The list of requests that the Lebanese Armed Forces commander in chief submitted to his French counterpart in their meeting in May resembled requests by human rights groups for assistance to refugees. Among other things, Gen. Joseph Aoun asked for milk, flour and parts for military equipment. His supplications led to a video meeting, called by the presidents of France and Italy.
Donor nations participated in the meeting as well and pledged tens of millions of dollars to the Lebanese army. The aid is not assistance to the Lebanese government or for the rehabilitation of its economy, but direct support to the army, which, according to its commander in chief, is on the brink of starvation.
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Last month, the army decided to cut its meat rations. Salaries, already meager, shrank even further and more than 3,000 soldiers (out of a total of 80,000) have left military service because they can’t support their families. Officers are terminating their careers in the army and military retirees have to find new jobs because their pensions no longer cover their expenses for cigarettes, food and transportation.
In March, in a speech to officers, Aoun said: “The soldiers of the Lebanese army are suffering and hungry like all citizens of Lebanon.” Then, in an unprecedented appeal, he castigated the political leadership of Lebanon: “Where are you? What are your plans?”
Aoun is a professional soldier who publicly committed himself to do everything he can to provide for the needs of his soldiers, even if he has to ask for charity – which he did.
The deep slash in salaries is the result of the dive in the value of the Lebanese pound in relation to the dollar. An officer, who earned an average of about $800 in Lebanese pounds and could make a decent living, found that the purchasing power of his salary had plummeted to $100 a month in local currency. According to the official rate of 1515 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, theoretically nothing has changed. But life in Lebanon goes according to the black market dollar, which has plunged to 15,000 pounds per dollar.
Based on conversations between officers and soldiers and the media, morale seems to be very low. Soldiers don’t want to embark on dangerous missions, and their families are pressuring them to leave the army. The most serious threat is that the army will fall apart or lose its status in the eyes of the public as a reliable body, the most stable and perhaps the only symbol of a united Lebanon since the civil war.
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While the army is weak, under-equipped, and far from a threat to foreign enemies, it is still an arm of the government against Hezbollah, whose fighters eat well, are properly equipped and undermine the government’s monopoly over power.
The fact that the army’s highest officer is begging for charity means this crushed country has sunk to its lowest level – and it’s not the only body on the verge of bankruptcy. The Lebanese government's payment method, which is based on the local currency exchange rate, has been particularly damaging to the hundreds of thousands of refugees receiving aid outside international organizations. The government receives this money in dollars but transfers it to the refugees in Lebanese pounds and thus erodes the amount of money the refugees have at their disposal to support themselves. Refugees have lost an estimated quarter of a billion dollars of the total aid they were meant to receive.
Meanwhile, Lebanon's banks have fallen into the abyss. Not long ago, Lebanon was a center for banking in the Middle East, serving states and corporations and boasting branches in most of the countries in the region. Now it is facing a dramatic drop in banking operations. According to the heads of the banking system, about 3,000 bank employees have left or been fired in the past year. The extent of loans to the private sector has shrunk by more than a quarter, demonstrating the severity of the blow that struck the sector over the past two years.
The amount of dollars held by the banks has dropped to dangerous levels, and their ability to continue lending money to the state is dissipating. These dollars belong to Lebanese depositors, but the government has banned the banks from releasing them except under serious restrictions. The cabinet is also expected to come to a decision about cutting fuel subsidies, which will further exacerbate the situation.
Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar upset the country last week when he announced that there would be no choice but to cancel fuel subsidies, a declaration that had drivers racing to gas stations before the edict struck. But these drivers found that gas had already run out at dozens of stations. According to the drivers, the gas stations are refusing to sell the subsidized fuel, and are keeping the supply they have in order to sell it at a high price when the subsidies are withdrawn.
What especially angered the Lebanese people was the energy minister’s audacious suggestion that people who can’t afford to buy gas should not use their cars and find other solutions. “Does the minister want us to start riding donkeys and mules,” people wrote in frightening social media posts showing queues stretching for kilometers and shooting incidents between nervous drivers waiting in line for several hours.
The beginning of a solution is the establishment of an agreed-upon government that can take possession of billions in aid, loans and donations waiting for a responsible body to manage the money and decide on essential reforms as a condition to its release. But so far it seems that the Lebanese leadership is in no hurry. It's apparently certain that someone will come and salvage the country.