Lebanon News

Water cannon no match for protesters as anti-budget demonstration gets heated

Retired army officers demonstrate in Beirut, May 20, 2019. (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Veterans pushed down metal barriers and faced down water cannons Monday, marching toward Beirut’s Grand Serail as ministers met inside to discuss ways to slash the 2019 state budget.

The crowd of over a thousand veterans, state workers and teachers was protesting against possible reductions in wages and end-of-service benefits being included in the draft budget.

After pushing down one of the metal barriers outside the serail gate, the protesters marched toward the entrance, with security forces attempting to push them back.

Protesters were then faced with water cannons from a security forces truck. However, they marched toward the truck, jumped on it and stopped the water cannon, demanding to enter the serail, where Cabinet had convened for its 16th session dedicated to discussing the draft 2019 state budget.

“Martyrdom in facing you,” one protester said as he pointed at the Grand Serail, “is the [same as] martyrdom in facing the enemy.”

Security reinforcements arrived shortly after the confrontation as the authorities tried to block the advance on the Grand Serail.

One protester, identified as Rabih al-Halabi, was wounded by the water cannons and taken to a hospital, according to the state-run National News Agency. Another, who had a chain around his neck, said he wanted to wrap the “chain around all the ministers,” his words broadcast live on television.

Marching toward the Grand Serail gate, another protester told local TV channel Al-Jadeed, “We will go inside and get them all out. This is a corrupt authority.”

“Those inside are [taking] our rights,” another yelled.

After the confrontation, a delegation representing the veterans was called into the serail to meet with Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab.

Retired Brig. Gen. Sami Rammah, who was among the delegation, said in televised remarks that the veterans would hold a meeting to discuss their next step and that they trusted the minister. But a protester next to him called on the demonstrators to remain ready as he “does not trust them [ministers] anymore,” he said, pointing at the Grand Serail.

In a news conference after the meeting, Bou Saab said he told the veterans that most of what they were worried about was not being discussed by the ministers.

Bou Saab said the only article in the budget affecting veterans was a 3 percent cut to their pensions to support health care and social services. The measure also applies to the wages of active military personnel.

He added that he would hold discussions with the Army directorate around eliminating the paperwork fees that military personnel pay to receive health care, as a way to compensate for the 3 percent wage and pension cut.

Bou Saab said LL11 billion ($7.3 million) was added to the health care budget at the Defense Ministry along with a total of LL35 billion in social services.

He also said that based on the veterans’ request, the 3 percent cut was not applicable to the families of soldiers who died in the line of duty.

After the meeting with Bou Saab, the veterans retreated back to Riad al-Solh Square, where they had placed a tent last week. A few hours later, the barbed wire and barriers that had been moved away were restored and security forces deployed behind them. One of the few remaining veterans told LBCI they were committed to escalation.

Earlier Monday, more than 500 striking state employees and public and private school teachers gathered in front of Nabatieh’s Nadi al-Husseini religious center to take buses to Beirut for the protest, the NNA reported.

A number of public and private schools, municipalities and serails across the country joined the strike, including in Hermel, Metn and Aley.

Public administrations in Jounieh, Akkar, Sidon, Nabatieh and a number in Batroun committed to the strike.

Public-sector employees in multiple administrations also held a strike last Friday, following a call by the League of Public Administration Employees to protest against what it described as a “discouraging atmosphere” in discussions of the draft budget. The league said Monday that its strike would resume Tuesday and “until further notice,” in a statement carried by the NNA.

In an administrative memorandum earlier this month, Prime Minister Saad Hariri called for the implementation of laws and regulations that prevented public institutions from being paralyzed or disabled. Additional reporting by Jacob Boswall

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 21, 2019, on page 2.




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