BEIRUT: Lebanese protesters rallying against a proposed austerity budget broke through a security cordon outside parliament on Friday, where lawmakers were voting on the controversial draft bill.
The protesters, mostly army veterans, pushed past barricades, walking over them and making their way closer to the heavily guarded parliament building. Some protesters scuffled with security forces but soldiers were deployed to separate between them. The protesters have gathered every day since Tuesday as lawmakers met for final discussion on the budget ahead of a vote.
The budget is aimed at averting a financial crisis in heavily indebted Lebanon. But it was met with criticism for failing to address structural problems. Instead, the budget mostly cuts public spending and raises taxes.
Army veterans fear the proposed measures would cut into their pensions and benefits. They say those who sacrificed their lives for the country should not be targeted with austerity measures.
"Thieves! Thieves!" the angry protesters shouting, addressing government officials. Many of them are also lawmakers, whom they accuse of corruption.
"They could solve this issue (the deficit) by looking at rented property; they can solve it by looking at coastal properties," protester Fadi Abdullah told The Associated Press, referring to raising and collecting taxes on expensive real estate. "We cannot stay silent and pay for their mistakes. They should do drastic reforms. Everything that's in the interest of the army they don't do. They do the opposite."
Despite the criticism, lawmakers began voting on each article of the bill in a closed session. Scuffles broke out before amid tight security.
Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab appealed to army veterans to avoid clashes with security and army personnel deployed around parliament, calling them unbecoming. He urged calm, saying new taxes will affect all state employees, not only veterans.
Bou Saad said a compromise was reached to ensure that new taxes will only affect their basic income, not benefits, and will affect mostly senior officers not soldiers. He said taxes on medical services were also reduced by half in negotiations.
"I don't want them to be disappointed or feel this is only affecting the army," Bou Saab said. He said the wounded and families of wounded will not be affected by the new measures.
The proposed budget aims to reduce the projected deficit from 11.5% of the gross domestic product last year. The corruption-plagued country's public debt is 150% of the GDP, among the largest in the world, and there have been serious concerns about an economic crash.
The budget was approved by the government in late May and despite the criticism is expected to pass in parliament.
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