Army holds on to neutrality as chaos spreads across Lebanon

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.

Chaos spread again across Lebanon on Tuesday amid deteriorating economic and living conditions.

Commenting on the unrest, Lebanese political sources expressed their concern over the violence and their fear that the situation could spin completely out of control in the absence of a new government that can implement urgent reforms to reassure the public.

Lebanese protesters set up new roadblocks on Tuesday to vent anger over political inaction in the face of deepening poverty, but security forces managed to reopen some to traffic.

The country has been mired in economic crisis, which has brought surging unemployment and spiralling prices while the currency has plunged to a new low to the dollar on the black market.

Yet the deeply divided political class has failed to agree on a new cabinet since a massive explosion in Beirut port last August that killed more than 200 people and led to the government’s resignation.

Roadblocks have become a near daily occurrence in the Eastern Mediterranean country and lasted all day Monday, including in and out of Beirut.

Demonstrators on Tuesday again cut off some roads in the northern city of Tripoli and the eastern Bekaa Valley region, the state-run National News Agency reported.

Highways leading to central Beirut were also closed, though most later reopened. Others blinked open and closed throughout the morning.

Some protesters have called for a revival of the nationwide street movement of late 2019 that demanded the removal of Lebanon’s entire political class, widely seen as incompetent and corrupt.

Political sources revealed to The Arab Weekly that the situation in the country is now taking a dangerous turn, with President Michel Aoun ignoring protesters’ demands.

The sources added that Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil moved to the Republican Palace with his team from the Free Patriotic Movement to perform the duties of the president, describing Bassil as the de facto president of the republic.

The sources also noted that the president held a meeting in an attempt to contain the deteriorating situation. However, they ruled out Aoun’s ability to take any practical measures in the absence of a new government that has the required powers to resolve the country’s multiple security and economic crises.

The same sources said that Lebanon is going through the most dangerous phase in its modern history, and that France has sent warnings to senior Lebanese officials cautioning that the country “faces the danger of extinction.”

The sources highlighted the position of Armed Forces Commander General Joseph Aoun, who insisted on keeping the army neutral.

On Monday, Lebanon’s president told the army and security forces to clear roadblocks after a week of protests over a collapsing economy and paralysed government, but the army chief warned that troops should not get sucked into the political deadlock.

— Discontent among armed forces –

The Lebanese army commander held a separate meeting with the military commanders on Monday in which he affirmed the right to demonstrate peacefully, but without harming public property.

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.

In unusually outspoken comments, 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% 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.”

A Lebanese politician said the army commander informed senior Lebanese officials that he could not move in certain Lebanese regions, especially in Christian areas, nor could he mobilise forces in areas controlled by Hezbollah.

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 said a buildup of pressure on lower-ranking servicemen has fuelled 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.

“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 tyres and shut main roads since the Lebanese pound hit its new low.

While the president urged forces to stop the roadblocks on Monday, 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 has also been also an uptick in gunmen holding up drivers at night to take cars, he said.

In 2020, murders jumped 91% from 2019, according to research firm Information International, based on police data. Robberies shot up 57% 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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