Lebanese army at crossroads in the face of deepening economic and political crisis

Some call for wage increases for the armed forces

epa09080243 Anti-government protesters block the main road with garbage bins as they take part in a demonstration against the power cuts, the high cost of living and the low purchasing power of the Lebanese pound, in Beirut, Lebanon, 16 March 2021. Anti-government protesters, closed the streets by burned tires and  garbage bins, where expressed anger at the growing economic crisis, as well as the failure of political leaders to form a government after months of deadlock.  EPA/NABIL MOUNZER

The Lebanese army chief's criticism of politicians is the latest sign of the heavy toll the economic crisis is taking on the country's population, including the armed forces.

The crisis fuelled sporadic nationwide protests that intensified in recent weeks as the national currency plunged further, prompting demonstrators to burn tires and block key roads across the country.

The impact was most pronounced last Tuesday as protesters paralysed traffic in key parts of the country with the army intervening only hours later to clear roadblocks.

The military's late intervention cane after unusual public remarks by the army chief earlier in the day.

"Where are we are heading? What are your plans?" Gen Joseph Aoun asked politicians in a rare public comment by an army chief on the political situation as hundreds of Lebanese took to the streets to protest against a record plunge in the lira's rate against the dollar.

The national currency lost more than 85 per cent of its market value since the crisis unravelled in late 2019.

"The army chief delivered a clear message in his address when he noted that the crisis was not only affecting the army but all Lebanese," Ziad El Sayegh, an expert in public policies, told The National.

Mr El Sayegh said Gen Aoun’s strong remarks over the effect of the economic crisis should not overshadow another key aspect of his address to army officers.

“His focus on the army's doctrine and role as an anchor of stability, unity and civil peace in a country where confidence in state institutions has waned empowers the military institution despite the funding challenges it is facing,” Mr Al Sayegh said.

The army chief’s remarks, which were echoed days later by the caretaker interior minister, prompted calls for wage increases for security forces.

One such proposal was put forward last week by former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, a member of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc, who suggested awarding security forces a monthly payment of 1 million lira for a six-month period.

His proposal drew criticism from economists and retired army officers.

"This is a toxic proposal that we reject," retired Brig Gen George Nader told The National, accusing the political class of seeking to drive a wedge between the army and the people.

Experts said such proposals would only accelerate the decline in the exchange rate and fuel inflation by expanding the lira supply during shortages in foreign currencies.

“A solution to the crisis cannot be discriminatory and could only come as part of an integrated plan to contain the spiralling crisis,” Mr El Sayegh said.

Yet, a comprehensive economic plan to address the crisis is elusive in a country where political bickering between members of the Iran-backed Hezbollah-led coalition and its domestic rivals is blocking the formation of a government seven months after a huge explosion in Beirut brought down the Cabinet.

The political divide is accentuated by rising tensions between Iran and its US-led regional rivals, further undermining confidence in Lebanon's ability to tackle the crisis.

Despite the international community’s repeated calls for the formation of a government that commits to the implementation of reforms in exchange for financial aid, the country’s political leaders have failed to so far to heed the call.

Many have lost hope such reforms will materialise any time soon.

"This political class has plunged the country into this crisis and we are not expecting them to come up with solutions," Brig Gen Nader said.

The former officer, who played an active role in recent nationwide demonstrations, said the army chief's comments were a stark warning over the potential fallout from the crisis.

The crisis prompted the army to increasingly rely on foreign aid from its traditional allies to make up for the funding shortfall and to ensure steady food and medical supplies.

In February, the army signed an agreement with the French embassy to receive food donations valued at $60,000. The announcement came almost eight months after the army said it would be cutting meat from soldiers' daily meals.

Italy, another major donor of military aid to Lebanon, was also looking into providing additional food and medicine supplies to the Lebanese army, Col Marco Zona, the Italian defence attache, told The National.

The army commander met several high-ranking western military officials in recent weeks to discuss military co-operation.

On Tuesday, Gen Aoun held talks with Gen Kenneth McKenzie, Commander of the US Central Command. The US has been one of the largest donors of military aid to the Lebanese army in recent years, providing more than $1.7 billion in support for the army since 2014, including more than $220 million in grant assistance in 2019.

During his meeting with the army chief, Gen McKenzie reaffirmed “the importance of preserving Lebanon’s security, stability, and sovereignty, and underscored the importance of the strong partnership between the United States and the LAF, particularly as Lebanon endures significant economic challenges”, according to a statement released by the US embassy.

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