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Lebanon economic crisis: American University of Beirut fires hundreds under army guard

The country's most prominent academic institution has let go hundreds of staff from its affiliated medical centre amid pandemic
A healthcare worker gestures as he stands outside American University of Beirut (AUB) medical centre in Beirut on 17 July 2020 (Reuters)

The American University of Beirut fired at least 500 people from its medical centre on Friday, in the latest dramatic development in Lebanon's spiralling economic crisis, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take its toll across the country. 

Local media reports and employees said the layoffs, mainly in the administrative and nursing department, took place amid a heightened military presence at the medical centre.

Dismissed employees clad in masks could be seen consoling one other on Friday after they were let go by AUB, one of the oldest universities and medical hubs in the region. 

Reuters reported that at least 10 army vehicles could be seen nearby as employees were marched out of the medical centre. 

It remains unclear whether the layoffs will impact Lebanon's response to Covid-19, as hospitals across the country also report worsening power cuts because of the financial crisis. 

At least 220,000 jobs in the private sector were shed between October and February, a survey by research firm InfoPro showed, with figures only expected to get worse.

Lebanon is grappling with a crisis caused by decades of state corruption and bad governance. A hard currency liquidity crunch has led to an 80 percent devaluation of the Lebanese pound since October.

Mahmoud Edelbe, a maintenance worker at AUB who lost his job on Friday, said his monthly income was now worth only around $100 since the Lebanese pound had lost much of its value.

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"Are we the burden on the university?" he told Reuters. "We get the short end of the stick, we who have nobody to back us or help us."

AUB president Fadlo Khuri told Reuters in May that around a quarter of the university's staff would lose their jobs as the financial meltdown and the coronavirus pandemic made their impact the institution's finances.

Khuri called the current crisis one of the biggest threats to AUB since its foundation in 1866.

Earlier this month, recently designated Prime Minister Hasan Diab sued AUB, asking for $1m, a decision that was criticised by some in Lebanon as showing the continued self-interest of the ruling class, while an estimated 75 percent of the population is currently in need of aid.

Alumni of AUB took to social media to criticise the layoffs and questioned why senior managers who earn hundreds of thousands at the university did not take voluntary pay-cuts to subsidise the salaries of employees earning less than them.

In 2018, Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar reported that Khuri was earning some $869,000 a year.

As of Saturday, neither AUB nor the medical centre had issued press releases on the latest layoffs. AUB had not responded to requests for comment from Middle East Eye at the time of writing.