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.