BEIRUT/SIDON: Roads across the country were briefly blocked by retired military and security personnel Tuesday, who held protests warning against possible cuts to their end-of-service benefits as a means of reducing the budget deficit.
Highways connecting Beirut to Sidon, Sidon to Tyre, Zahle’s Chtoura to Dahr al-Baidar, and roads in Aley, Chekka and Tripoli were blocked for around an hour Tuesday morning.
National Veterans Organization head Maroun Khreish, who spoke on behalf of the demonstrators in Naameh - situated between Sidon and Beirut - told reporters that the protest would continue until politicians “take back what they said about the wages.”
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who also leads the Free Patriotic Movement, said last weekend that “if we don’t reduce [salaries], there will be no salaries, no economy and no [Lebanese] pound.”
“State employees must accept that they cannot continue in this manner,” Bassil said, adding that salaries of ministers and MPs could also be cut if necessary.
Bassil’s comments sparked backlash from retired military personnel as well as civil servants- both active and retired - who called for protests across the country to prevent any attempt by the government to reduce their end-of-service benefits.
A statement released by retired officers Monday announced they would block roads across the country to press the state to drop any plan to touch their salaries and benefits.
Most of the roads started to gradually reopen an hour after the protests began, according to the Traffic Management Center.
Protesters lit tires in the middle of the roads in Naameh and Aley.
In Naameh, protesters held banners reading, “Where are you going Gebran? Slow down,” referring to the FPM leader.
“We weren’t the ones who robbed this country. We protected this country ... We served for 30, 40 years,” one protester said. “Do they want me to beg?” he added.
On the Sidon-Tyre highway, protesters asked to receive their salaries and benefits without any reductions. “Without the armed forces, we couldn’t walk around safely or get to our work or homes,” veteran Mostafa Kharoubi told The Daily Star.
Former Lebanese Army officer Bassam Aqil said retired military personnel had sacrificed for their country, while politicians were abroad holidaying with their families. Another protestor, Mohammad Safieddine called on Bassil to look for solutions to the budget deficit elsewhere, such as “oil, power barges and electricity,” instead.
“As if the retired military officer is corrupt,” he added.
Khreish said during the Naameh protest that the retired officers were considering holding a protest in Riad al-Solh Square Wednesday to coincide with a Parliament legislative session scheduled at 11 a.m. Earlier, public school teachers, including Lebanese University professors, said they would protest Wednesday at the same time and location, according to the state-run National News Agency.
The public school teachers, along with municipal workers, also called for a strike that day. The head of the worker’s union in Tripoli’s port will hold a one-hour strike in solidarity at 11 a.m. Wednesday as well, the NNA reported.
Social Affairs Minister Richard Kouyoumjian told Al-Arabiya Tuesday that discussions on lowering the wages of state employees, military and security personnel were still ongoing, noting that “nothing is yet final and the procedures are under discussion.”
Both Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil have stated that the budget would include austerity measures and reductions in spending in a bid to slash the budget deficit, which is estimated to reach $6.7 billion for 2018.
With $85 billion in public debt, Lebanon has the world’s third-largest debt-to-GDP ratio.
This article was amended on Wednesday, April 17 2019
A previous version of this article said the budget deficit for 2018 was $7.6 billion. While final figures have not yet been released, the 2018 deficit is estimated to reach just $6.7 billion. The Daily Star regrets the error.