Massive queues at bakeries are becoming common sight across Lebanon, triggering the severest bread crisis in the country’s history since World War I. It is far worse than what happened during the country’s civil war in 1975-1990. A bag of six flatbreads — a must on every Levantine dinner table — should cost 13,000 LP (43 cents).
It’s now selling for 30,000 SP ($1) on the black market — if found. In the northern city of Tripoli, gunfire was exchanged at a bakery in July, wounding two people. Lebanese security officials have been deployed to the bakers with orders to control the chaotic scenes that have made world headlines, often coming against angry citizens armed with knives and guns.
The latest crisis is one among many facing the tiny Mediterranean country, once known as the “Switzerland of the East.”
It comes after three years of a steady economic meltdown, which has devaluated the Lebanese lira by over 90%, leading to hyperinflation and soaring unemployment. The price of bread has risen by a whopping 330% since the start of the country’s economic problems in October 2019.
Who then is to blame for Lebanon’s bread crisis?
One scapegoat is obviously the caretaker government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, accused by bakery owners of not supplying them with enough flour. Mikati is technically in caretaker capacity after the country’s parliamentary elections last May, and is currently struggling to form a new government. He is also engaged in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a much needed $3 billion loan, which received preliminary approval in April.
That loan comes with strings attached, however, like revamping the banking sector and introducing serious reforms throughout the entire public sector. No deal will be finalised before Mikati forms a government that receives a confidence vote from the Chamber of Deputies. Due to bickering between the premier and President Michel Aoun, cabinet formation seems nowhere in sight.
For its part, the Mikati government is blaming the crisis on the war in Ukraine, which has disrupted international grain supplies. When the war started in February, Lebanese officialdom raised the alarm, saying that eighty per cent of the country’s wheat came from Ukraine and Russia.
If affected, they warned, wheat in Lebanon’s storehouses could not last beyond midsummer. In addition to tearing down half the city in August 2020, the Beirut port explosion destroyed the country’s wheat silos, greatly affecting backup wheat supply.
Another scapegoat is the 1.5 million Syrian refugees, who have been based in Lebanon since 2011. Some are blaming them of buying more bread than what they need, and smuggling it into Syria. Certain bakeries have already begun to segregate bread lines, giving priority to Lebanese citizens.
Economy Minister Amin Salem was among those who blamed the crisis on the Syrians, but he added that flour hoarding was also a problem, as was theft and smuggling. The World Food Programme says that 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon are already food insecure, either moderately or severely, even before the bread crisis.
A fourth and last factor is the strike of public sector workers, ongoing since late June. They are demanding better pay, objecting to their comically low salaries, which the state has refused to increase. The strike has swept through the country like forest fire, crippling strategic ministries like that of interior and information, while greatly affecting work at the port of Beirut.
Tons of merchandise — mostly foodstuff — have been left to rot at the port, with nobody to release or carry them. Mikati simply cannot afford to raise wages, which means that the strike will last throughout the exceptionally hot summer.
Solutions to the vexed issue
To compensate, however, Mikati has moved forward with IMF conditions, passing a capital control law while promising that the much-needed loan is just around the corner.
The state has said that 49,000 tons of wheat are currently being unloaded at the port of Beirut, but that’s only a fraction of what the country needs and will last for no more than 1-1.5 months. And finally, parliament has just approved a $150 million loan for grain, which again, will not solve the crisis, only limit its immediate effects.
Due to a cash-strapped economy, the Lebanese government has been gradually rolling back on its subsidy of basic commodities like medicine and fuel. Gas stations have just hiked their prices, selling 20 litres of petrol for 617,000 LP ($20).
Electricity supply remains another chronic problem, with some parts of the Lebanese capital receiving no more than one hour of power daily, forcing those who can afford to pay to rely on generators. Those who don’t, continue to live in near-constant blackout. Eighty per cent of the Lebanese population has dropped below the internationally recognised poverty line, and with no jobs and no money, the last thing they needed was a bread crisis.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.