Discontent brewing in Lebanon's security forces over salary cuts after currency crash

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Discontent is brewing in the ranks of Lebanon’s security forces over a currency crash wiping out most of the value of their salaries as unrest and crime surge.

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In unusually outspoken comments, army chief General Joseph Aoun said his warnings that the pressure on soldiers’ earnings and morale could lead to an “implosion” had fallen on deaf ears.

Lebanon’s pound has crashed 85 percent since late 2019 in a financial meltdown that poses the biggest threat to stability since the 1975-1990 civil war.

“Soldiers are going hungry like the people,” he said on Monday, berating politicians without naming names.

“Do they want the army or not? Do you want the army to stay on its feet or not? ... They don’t care.”

The basic monthly salary of a soldier or policeman, which used to amount to around $800, is worth under $120 today. Budget cuts pushed the military to cut meat from its meals last year.

In what was seen as a sign of the times, the French embassy donated food parcels last month to the Lebanese army, which has long been backed by Western nations.

Some officials caution that security forces will struggle to contain unrest.

More than half the population is now poor, with wages slashed across the board, prices soaring and no state rescue plan in sight. That was even before the currency hit a record low last week after months of political paralysis.

The military, its commander and the caretaker interior minister have denied recent local media reports that economic hardship spurred a rise in forces abandoning duty.

Still, three security sources told Reuters a buildup of pressure on lower-ranking servicemen has fueled concerns of desertions.

One member of the security forces, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he wanted to leave after many years because it had become hard to pay rent. He said he knew three others who had deserted, which is punishable by law, and worried commanders would reject his request for a discharge.

A demonstrator gestures near burning tires during a protest against the fall in Lebanese pound currency and mounting economic hardships, in Beirut, Lebanon March 8, 2021. (Reuters)
A demonstrator gestures near burning tires during a protest against the fall in Lebanese pound currency and mounting economic hardships, in Beirut, Lebanon March 8, 2021. (Reuters)

“If nothing works, I’ll have to resort to fleeing,” he said, adding he used to be able to buy his children whatever they wanted but now could barely afford a few groceries.

A second security source said army desertions were still within the usual pre-crisis figures, though there were plans to boost aid to avoid a rise.

“We’re feeling the choke but we’re enduring.” He said a sense of national duty and bleak job prospects across Lebanon helped keep forces from wavering, but warned they should not “be pushed too far.”

Fear of crime

With Lebanon on edge, unrest is expected to grow. Protesters have burned tires and shut main roads since the Lebanese pound hit its new low.

While the president urged forces to stop the roadblocks on Monday, General Aoun warned in a separate meeting against pulling the army into political wrangles.

The economy’s collapse has brought a shift in robberies with more people trying to steal food, baby formula or medicine, one security source said. There was also an uptick in gunmen holding up drivers at night to take cars, he said.

In 2020, murders jumped 91 percent from 2019, according to research firm Information International, based on police data. Robberies shot up 57 percent and car thefts hit a nine-year high.

A police spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Road safety charity YASA said about 10,000 manhole covers had disappeared in Beirut, as thieves sell the cast iron for $100 each, more than Lebanon’s monthly minimum wage.

Fears of muggings have pushed many to take precautions like avoiding ATMs at night. Eight people, including a designer and an engineer, said this had pushed them to buy a pistol.

“If I had the money, I would have bought a licensed gun for the place,” said shop owner Khodr Osman. “There’s no safety today. The state is in disarray.”

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