A retired soldier sits in a tent as he takes part in a protest against draft state budget proposals in Beirut. Image Credit: Reuters

Beirut: Lebanon’s central bank is operating as normal despite retired soldiers blocking its entrances in protest against pension and benefit cuts, as the government debates a draft budget, a central bank official said on Monday.

At least 100 protesters gathered outside the central bank late on Sunday, while Lebanon’s coalition government held its latest meeting to try to agree on a budget that would reduce the fiscal deficit in the heavily indebted state.

“The bank is operational and the market is proceeding as normal,” a central bank official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

A central bank employee said workers had managed to get in the bank last night and would work as normal.

Protesters are blocking the main road outside the bank, choking rush hour traffic on one of Beirut’s busiest streets.

Retired soldiers have been among the most vocal opponents of reported cuts in the draft budget, blocking roads with burning tyres to protest any cuts to their pensions and benefits.

The government said on Friday it had agreed to tighten the allocation of financial incentives that are intended for soldiers on front-line duty but applied more widely in practice.

With Lebanon suffering from years of low economic growth, long-stalled reforms are seen as more pressing than ever.

But the strikes and protests point to the political difficulties facing Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri’s unity government as it seeks to craft a budget to narrow a gaping deficit.

The public-sector wage bill is the government’s biggest expense followed by debt servicing costs and the big subsidies paid annually to the state-owned power producer.

Lebanon has public debt equivalent to 150 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). The draft budget aims to reduce the deficit to below 9 per cent of GDP from 11.2 per cent in 2018.