Beirut, Lebanon – Veterans protested outside the Lebanese prime minister’s office in Beirut on Friday against proposed austerity measures which would affect their end-of-services benefits and cut the pension by three percent.
They burned tyres and chanted slogans calling Lebanon‘s leaders “thieves” and claimed they were being made to pay for the failures of “ineffective and corrupt” politicians.
Lebanon has witnessed a spate of protests over the last two weeks as the government discussed austerity measures to reduce state expenditure in the upcoming budget.
Fiscal and economic reforms are a prerequisite for Lebanon to obtain $11bn in loans pledged by international donors in the CEDRE conference last year. To balance the books, one proposal in the draft budget suggested cutting wages and benefits of public sector employees, including army veterans.
The protesters demanded that the government should first target “corrupt businesses and politicians”, instead of bridging the budget gap through the pockets of the salaried classes, who are struggling to keep up with the rising costs of living in Lebanon.
Nasser Yassin, director of research at the Issam Fares Institute of the American University of Beirut, criticised the proposals. “Veterans have served our country,” he said.
“This cannot be accepted, out of a sense of social justice. The politicians must first stop stuffing the public sector with employees just to cater to their sect-based voter base.”
In Lebanon’s political settlement, power is shared on the basis of sects. Politicians hand out jobs and other opportunities on a sectarian basis in return for votes in the elections.
Yassin said that a serious government effort would prioritise dealing with the clientelism that is crippling Lebanon.
It should focus on broader cuts in state expenditure instead of singling out the weaker sections of society, he said.
On Friday, the protesting veterans were promised by Elias Bou Saab, Lebanon’s defence minister, that their demands had been met and articles pertaining to the three percent cut had been removed from the draft budget.
Local news outlets reported he personally assured the protesters he was looking after their interests. “You don’t have to be in the streets today. I am behind you on this issue,” he is reported to have said.
However, his repeated assurances did little to assuage the concerns of the veterans.
Jamil al-Sayyed, one of Lebanon’s controversial parliamentarians and a former head of Lebanon’s general security, suggested he had inside knowledge of the discussions.
He said that there had been a dispute between the defence minister on one side and the prime minister and the finance minister on the other.
“We are sure that he meant what he said but he is not the only one to decide,” said Sayyed.
“We know that the prime minister and the finance minister hold a totally different view from the defense minister. They are serious about big cuts, they still have the same position.”
Brigadier General Elias Farhat, a retired officer, said that conflicting messages were being intimated by the government.
“So far, we have not received any official confirmation on the set of the demands,” he said. “We are getting contradictory messages.”
However, their cohort in the public sector has made some progress. Bechara Asmar, head of the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers and the man leading the protests of workers from telecom, water, electricity, and other government-run sectors, met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, President Michel Aoun, and Speaker Nabih Berri.
He told Al Jazeera that public-sector employees had called off their protests until Monday after the three top leaders committed to meeting their demands.
“The president, the PM and the speaker told us that they would try and exclude the workers from the cuts,” he said. “We will resume our protests on Monday if they don’t deliver but at the moment we have stopped because the PM and the speaker requested us [to].”
“They said that if we did not stop protesting it would impact Lebanon’s economy and that is why we are giving them some time,” he added.
Earlier this week, Lebanon’s central bank employees called off their strike after similar appeals were made to its employees, who also protested against proposed salary cuts and end-of-service indemnities.
The ripple effect was seen within a day as Lebanon’s stock market stopped trading. The bank’s syndicate met with the government and garnered assurances before it decided to halt the strike, after which the stock exchange resumed business.
Lebanon’s economy is going through a precarious phase, placing the country at risks of social tensions which could have a knock-on effect in the entire region.
While the country’s workers and veterans are refusing the accept a cut, the banks, one of the wealthiest sectors, are less than eager to share their profits with the government.
On the other hand, if the government does not introduce substantive economic reforms, Lebanon could lose the funds promised by the donors and slip into recession.