Anger grows against Lebanese retailers accused of causing a shortage in essential goods

·5-min read

Faced with an unprecedented economic crisis since summer 2019, Lebanon has seen the living conditions of its people deteriorate by the day. The prices of basic foodstuffs have soared and several videos shot earlier this March have shown clashes in supermarkets between customers and also tension between customers and shop managers.

Lebanese people have seen their living conditions deteriorate sharply since an unprecedented economic crisis hit the country in summer 2019. The price of essential goods has skyrocketed and a number of videos posted online since early March show fights breaking out among customers, as well as rising tensions between retailers and the public.

The value of the Lebanese pound took another dive on March 16, plunging for the first time below £14,000 per dollar. This new record low comes on the heels of a weekend of protests in several towns across the country. The depreciation of the Lebanese pound has led to extreme price hikes, especially for food items.

Several videos showing fights breaking out in supermarkets have been posted on social media under the hashtag #لبنان_ليس_بخير ("Lebanon is not doing well"). The video below shows a fight on March 15 in a Rammal supermarket where customers are scrambling for subsidised bottles of oil and bags of rice.

For the past few months, people have been holding weekly protests against the authorities, angry at their inability to curb the economic crisis. On March 13, protesters blocked the roads with burning tyres, especially in Saïda, located in the south of the country, and the Beqaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon. They are demanding a transition government to end corruption, an investigation into the deadly explosions in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, and measures to put a halt to the plummeting Lebanese pound.

Customers have been quick to blame retailers, especially supermarket chains, for the rapidly increasing prices. They are accused of stocking products like oil, sugar, lentils and rice in order to sell them at higher prices, says our Observer Ahmed Yassine, a blogger in Lebanon.

'Fearing shortages, people stocked up on products, which only served to contribute to shortages'

The situation is extremely tense all across the country. Many people believe that certain large retailers are taking advantage of this crisis, provoking shortages so that they can sell essential goods, even those that are subsidised by the government, at higher rates.

In May 2020, the Lebanese government began to subsidise the prices of 300 essential goods. A subsidised five-kilo sack of rice costs around £12,000, while a subsidised bag of sugar costs £12,500. Without subsidies, these products could cost six times as much.

Ahmed Yassine continues:

The situation is complex because, fearing shortages, people stocked up on products, which only served to contribute to the same shortages they feared.

After rumours spread wildly, young people stormed a supermarket owned by the chain Le Charcutier Aoun on Saturday, March 13 in eastern Beirut and tried to access the warehouse to see if the store had been stocking government-subsidised products in order to sell them at higher prices later.

This video, which was posted on Facebook on March 13, shows a group of protesters, dressed in black, storming into a Le Charcutier Aoun supermarket in a neighbourhood in eastern Beirut and attempting to gain access to the warehouse.

In this video showing the same incident, protesters can be heard shouting: “Revolution against you, Aoun [Editor’s note: Michel Aoun is the president of Lebanon], against you, Hariri [Editor’s note: Saad Hariri is the prime minister], Nasrallah [Editor’s note: Hassan Nasrallah is the secretary general of Hezbollah]!"

Since Friday [March 12], it’s been almost impossible to find subsidised sugar and oil in the groceries.

Everyone here is also talking about the famous milk carton video, which has really mobilised people over the past few weeks, at least on social media. The video shows customers fighting over the last carton of milk in the Spinners supermarket in the Hazmieh neighbourhood in a Beirut suburb on March 4. The incident began when a store employee took a carton of milk from a man who had several in his cart. There was no milk left on the shelf so the employee handed the carton to a woman who wanted some. A fight breaks out between the customers and the employees — it’s a depressing scene.

"A fight in the supermarket for a carton of milk... it’s not a scene from a movie but a scene showing the humiliation and decline that we are currently living in,” wrote this social media user.

Many Lebanese people were also shocked by another video, which has been circulating online since March 12. It shows a pile of empty packets of subsidised rice, sugar, pasta and lentils on the outskirts of the village of Sarafand, in the district of Saïda. Many people suspect that shopkeepers changed the packaging on these products to sell them for higher prices.

"A large number of packets of subsidised products were found near the village of Sarafand," wrote this social media user.

The day after this video was broadcast, the municipal police in Sarafand announced that they had opened an investigation into two local shopkeepers’ cooperatives, accusing them of having sold subsidised essential goods with false packaging.

Lebanon is still waiting for a new government, seven months after Hassan Diab’s government resigned following deadly explosions at the Beirut port. The negotiations for creating a new executive branch have stalled as the country plunges each day deeper into economic crisis.

Lebanon imports almost all of its essential goods. The government pours about US$437 million a month into the subsidisation system, according to an estimate by the World Bank. This covers imports of fuel, flour, medicine and other essential goods.

However, in light of the worsening currency crisis, the Central Bank called in February for an immediate plan to "streamline subsidies”. Faced with popular discontent, the current transitional government has not set a date for any of these changes.