On a typical weekday, the 50-year-old employee of the Lebanese Ministry of Finance, Walid al-Shaar, did not go to work, having been absent since June.
The public sector is coming to an end
A man rushes to irrigate his garden in the hills south of Beirut, taking advantage of the only hour allocated by the state in the context of the rationalization of electricity consumption to operate irrigation equipment. Then he called his mother, who was struggling to get a new passport from a government agency that was short of paper and ink.
El Shaar told Reuters the public sector was coming to an end “if we keep going like this”.
Like thousands of civil servants in Lebanon, Al-Shaar went on strike two months ago due to the very low value of his salary following the country’s economic collapse, one of the worst waves of collapse in the world in modern times.
Paralysis in the public sector worsened, extending to judges who began their protest this week, while soldiers looked for additional work to make ends meet, and electricity was cut and basic office supplies ran out in government offices.
Infrastructure has reached a breaking point, weighed down by years of loose spending, corruption and a preference for quick fixes over sustainable solutions.
‘We are in a state of collapse’
“We are in a state of collapse,” said Lamia al-Mobayed of the Basil Fleihan Institute of Finance and Economics, a research center at the Ministry of Finance.
In Parliament House, there is no fuel to power the elevator’s generator, so security guards pass messages up and down the stairs between workers.
Those registering new cars were given handwritten papers instead of official government documents due to a lack of paper.
The leaders of the Lebanese security services tolerate additional work by soldiers, which is usually prohibited but has become informally acceptable with low salaries.
The average monthly salary for a civil servant has dropped from about $1,000 to barely $50 as this downward trend continues as the Lebanese pound loses more of its value by the day.
It caused tens of thousands of government employees, in ministries, local government agencies, schools, universities, courts and even the state news agency, to go on strike.
350 Lebanese judges will not attend this week’s sessions, in a protest to also demand a raise.
“The judges are starving,” said Faisal Makki, one of the founders of the country’s judges club.
Makki told Reuters that the Ministry of Justice has long been underfunded, so judges have been buying paper and ink for their office printers from personal expenses for years.
He added: “In Adliya, the situation was difficult in the first place, and I used to buy paper and ink for the office, but (now) I can’t buy it because I can’t eat. It’s definitely ‘ a failed state.”
In response, the government implements partial policies. In a two-month stopgap measure, it agreed to increase daily benefits and provide social assistance to most state employees, effectively raising net monthly income to just $200.
But with food prices rising up to 11 times, and many restaurants and even service providers turning to dollars, the olive branch provided by the government was not enough for the roughly 150,000 public sector workers.
“No government employee can buy a kilo of meat or chicken except once a month,” Al-Shaar said. “We live a primitive life, we only buy basic needs.”
Nawal Nasr, head of the Public Administration Employees Association, said workers are asking for a fivefold increase in their salaries and help with the high costs of education and health, but this has raised fears of hyperinflation.
Meanwhile, government revenues have been reeling as tax collection has been suspended for two months amid a strike by relevant employees.
Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati said it was “impossible” to meet all the workers’ demands, adding that it would lead to a further deterioration of the situation. He said the wage increase must come in the context of a broader financial stability plan.
Emptying the statement of powers
But the political factions have yet to reach consensus on such a plan, causing the government to lose some of its highly skilled employees. Lamia al-Mobayed said nearly six in 10 civil servants were either leaving or planning to leave, at a rate not seen since the country’s 1975-90 civil war.
She added that these are not just numbers and that they are the best in the Lebanese state. She further said that the country needs them to recover and implement any structural reform plan.
Al-Shaar, who has a PhD and heads a high-level tax directorate at the Ministry of Finance after nearly three decades in the public sector, says he is frustrated and wants to leave Lebanon.
The union he belongs to has lost nearly half its members, and his representative for aviation workers recently got a one-way ticket from Beirut.
For those who stayed, it appears that the accumulation of problems in Lebanon will eventually catch up with them.
Expressing his regret, Al-Shaar said that recent years had “destroyed all our efforts”, recalling steps aimed at improving governance through IT systems that had been halted due to the crisis.
“Who will stay?” he said.