BEIRUT: Hundreds of employees at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and its medical center joined angry protests on Friday after receiving notices ending their employment.
Staff left their offices at the crisis-hit university and took to the street, watched on by a heavy deployment of military and internal security forces.
Some employees voiced their anger and wept, while others blocked the road leading to the hospital.
The prestigious university will be forced to let go of up to 25 percent of its staff in the face of the worst economic crisis in its 154-year history, according to its president, Fadlo Khuri.
Up to 6,500 people work at the university. In its dismissal statement, AUB said: “This is a difficult period for everyone and the decision was not easy. The economic situation is deteriorating day by day and the efforts we exerted to overcome the difficult financial challenges failed. We were left with no choice other than reduce the size of the workforce to ensure AUB’s financial stability and continuity.”
The sight of tearful employees served as a warning for what the country could witness in coming months as institutions and companies collapse amid the economic meltdown.
AUB, which has withstood international and local wars, is viewed by Lebanese people as an emblem of stability that reflects support for the country as an academic, scientific and medical hub.
An adviser to the AUB president explained that 700 employees at the university and medical center were included in staff cuts, but no professors or doctors were dismissed.
Hassan Habash, a dismissed employee, said: “The compensation I received is not even equal to $2,000. My father is getting cancer treatment at the medical center and we do not know what will happen to him.”
Habash criticized the deployment of the army, saying: “We owe AUB a lot and will never do anything to harm it, but the army should be deployed along the borders. It should not protect the thieves who led the country and the university to bankruptcy and starved our people.”
As news of the university staff cuts filtered through, protesters filled Beirut’s squares, chanting: “Take to the streets to regain your rights.”
Demonstrators, joined by the son-in-law of Lebanese President Chamel Roukoz, held up signs saying: “The dollar is at 8,500 Lebanese pounds. Merchants are selling without any supervision. The judicial appointments are gone with the wind. Diesel is smuggled to Syria. Garbage fills the streets. The banks are controlling the people. The stolen funds are nowhere to be found and there is no electricity.”
One of the protesters said that he can no longer buy milk to feed his child.
Former minister Charbel Nahas blamed Lebanon’s leaders and “oppressive authorities” for the worsening situation, and called on the people to “denounce corruption and favoritism.”