BEIRUT: Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab Tuesday toured the eastern border ahead of a Cabinet meeting held to begin discussions on the 2019 draft budget, which proposes austerity measures on current and retired Lebanese Army personnel.
“The reductions being discussed on the military’s benefits slam the rights of those who are sacrificing themselves,” the minister said.
Among the measures targeting military personnel in the budget, whose full text has yet to be made public, are a 3-percent deduction in veterans’ pensions to be directed toward the Treasury to support their benefits. The proposal prompted veterans to amass in Beirut Tuesday to protest the proposed measures. They blocked entrances to the Banque du Liban headquarters and the Beirut Port.
From the east, Bou Saab showed his solidarity with the demonstrators, noting that Army members already pay for their retirement compensations through deductions when they are in active service.
“Do not deduct from their wages [for retirement when they’re in service] if you’re going to take from the [retirement wages] when we’re in a crisis. This is not reform.”
When it comes to austerity measures, Bou Saab said, his ministry and the Army leadership are studying the draft budget and can decide where to implement them. “We know where to implement austerity. We do not [accept] austerity measures imposed on us that touch on the military personnel’s wages.”
But in a tweet after the protesters marched on the Finance Ministry, Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil said that talk of Army members and security forces being a target of the budget’s austerity measures “is just an illusion.”
“A detailed reading of the budget and its numbers prove that the military personnel’s rights were untouched. On the contrary, some necessary spending was increased,” including health care, he said.
Bou Saab’s comments came from the Shorouq Fort near the town of Arsal, where he was checking in on Army operations in the area following the 2017 Fajr al-Joroud operation, which succeeded in ousting Daesh (ISIS) militants from the outskirts of towns close to the northeastern border with Syria. He had arrived at the fort by helicopter around 9 a.m. and was received by Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun. He climbed up one of the base’s towers and examined the area.
In August 2014, militants from Daesh (ISIS) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham - formerly known as the Nusra Front - overran Arsal, capturing and killing soldiers in clashes.
For three years, the militants’ presence in the area was considered a security threat to nearby towns, and to Lebanon as a whole.
On the morning of Aug. 19, 2017, Aoun announced that the Army had launched an offensive to liberate the outskirts of the towns of Al-Qaa and Ras Baalbeck from the Daesh militants. The Army has remained deployed along the frontier ever since.
Tuesday’s tour is the second such recent visit for Bou Saab, who last week visited the southern border in his first official tour since assuming office.