BEIRUT, March 18 (Reuters) - Pharmacies went on strike and petrol stations rationed scarce fuel on Thursday across Lebanon as public anger over an accelerating economic collapse intensified with little sign of an end to a high-level political stand-off.
President Michel Aoun told Saad al-Hariri, who was designated premier in October, on Wednesday to form a new government immediately or make way for someone else. Hariri hit back by telling Aoun that if he could not approve his cabinet line-up, then the president should call early elections.
The two were set to meet again on Thursday, raising speculation about whether there would be a breakthrough after months of factional wrangling.
The Lebanese pound has sunk by 90% in the country’s worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. It has plunged many into poverty and endangered key imports as dollars grow scarce.
“We are really looking at the abyss, seeing it very clearly, and I think it’s either now or never,” Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center said, alluding to the protracted failure to form a viable new government able to launch reforms.
He added that major political parties, including Aoun’s ally, the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, were re-evaluating their positions as delays worsen the economy’s free-fall and unrest grows.
Politicians have since late 2019 failed to agree a rescue plan to unlock foreign cash which Lebanon desperately needs.
A French diplomat said on Wednesday that France, which has led aid efforts to its former colony, and its partners will seek to ramp up pressure on Lebanese politicians in the coming months.
STRIKES AND CLOSURES
The currency has crashed so fast in recent weeks, losing a third of its value, that grocery shops closed on Wednesday and bakeries cautioned they may have to follow suit.
Many pharmacies shut their doors on Thursday and flashed neon strike signs, the latest sector of the economy to voice frustration.
Ali Obaid, a Beirut pharmacist, said he could no longer keep up with expenses. “Pharmacies will close permanently if this continues,” he said.
Comments that subsidies - including on fuel, wheat and medicine - may soon end have also triggered panic buying.
Cars lined up outside gas stations earlier this week, and scenes of brawls over subsidised goods at supermarkets have heightened fears among Lebanese over their most basic needs.
The sharp descent of the pound sent protesters into the streets this month, blocking roads in anger at an entrenched political elite that has dominated since the civil war. (Reporting by Maha El Dahan in Beirut and Ellen Francis in Dubai with additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Imad Creidi and Mohamed Azakir in Beirut Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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