Retired Lebanese soldiers protest over benefits cut

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A retired Lebanese soldier holds a national flag, during a protest in front the central bank headquarters, in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, May 13, 2019. (AP)
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Retired Lebanese soldiers gesture as they take part in a protest against draft state budget proposals they fear would curb military benefits, in front of the central bank in Beirut, Lebanon May 13, 2019. (Reuters)
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Retired Lebanese soldiers sit together as they take part in a protest against draft state budget proposals they fear would curb military benefits, in front of the central bank in Beirut, Lebanon May 13, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 14 May 2019

Retired Lebanese soldiers protest over benefits cut

  • The retired soldiers are angry about threats to their pensions
  • Lebanon’s coalition government held its latest meeting to try to agree a budget that would reduce the fiscal deficit in the heavily indebted state

BEIRUT: Retired Lebanese soldiers have suspended their protests outside Lebanon’s Central Bank in Beirut and its branches in other parts of the country until further notice at the request of Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab.

The retired soldiers are angry about threats to their pensions while the Cabinet debates a draft budget to reduce Lebanon’s fiscal deficit by cutting public spending and introducing austerity measures. Workers from the education and social security sectors have also been protesting.

Retired Brig. Gen. Samer Ramah reported Bou Saab as saying that he wanted the ex-troops to end their protests and that he would raise the relevant budget item with the Cabinet and request its deletion from the draft.

On Sunday night, protesters in Beirut’s Riad Al-Solh Square threw eggs at the motorcade of Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Retired soldiers stopped Central Bank employees from entering their offices, raising the Lebanese flag and holding banners that read: “The Army is a Red Line.”

Bank sources said some employees spent the night in their offices to prevent the disruption to financial and monetary operations including clearances, external and internal remittances, and payments.

A committee of retired soldiers met with Bou Saab and an agreement was reached on the most contentious issues. A plan was developed for coordination between the ministry and the committee. A number of protesters implied that they would take measures to escalate the situation if their entitlements were threatened.

Retired Brig. Gen. Mahmoud Tabeekh said on behalf of the protesters: “Retired soldiers are not the reason for the budget deficit and will not allow the infringement of their acquired rights. It is not logical that the sons of soldiers, especially the sons of martyrs, be deprived of education and decent living allowances. The taxes should be taken from the appropriation of public goods, marine property and from yacht owners.”

The Cabinet held a session on Sunday under Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to continue debating the draft budget. The session continued until 2 a.m. on Monday. Another session was held Monday afternoon.

Minister of Social Affairs Richard Kouyoumjian said that salary reduction was not on the draft budget submitted by Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil and that he had only recently mentioned it.

“All that is being reported in the media does not exist,” he added.

Kouyoumjian said the protests were unacceptable. “When we take action, we will announce it without shame. The soldiers’ salaries will not be affected. There has only been an increase in the income tax on military retired pay, just as in the case of all Lebanese retirees and every soldier in the world. The people of Lebanon should know that there are people who receive LBP15 million ($9,950) as an education allowance, and these are the ones included in the reduction; not those who receive an education allowance of LBP2 million.”

The Cabinet decided during Sunday’s session to approve the reduction of motorcycles registration fees, make the state’s contribution to free schools subject to the oversight of education inspections, raise fines on tax evasion to control collection, raise fees on foreigners’ work permits, and reduce the state’s contribution to public institutions.

The head of the General Labor Union, Bishara Asmar, told Arab News that the organization was keeping an eye on what would happen as it had submitted a memo to the Hariri about the damage that would be caused to employment sectors because of the draft budget.

“Hariri promised to be positive in studying the content of the memorandum, so let us give them a chance,” he added.

Aleppo’s scattered business owners have yet to return home

Updated 38 min 29 sec ago

Aleppo’s scattered business owners have yet to return home

  • The recovery of businesses will depend on whether people will return to Syria or not
  • Most of the shop owners travelled to Turkey and Egypt

ALEPPO: In the old khan, a stone courtyard off Aleppo’s medieval souk, most of the 41 cloth shops are deserted. Many of the owners moved elsewhere or went abroad to escape fighting in the historic Syrian city, a major economic center before the war.
“Some started new work outside Syria and won’t return. Some who stayed opened new shops in other parts of the country,” said Mohammed Abu Zeid, one of two cloth merchants still operating.
Syria’s economy has been upturned by eight years of war that partitioned the country between rival forces and displaced millions of people. Hundreds of thousands of workers were conscripted into the army or joined rebel groups and Western powers have imposed sweeping sanctions.
Any recovery will largely depend on whether people return home, including local business owners. The empty stores in Khan Khair Bek show that most have stayed away and it may be some time before business resumes.
Although parts of western Aleppo, which was held by the government through the war, still have busy shopping areas, the city’s factories and wholesale trading businesses have been devastated by war damage and the departure of traders.
Textiles were a mainstay of Aleppo business until the start of the war in 2011. The khan in the Souk Al-Zarb section of the battered Old City was a textile hub. Merchants kept their wares and conducted wholesale business in the shops. When Reuters first visited in early 2017, weeks after the fighting ended, the khan was closed and the domed entranceway was waist-deep in debris including bullet casings and the tail fin of a mortar bomb.
Thirteen shop owners moved abroad, mostly to Egypt or Turkey. Of those still in Syria, six moved to Damascus or other cities, and started new businesses. Another seven who remained in Aleppo have also stopped dealing in cloth, Abu Zeid said.
Ten others are working in the cloth trade from market stalls or rented shops in other parts of Aleppo. Just two, Abu Zeid and Zakariya Azizeh, reopened in the khan earlier this year. They did not know the whereabouts of several other neighbors.
About half Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million were uprooted during the conflict, with more than 5 million seeking refuge abroad.
Some refugees have started returning, but most are unwilling to go back yet, citing a fear of reprisals, the danger of renewed conflict, economic hardship and problems with paperwork.
Economic troubles
Azizeh said he was trying to persuade his former neighbors to come back.
“We cannot export and we have banking problems from sanctions. The system depends on credit, but I haven’t any money,” he said.
President Bashar Assad said Syria now faces an economic war waged through Western sanctions. They make any movement of money in or out of Syria very difficult, paralysing trade even with close allies such as Russia and Iran and making any return to Syria less attractive for business owners.
Abu Zeid believes most of the those who left the khan will eventually return. Many still own their premises.
“This is the best khan for import-export. The others, they tell us ‘one month, two months, we will come back’,” he said.
His cousin, Ahmed Abu Zeid, 63, a cousin of Mohammed Abu Zeid, has continued doing some business from home as it would cost several thousand dollars to replace stock and repair his war-damaged shop, near a mulberry tree.
“We all worked here from when we were children. I used to climb this tree and so did my son,” he said. He hopes his grandson Ahmed, 8, will one day work there too.
The two main centers of Aleppan business — the Old City souk and the industrial zones on the city’s outskirts — were on the front lines and suffered from heavy shellfire and looting.
Shops and warehouses were stripped of their inventories, factories and workshops of their equipment and machinery. Many are pocked with bullet or shell holes and filled with rubble.
Aleppo’s power plant was destroyed and electricity supplies from other parts of government-held Syria are limited. Water provision is patchy. One of the main industrial zones, Belleramoun, is near a front line and has been repeatedly shelled by rebels.
In the souk outside the khan, a group had gathered to chat on plastic chairs. They recited lists of friends and neighbors who had left.
“Some of them have come back to see what the situation is like. When they see it, they go away again,” said Mohammed Fadel, dressed in a suit and waving a lit cigarette as he spoke.
He had two shops in the souk, both now closed, and a textile workshop with four machines and 400 workers running round the clock and exporting across the Middle East, Fadel said.
He now plans to leave Syria and go to live in the Netherlands, where his son is.
“What can I do? I sit here all day doing nothing,” he said.