BEIRUT, Lebanon — Banks across Lebanon have shut their doors this week to protect employees from angry customers demanding their dollars. So that anger has been redirected at the A.T.M.s outside, which are also refusing to give out dollars regardless of how much customers have in their accounts.
“I want my dollars,” Sonia Badran, a mother of four married to an elevator repairman, said after her third failed trip to the bank this week. Until the country’s dollar crisis is resolved, she said, anti-government protests should continue.
“Let them stay on the streets,” she said. “This is not acceptable.”
After nearly a month of mass protests criticizing Lebanon’s political elite for corruption and mismanagement, the country’s long-term economic problems are increasingly colliding with the daily lives of its citizens.
American dollars — long used in tandem with the Lebanese pound — have grown scarce because worries over the political turmoil have caused more people to try to withdraw their money. So employers have struggled to pay salaries, tenants to pay rent, and traders to pay for goods and services from abroad.
Relief appears remote, analysts and economists say; the underlying problems have been building for so long that they can only be fixed through long-term policies that are likely to cause pain. And putting such initiatives in place would require a strong government, which Lebanon lacks.
“The problem is that the current policies are unsustainable,” said Nasser Saidi, a former Lebanese economy minister. Putting the country on the right track would require simultaneously dealing with a large budget deficit and bringing down public debt — a gargantuan task.
“You really don’t have much choice,” he said. “You are at the edge of the precipice and you are looking down, so unless you do that, where is this going to end?”
Protests across Lebanon erupted on Oct. 17 after the government suggested it could raise revenue by taxing calls made through internet services like WhatsApp. For many Lebanese, it was insulting that the country’s leaders would try to use their calls to subsidize the state after decades of mismanagement and looting.
Demonstrations have continued since in a movement that has remained largely leaderless, with demands ranging from economic reforms to trials for corrupt politicians to the complete ouster of the political elite.
One month in, the protesters’ main victory was the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Oct. 29. On Friday, there was talk that the country’s leading political parties had agreed to nominate Mohammad Safadi, a former finance minister, as his successor.
Mr. Safadi could begin trying to form a new government next week, Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, told a local television station. But such processes often take month in Lebanon and it was not immediately clear how much backing Mr. Safadi had.
Nor was it clear whether his appointment would assuage the protests. In many ways, the wealthy 75-year-old, who has extensive business ties to Saudi Arabia, is from the same class of leaders the protesters went into the streets to get rid of.
Any new government that does not have buy-in from the protesters will struggle to put in place meaningful policies, said Michael Young, a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
“Any government that doesn’t satisfy the public’s demands is going to start basically in a hole,” he said. “It will be a government that is opposed by the people and it will have little legitimacy to impose reforms.”
In addition to calming the country’s immediate political crisis, any new government will have to deal with deep-rooted economic problems that have been brewing for years, finally leaving citizens unable to pull their own dollars out of the bank.
For more than two decades, the Lebanese have simultaneously used American dollars and Lebanese pounds, an arrangement made possible by a central bank policy that kept the exchange rate fixed at about 1,500 pounds to the dollar.
The two currencies were used so interchangeably in daily life that it was common to pay for a meal or taxi in one currency and receive change in the other, or in a combination of both.
But maintaining that rate required continually bringing new dollars into the country, usually by enticing wealthy investors to make large dollar deposits for high interest rates, a strategy that some economists have compared to a Ponzi scheme.
“In some sense, that is the definition of a Ponzi scheme, other than the fraudulent part,” said Dan Azzi, a former Lebanese bank executive and advanced leadership fellow at Harvard.
The policy worked for a long time, but came under stress in recent years as the central bank had to honor the high interest rates it had promised while regional turbulence scared many new investors away. Over time, the gap between what investors had earned on paper and the real money in the central bank grew.
“It is almost surreal what is happening,” Mr. Azzi said. “A virtual problem, a theoretical problem that has spilled out in the real world.”
Now, the rising demand by both wealthy investors and middle-class bank customers for the limited number of dollars means that there are not enough to go around. That has already weakened the connection between the dollar and the Lebanese pound, whose value has declined on the black market, and undermined confidence in the banks.
Even before the protests began last month, about $3 billion had been withdrawn from Lebanese banks, the central bank governor, Riad Salameh, told reporters this week. Another $2 billion was pulled out after banks reopened after the first two weeks of protests.
Mr. Salameh insisted that deposits were safe and that no official limits had been placed on dollar withdrawals, but many banks have imposed unofficial limits that change frequently and are not publicly announced.
Amid mounting anger over the limits, bank employees began an open strike on Tuesday, saying they needed protection from angry customers. While the banks have been closed, many have stopped dispensing dollars from A.T.M.s and placed new limits on debt and credit card transactions.
It is unclear whether such practices are even legal, as there is no law authorizing them, said Karim Nammour, a lawyer with The Legal Agenda, an advocacy group.
“We are completely dwelling in a situation without a legal basis,” he said.
The inability to get dollars has caused a range of headaches for people who pay school fees or rent in dollars and for businesses that rely on dollars to pay for foreign goods or services.
Some foreign products have disappeared from supermarket shelves, and gas stations ran out of fuel recently until the government stepped in to make sure fuel traders could pay for imports.
Elie Abyad, who owns a travel agency with six employees in Beirut, said he has struggled to keep his business going since all foreign plane tickets and hotel reservations must be made in dollars, which his local bank has limited his ability to use.
He had tried getting cash from bank branches and A.T.M.s, to no avail, and had paid his employees half of their salaries in pounds since he could not get enough dollars. His customers, too, had their plans fouled up by the new regulations, since they cannot withdrawal dollars to pay for foreign trips.
Across the country, steady streams of citizens have been trying their luck at A.T.M.s to see if they can manage to get any dollars out — mostly in vain.
After trying repeatedly — and ultimately failing — to get $300 of his own money from an A.T.M., Raymond Haddad, a retired official from Lebanon’s national lottery, said he had no way to pay the next installment on a computer for his son because the dealer would accept only dollars and his bank would give him only pounds.
“They need to form a new government to get us out of this hole,” Mr. Haddad said. “But it needs to be a government that builds confidence, not just any government.”