BEIRUT: Large numbers of former Lebanese soldiers took to the streets early on Wednesday to demonstrate outside the Ministry of Finance’s VAT building in Beirut.
The retired servicemen and women were protesting against the government’s austerity measures — including cuts to medical aid and other benefits — and delays to end-of-service payments.
The protesters blocked the entrance to the building — preventing some employees from entering, raised the Lebanese flag, and held Lebanese Army banners with the phrase “Loyal people have died, O soldier,” written on them.
Beshara, a retired soldier, carried the battery that regulates his heartbeat and said that he can only survive for a few hours without it, but that he took the risk of joining the demonstration to protest against nonpayment of his medical aid and his children’s school tuition fees.
Brig. Gen. Sami El-Rammah, a spokesman for the protesters, said the sit-in was staged to “protest arbitrary measures in paying the dues of retired soldiers, which are their right — as prescribed by the army — not a courtesy.
“The Ministry of Finance deals with pensioners by not paying their pensions and school aid, noting that the funds have already been listed,” he continued. “How can it make sense not to pay the salaries of pensioners who were demobilized over 9 months ago? How will these people live without salaries?”
He warned: “If officials continue this injustice, they will be surprised by our reaction.”
Retired Brig. Gen. Andre Abu Ma’shar stressed that it was a peaceful demonstration. “There will be no roads blocked nor tires set on fire,” he said.
“The Lebanese people as a whole are suffering as the veterans are. The authorities’ performance is totally unacceptable.”
Retired Brig. Gen. George Nader said, “Our fight not only concerns retirees, but also soldiers on active duty, as huge cuts have been made in their salaries.”
One female employee in the ministry tried to use her car to enter the building by force, resulting in a heated argument with protesters.
Later, divisions emerged between the protesters themselves; some wanted to end the sit-in and some wanted to proceed to cut off the busy road between the Palace of Justice and the neighborhood of Ashrafyeh. A few protesters lay down in the middle of that road, but it was quickly reopened.
In a placatory statement, the Ministry of Finance said that it fully understood the motives of retired soldiers as well as retired civil servants.
When the 2019 budget was prepared, pensions were estimated at a total of L.L. 450 billion ($300 million), however after news emerged of the government’s intention to freeze early retirement, a huge number of soldiers and military employees filed for their end-of-service benefits, which resulted in extra expenses of L.L. 540 billion ($360 million).
This prompted the ministry to demand an amendment to the budget to provide additional credit to the unexpected increase in expenses, it claimed, adding that retirees “will soon receive their payments.”
According to the official website of the Lebanese Army Command, there are 56,000 personnel in active service, 54,000 of them in the army, 1,000 in the air force, and 1,000 in the navy.
In 2018, the Lebanese army budget was estimated at $2.5 billion. However, the 2019 budget introduced major cuts, including items that are considered essential, such as fuel, covert action expenses, hardware, buildings, and more.
In Lebanon the retirement age is 58 for army officers and 52 for soldiers and regular army personnel. The low retirement age is considered necessary because of the physical and mental demands of their jobs, and the need to recruit young soldiers.
Lebanon is facing a mounting economic crisis due to a sharp decline in investments and income, an equally sharp increase in bankruptcy and unemployment, accusations of rampant corruption, and increasing uncertainty about the country’s future.