Lebanon on cusp of network blackout as dispute grows with telecom workers
BEIRUT – Lebanon’s Telecommunications Minister Johnny Corm warned Thursday of the country’s hoped-for military takeover of state-owned telecommunications company Ogero amid a growing dispute between the government and the company’s employees, who have been on strike for a week demanding pay increases.
The news is just the latest in the ongoing disaster Lebanon is facing, facing an unprecedented economic crisis, political and security vacuum.
“I spoke to Prime Minister Najib Mikati this morning and he asked me [allow] the intervention of the Lebanese army and for us to take over Ogero,” said Corm in an interview with the local station Radio Liban Libre.
“I don’t see citizens being arrested. The internet is a basic necessity and is necessary for the continuity of life and any interruption is prohibited,” he said.
Ogero employees started an open strike last Friday demanding the ministry to raise their salaries, as the local currency has lost more than 90% of its value since the economic crisis began in October 2019. Lebanese pound , was officially pegged. to the dollar at £ 1,500 since 1990, is currently trading at around 107,000 against the greenback on the black market.
As the crisis continues unabated, the annual state budget allocated to Ogero has dropped to around $4 million, which barely covers the fuel needed to operate internet relay stations, leading to sharp cuts salaries, Ogero chairman Imad Kreidieh told The National last Friday.
The strike threatens to bring internet blackouts across the country. The two main mobile phone operators, Alfa and Touch, will also be affected as they use Ogero to route their data.
According to its website, Ogero is the executive arm of the Ministry of Telecommunications. Founded by the Lebanese state in 1972, the company is the infrastructure operator for all telecommunications networks in the country, including mobile operators and internet service providers, among others.
Workers at Ogero criticized Corm’s threats, accusing him of trying to evade his responsibilities, Lebanon’s official National News Agency reported.
The agency quoted the workers as saying they have “full confidence in the military leadership that has always supported the rights of both military men and civilians.”
The gap between the government and Ogero’s employees comes as Lebanon faces its worst economic crisis in years. In February, the inflation rate reached 189.67%, data from the Tradings Economics website showed, although poverty affects more than three quarters of the population of 6 million, according to the United Nations.
On Thursday, the Minister of Labor, the minister Mustafa Bayram, announced a 50% increase in the minimum wage in the private sector to 9 million Lebanese pounds per month – still less than $100 at black market rates.
Public anger against the government is increasing by the day, with regular protests across the country denouncing the failure of the ruling political elite to tackle the many crises. The country has been without a president since October 2022, when President Michel Aoun, a staunch ally of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, resigned after the end of his six-year term, deepening political divisions among rivals. Since then, parliament has failed to elect a president more than 10 times. Hezbollah, which has had significant influence in the country in recent years, is supporting Suleiman Frangieh. But most parliamentarians refused to back Frangieh, an ally of Syria’s Assad family.
It is reported that a Qatari delegation is going to Beirut next week to try to break the political news. Sources told the local newspaper Nidaa al-Watan on Thursday that the delegation is scheduled to meet with Hezbollah officials to discuss a presidential candidate who meets Arab and international requirements.
Last month, representatives from the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar met in Paris to discuss a road map to help Lebanon overcome its political discontent.
Qatar has traditionally played a mediating role among Lebanon’s bickering politicians. The Gulf country also provided financial support to Lebanon, providing aid packages to the needy as well as the army.