsubsidized products like candy.

Authorities also claim that the presence in Lebanon of more than a million refugees from war-torn Syria is partly to blame for Lebanon’s economic collapse.

Some Lebanese have even gone so far as to accuse Syrian refugees of buying subsidized bread to sell on the black market, fueling resentment against the refugees and demanding they go home.

There have been reports of some bakeries imposing separate queues for Lebanese and Syrians.

This has prompted the UN refugee agency to voice its concern.

“Lebanon is witnessing an increase in tensions and incitement between different communities, leading to local violence in the streets, including against refugees,” UNHCR warned on Friday.

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