Anger boils in Lebanon over government austerity plans

The retreat over the salary cuts does not mean these will not ensue but rather that the ruling establishment would simply allow matters to deteriorate further before allowing the suggestion to resurface.
Sunday 21/04/2019
A storm in the making. Public servants during a protest in downtown Beirut against cuts to their salaries, April 17. (Reuters)
A storm in the making. Public servants during a protest in downtown Beirut against cuts to their salaries, April 17. (Reuters)

Desperate people do desperate things, more so when their predicament is largely of their own making. This is pretty much the case with the Lebanese state and its cabinet, which is frantically scrambling to prevent the collapse of Lebanon’s decrepit economy and, consequently, the country.

The Hariri government once again demonstrated a total lack of political and fiscal acumen as it floated the idea that its upcoming budget would include slashing salaries in the public sector, which for Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his 30-member cabinet was the only way to weather the storm.

As alarming as this scenario might seem, it was made gloomier by the fact that these measures would touch on retirement packages and health benefits of retired bureaucrats, who include thousands of pensioners from the military and security forces and teachers as well as from various sectors of government.

Consequently, thousands of pensioners went to the streets, blocking main highways into Beirut and flocked to the Lebanese parliament to vehemently protest and to warn of the consequences of this measure.

Hariri’s unimaginative response to these disgruntled seniors was to deny that this item was on the table, yet he warned of the difficult times that await if austerity measures were not immediately and fully implemented.

Hariri’s tactical retreat over the salary cuts does not mean these will not ensue but rather that the ruling establishment would simply allow matters to deteriorate further before allowing the suggestion to resurface.

Perhaps the most dangerous part of the debate goes beyond discussing the somewhat necessary reforms to the pension plan and reflects the sinister approach that the government is employing, one that ultimately frames the public sector as the main reason for the country’s inability to prosper.

It is no coincidence that the ruling establishment has been implicitly linking the ongoing anti-corruption campaign with the debate on pension control.

While it is true that the Lebanese public sector suffers from a chronic corruption problem, most of the pensioners who wait for their monthly retirement checks are not those who accumulated millions from shady dealings or kickbacks.

The hard-working public servants who diligently run the state are not the demons the politicians and their extended propaganda machine paint them to be.

If the austerity measures and fiscal crunches must start somewhere, they should begin from above and not only target the lower- and medium-income brackets. This is equally true of the Lebanese banking sector, which is portrayed as the vicious capitalist wormhole that is sucking the country dry.

As a country that celebrates free enterprise and a laissez-faire economy and with the imprudent fiscal planning of the government and excessive corruption, it is natural for these banks to profit from their investment and capitalise on the failures of the political class.

Yet much of the suggested reform plan does not touch on the privileges of the political elite, the majority of whom take advantage of their standing to block legislation or taxation that would lower their profit margins.

While the ruling establishment preaches austerity as the only economic salvation, the public watches these same self-righteous politicians as they abuse power and squander taxpayers’ money by flying to trivial international conferences and driving around in elaborate motorcades, all of which incur millions of dollars of costs on the state — millions that could have been directed to more worthy projects.

In his latest trip to Moscow, Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his accompanying delegation are said to have cost the Lebanese state approximately $500,000. Aoun was given a lukewarm reception and only 11 minutes of audience with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For $45,000 a minute, the Lebanese certainly did not get their money’s worth nor did Aoun affirm his claim of being a strong president willing to sacrifice to save his people.

Quite as dangerous perhaps is that the Lebanese political elite are comparing their predicament to that of Greece or Serbia and are emulating some of the measures that such countries implemented to stimulate their economies.

Yet these so-called reformers ignore that decades of corruption and mismanagement could not be simply rectified by chastising the public servants, who practically give the state its legitimacy and perhaps its soul.

Before Hariri asks members of his bureaucracy to relinquish part of their pay, he needs to reduce the number of ministers in his cabinet, half of whom collect a hefty paycheque while doing nothing but representing their respective sects.

The Lebanese have a saying that to wash a staircase one needs to start from the top floor. However, in its current shape, no amount of soap or water can clean decades of corruption nor delay the inevitable.

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