Lebanon News

Cabinet to evaluate budget progress, mull more reforms

Minister Ali Hasan Khalil arrives to attend a Cabinet session in Beirut, May 13, 2019. (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Cabinet will mull suggestions for economic reforms Tuesday after hearing a briefing from Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil on the status of the 2019 draft budget and the spending cuts that have been approved so far, Information Minister Jamal Jarrah said.

Khalil will deliver his summary during a Cabinet session set to begin at noon, Jarrah told reporters at the end of a Cabinet session Monday.

“Unfortunately things take time,” Jarrah said when asked why discussions on the budget had not yet concluded. “We are facing a reformative budget, so there is a lot of discussion on most articles in order to reach an agreement.”

Monday’s session was Cabinet’s 11th dedicated to discussing the budget and followed a meeting Sunday that lasted until 2 a.m.

“Tomorrow [Tuesday], we will discuss economic suggestions and reforms,” Jarrah said.

Despite the relatively calm atmosphere of Monday’s session, local media reported that Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil had expressed his dissatisfaction with the current draft budget, suggesting that more could be done to lower the spending.

Reports added that Bassil had a series of suggestions that he planned to present to Cabinet Tuesday.

Bassil is also set to comment on the budget in televised remarks at 3:30 p.m. after he chairs a meeting of his Free Patriotic Movement’s Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc.

During Monday’s session, Cabinet approved a reduction of the state’s contribution to some NGOs and social service organizations of up to 15 percent.

“Cabinet was very careful not to reduce the contributions to vital associations and bodies that are fundamental for the lives of citizens,” Jarrah said, saying that the Children’s Cancer Center of Lebanon, Caritas and the Lebanese Red Cross were among the organizations that would be exempt from the funding cuts.

“These institutions have not been affected. ... On the other hand, a reduction has been made to the contributions to some associations and institutions, but the reduction was also small, maximum 10 to 15 percent, so that they can continue to serve the citizens.”

Speaking to reporters, Khalil said that funding cuts were made “fairly.”

Before Cabinet convened for the session Monday, military veterans protested near the Central Bank in Hamra, blocking roads and causing traffic jams.

Some protesters camped out at Banque du Liban’s headquarters to protest against proposed budget cuts that might affect their wages and benefits.

Protests were also staged in Baalbeck, Jounieh, Tripoli and Tyre, according to the state-run National News Agency.

The military veterans later suspended their demonstrations after meeting with Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab.

A delegation from the veterans said after the meeting that there would be “cooperation” with the Defense Ministry, but warned that they would resume their protests if Cabinet did not deliver a budget that met their demands.

Speaking to reporters after the Cabinet session, Bou Saab said that ministers had approved a 3 percent cut to the monthly wages of military personnel, both active and retired, but to compensate, their fees for medical benefits would be waived.

“The fees for medical treatment that they pay will be annulled and the [3 percent taken from their wages] will compensate for it,” Bou Saab said.

Bou Saab said that this was the only article in the draft budget related to wage reductions affecting military personnel that had been approved so far.

According to a leaked copy of the draft budget seen by The Daily Star last month, the wage cut had been proposed to ensure equality among all public sector workers.

Bou Saab also reiterated that Cabinet was no longer considering a previously proposed reduction in the so-called equipment compensation for veterans that includes remunerations for expenses accrued during their service. As the veterans’ issue appeared on track for resolution, employees at the National Social Security Fund announced that they would be holding a strike Wednesday in all of the organization’s offices to protest against possible austerity measures affecting them.

The NSSF accused the government of “trying to block the independence of the fund” and called on its employees to hold a sit-in in front of the Grand Serail at 11 a.m. Wednesday, according to a statement carried by the NNA. Employees took similar action on May 6.

NSSF employees currently receive the equivalent of 15 months of salaries for every calendar year they work.

However, Article 61 of the draft budget reportedly calls for all additional months of pay for public-sector employees to be eliminated.

Domestic developments are expected to be the focus of a speech from President Michel Aoun Tuesday evening during an iftar at the presidential palace to be attended by Speaker Nabih Berri and Hariri.

A source close to Baabda Palace declined to disclose further details on Aoun’s speech, but said that “during such a meeting, local issues cannot be sidelined.” - Additional reporting by Emily Lewis

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2019, on page 1.

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