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Lebanon’s army suffers with currency collapse as desertions mount

The drastic devaluation of wages threatens soldiers’ performance in the tumultuous period Lebanon is going through.
LEBANON-VOTE A Lebanese army soldier mans the turret of a humvee (HMMWV) while on patrol in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, on May 15, 2022 during the national parliamentary elections. (Photo by Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP) (Photo by MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images)

BEIRUT — The deepening economic crisis in Lebanon and its currency collapse are hitting hard its most critical security institution — the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and security forces — as soldiers skip duty, seek part-time jobs or even desert their ranks. 

Omar, a 35-year-old Lebanese soldier, doesn’t go out much these days. Using a pseudonym because he was not authorized to speak to the press and could face repercussions, he said he can no longer afford the lifestyle he had become accustomed to. 

Due to the drastic devaluation of the Lebanese pound, Omar’s monthly salary has dropped from what it was worth three years ago — $1,300 — to a mere $75. “Look at the difference,” he told Al-Monitor. “Now it is nothing.” 

Lebanon’s state coffers are drained, and the majority of the population is in poverty as the country suffers from one of the world's worst economic crises since the mid-1800s.

The pound has lost more than 98% of its value over the last three years. The currency has spiraled out of control in recent weeks, reaching a record low of 81,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar — nearly double from 42,500 pounds per dollar at the start of January. 

Some of those hardest hit by the currency devaluation work in public service — including Lebanon's soldiers and police officers, long counted on to uphold unity in a country deeply divided by sectarian politics.

Three years ago Omar was able to save money, he said. Now he scrapes by “day by day.” He does not have the money to get married much less build a family, and he tends to stay home. The gas money it takes to go get a coffee is now unaffordable, he said. 

“The salary of a soldier is not sustainable whatsoever,” director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs Sami Nader told Al-Monitor. “It raises some very important questions about how much the Lebanese army can sustain and what they cannot sustain.”

Nader referenced the “waves” of soldiers who have left the military in search of better opportunities. Thousands have reportedly deserted the army due to the low wages, the Lebanese news outlet L’Orient Le Jour reported in October 2021, as have hundreds from Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces.

Others among Lebanon’s security personnel have resorted to taking up side jobs, with the army turning a blind eye to this technically unlawful practice. For two years now, Omar has driven for various ridesharing apps to make up some of his gaping income loss. After his seven-hour shift at the military base, Omar said he typically spends another eight hours driving around the country’s capital, Beirut, searching for passengers. 

Nader said this is “worrisome,” as it puts at stake a soldier's performance while on duty. 

The army, long kept afloat by generous donors, has appealed multiple times to the international community for cash assistance to bolster the wages of their near 80,000-strong force. In June 2022, Qatar announced a $60 million aid package for Lebanon’s army, which has provided each soldier with an additional $100 per month. The United States also last month announced a similar aid package for the Lebanese army worth $72 million, which will also raise soldiers’ monthly wages by $100.

But Omar said they have not yet received the US assistance, and although the Qatari donation has been helpful, he still struggles to afford basic necessities. With prices spiking as the pound plummets, he said he pays around $100 a month for rent and utilities. And with each tank of gas now costing about $20, there is only a handful of cash left for food and other necessities.

Lebanon’s army chief Gen. Joseph Aoun said in a press conference to announce the US aid package last month that the crisis facing soldiers may be the worst.

“The current crisis and its impact might be the most dangerous the Lebanese army has faced to date,” he added.

The crisis has “impacted the performance” of security personnel, the country’s police chief, Manj. Gen. Imad Osman, said in the same conference, as quoted by The Associated Press. 

Meanwhile, as the country’s banks hit week three of their “open-ended” strike, protests have broken out across Lebanon, putting additional pressure on the country’s underpaid security forces. Last week at least six banks were set on fire in Beirut, and in others parts of the country banks were ransacked and roads were blocked by angry depositors. The army entered Lebanon’s southern city of Sidon as a “preemptive” measure, according to local media. 

In Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli on Monday, angry public employees blocked access to the Banque Du Liban headquarters, burning tires in front of the building as police arrived at the scene, L’Orient Today reported.

“There are more missions. Every day we have problems,” Omar said. “The army is always ready but always tired. There is no time to rest.”

Many soldiers who are required to work outside of their hometowns choose the more affordable option of living at their military bases for days at a time rather than renting apartments, Omar said. But with the army’s funds eroded, conditions on the bases have worsened, he added, noting that the base camp seldom provides meals with meat or chicken and the portions are limited.

“We are exhausted, physically and mentally,” Omar said. 

But he has decided to stick with the military, provided he only has four years left until he is supposed to receive his promised pension. He said he hopes by that time his salary will be worth more and then he might be able to start thinking about marriage and building a family.

But sometimes, he said, his hope fades and fear takes over. “I am afraid I will get older and won’t be able to afford my life.”

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