Lebanon’s New Minimum Wage Hike Rattles Aoun-Hezbollah Alliance

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The wage-hike issue is now under intensive review by the Hezbollah leadership after an angry reaction on the part of the FPM. The incident has even led both sides to carry out a wider reassessment of their relationship from many angles. (Photo: Al-Akhbar - Haytham al-Moussawi)

By: Hassan Illeik

Published Monday, December 12, 2011

The seemingly unbreakable alliance between Hezbollah and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement is being put to the test over Hezbollah’s recent vote to support the government’s plan for a meagre raise in the country’s minimum wage.

Many are dissatisfied with Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s decision to raise the minimum wage in Lebanon, not because they are opposed to an increase, but because Mikati’s plan — which proposes a modest 20 percent increase — is seen as insufficient.

As the battle lines over the complex issue of wage adjustment in Lebanon are being drawn, many of the political forces have found themselves in a precarious and even contradictory position.

Even Hezbollah seemed to be in an uncharacteristic state of confusion on the issue, with its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and the party’s union representatives contradicting their two ministers, who voted for Mikati’s plan.

The move in support of Mikati’s plan has meanwhile alienated Hezbollah’s ally Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), who have rejected the measures.

The wage-hike issue is now under intensive review by the Hezbollah leadership after an angry reaction on the part of the FPM. The incident has even led both sides to carry out a wider reassessment of their relationship from many angles.

There are reports that, Nasrallah has met with FPM energy minister Gebran Bassil at some time since Saturday, though the minister has refused to either confirm or deny this.

Aounists feel that they have been abandoned, and express shock and disappointment at the decision by Hezbollah’s ministers to support the wage increase after Nasrallah had stressed just two days earlier that Hezbollah would support the FPM’s demands, which he described as “legitimate.”

FPM circles are enraged. Throughout Saturday and Sunday, Michel Aoun has received a steady stream of letters questioning the utility of an alliance with a party that has failed to stand by its ally on an issue that concerns “not only us, but the entire country.”

Prominent leaders in the movement say that the consequences of the government’s recent decision are major. According to them Aoun is at a crossroads. They say there will not be any break with their allies on strategic issues, although some of those who were standing on the sidelines in the movement have now become more decided regarding the harmfulness of their relationship with Hezbollah.

However, these leaders say the way they relate and coordinate with their allies appears to be in need of revision, claiming it does not make sense for them to be outside of the decision-making process that manages the affairs of the country at this stage.

The prevailing climate in the FPM is for Aoun to push harder in his campaign against entrenched corruption in the Lebanese state. One source within the Movement says that “Najib Mikati wants to maintain Hariri’s economic, financial, and social policies,” but questions whether their political alliance wants this as well.

This is why Aounists are speaking about the recurring experience of high expectations met with bitter disappointment, first on the issue of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and now on the issue of wage adjustment, causing many to call for a reassessment of the party’s political strategy.

They feel that they “have paid a lot for their relationship with Hezbollah as a result of their standing by [the party] in the most dire circumstances, and thus, they expected that the party would stand by them.”

One of the members of the FPM’s Change and Reform Bloc says, “We are dealing with what happened from a principled perspective. The issue is no longer only reviewing our stance regarding participation in the government, rather, it goes well beyond that, i.e. reviewing our political relationships.”

Others point to the heightened sectarian tone of the language within the FPM. One of the more moderate Aounists says that the past days’ events have confirmed once again that Christians are no longer considered equal partners when it comes to managing the affairs of the state.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s situation is just as tenuous. Since last Wednesday evening, many within the leadership of Hezbollah have vocally opposed the party’s stance within the government on the issue of wages. Their reasons for opposing this stance are as follows:

1) Hezbollah has an obligation not to abandon their long-time allies in the FPM.

2) Hezbollah is concerned with preserving the interests of the poor and the disenfranchised in Lebanon, and they should not put the interests of the small faction that has benefited from past years’ economic policies ahead of those of their base.

3) Hassan Nasrallah has unambiguously declared Hezbollah’s support for the “legitimate” demands of the Aounists. The last statement he made on this issue was during the observance of Ashura. It is not possible that the position of the party appear in any way contradictory to what was already stated by the secretary general.

The discussions within the party continue on multiple levels. They revolve around how to correct the perceived “error” of having voted for Mikati’s wage hike.

Some observers of these discussions are reluctant to hold any one party or individual responsible for the error, emphasizing the necessity of resolving the issue itself before casting blame.

The precise details of what Hezbollah plans to do are not yet determined; however, the final position of the party appears clear. Hezbollah has decided to correct the error.

The labor union unit within the party has released a statement describing the government’s decision as “unjust and insulting.”

The representative of Hezbollah in the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL), Ali Yassine, has even gone so far as to support the strike that was called by some dissident unions this coming Thursday.

Those close to Hezbollah say that it is currently searching for a way to put labor minister Charbel Nahas’ social wage proposal back on the government’s agenda.

In this regard, the party seeks to achieve two principal aims: breaking the traditional rule in the mechanisms of wage adjustment and securing comprehensive health insurance for all Lebanese citizens by any means necessary.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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