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Students attacked by riot police in Lebanon as economic crisis deepens

LEBANESE students were attacked by riot police on Saturday as they protested against massive rises in tuition fees after the country’s leading universities adopted a new dollar exchange rate.

Tear gas was fired at those gathered in front of the prestigious American University of Beirut (AUB) as they approached the main gate; students responded by throwing bottles at security forces.

It was part of a so-called “student day of rage” in response to a decision by AUB and the Lebanese American University (LAU), two of Lebanon’s top private institutions, to price tuition fees based on an exchange rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

Lebanon’s spiralling currency is currently pegged at about 1,500 pounds to the US dollar, having lost about 80 percent of its value as an economic crisis deepens — on Saturday the dollar was selling for at least 8,200 Lebanese pounds on the black market.

At least half the Lebanese population is now living in poverty, according to the United Nations’ Unicef arm, which has warned of impending “social catastrophe” in the country, with Central Bank subsidies on basic goods set to run out in a few months. 

Plans to shelve the subsidy have been delayed after negotiations with the General Labour Organisation, which called off a general strike planned for last week, giving interim Prime Minister Hasan Diab’s administration breathing space amid growing demands for it to resign.

Calls have been made for direct payments to families instead of subsidising goods — Central Bank governor Riad Salameh says he will not continue to use Lebanon’s dwindling currency reserves for subsidies.

Protesters have demanded the resignation of the government and meaningful political change, including an end to the current system of government, in which positions are allocated along sectarian lines.

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