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Amid an economic meltdown, Lebanon will hold parliamentary elections

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Right now to Lebanon. The country holds a parliamentary election Sunday, but that's hardly the most pressing issue for people there. They're struggling to buy groceries or get money from banks as the country's two-year economic crisis continues. And as NPR's Arezou Rezvani reports, it's shattered the middle class.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING)

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: In Lebanon these days, it's not unusual for people to wait up to 2 hours to use an ATM. It's in one of those lines where I found Abdul Rabia one recent morning. Seventy-four years old and retired, he's been having a hard time withdrawing money he spent a lifetime saving.

ABDUL RABIA: (Through interpreter) The money that I got for my retirement is in the bank. It's my whole life savings. And what am I doing? I'm begging every month for my money.

REZVANI: For a while now, the banks here have limited withdrawals, and it's left people like Rabia extremely frustrated and resentful.

RABIA: (Through interpreter) You know, they give it to us drop by drop. It's our money. And they've taken it. In fact, they've stolen it.

REZVANI: A little farther down the line, I find Nabila Bashir Baydoun.

NABILA BASHIR BAYDOUN: (Speaking Arabic).

REZVANI: "Life is super expensive - super expensive," she says. For the 70 year old, it's even put her health at risk.

BAYDOUN: (Speaking Arabic).

REZVANI: "I take seven medications, and one now costs six times what it used to be," she says. For the medication she now has trouble finding, her son's friend brings it from Turkey whenever he visits.

Hello.

ELIE: Hello.

REZVANI: Across town, Elie is getting ready to close his pharmacy for the day. He asks to use only his first name since he's not authorized to speak by the association of pharmacies. He's noticed that a lot of people who've come in lately leave empty-handed.

ELIE: First question - they ask about the price. In many cases, they leave without buying.

REZVANI: He's worked at this pharmacy for 30 years. When I ask him if he's ever seen the economy in such bad shape, maybe during the 15 year civil war, he says...

ELIE: Never. Never, never, never. This last two years, it's another kind of life in everything.

REZVANI: All of this is the result of what analysts and even leaders of donor countries say is mismanagement and corruption in the government that has squandered the country's cash reserves. International lenders have hesitated to bail Lebanon out until it reforms.

Sami Halabi is an economic analyst with Triangle, a consulting group based in Beirut. And he says the economic crisis has been devastating even for the middle class.

SAMI HALABI: People have lost 90% of their savings. And over the past 2 1/2 years, we've seen this increase in the poverty rate from 30% to 80%.

REZVANI: It's amid this economic meltdown that Lebanon will hold parliamentary elections this Sunday. But Halabi is skeptical that a change in leadership will be enough to turn the tide any time soon.

HALABI: The crisis is so much deeper and harder than we ever expected it to be, that there is no election or policy move that will provide us with a quick fix. Confidence in the economy and the banking sector has been smashed. And to regain that is probably a generational project.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE)

REZVANI: Until then, workers like Claudette Mehanao, a designer and seamstress, will continue sewing late into the night. With her husband sick, she's now the one supporting her family.

CLAUDETTE MEHANAO: (Through interpreter) It's very stressful. I've gone down 20 kilos in weight. In a way, my life's just disappeared in front of me. This is when I should be resting. This is - you know, I was able to make money. I was able to buy a house. And now I have to work.

REZVANI: She has plenty of money in the bank. But like so many others, she can't get it out.

Arezou Rezvani, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM SCHAUFERT'S "JOURNEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Arezou Rezvani is a senior editor for NPR's Morning Edition and founding editor of Up First, NPR's daily news podcast.