Lebanon unions launch "revolution of the hungry"
By: Tamara Qiblawi
Published Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Lebanon's unions launched "the revolution of the hungry" as thousands flocked to the streets to demand the enactment of an agreed upon pay raise and an enhanced social security package Wednesday.
Teachers and public workers have been on an open-ended strike since February 19 over delays to a salary scale hike first passed by cabinet more than 18 months ago. It awaits parliament's approval.
Union Coordination Committee chief Hanna Gharib delivered an impassioned speech declaring the 5,000-strong march the start of "the revolution of the hungry", and threatened to call for a country-wide, general strike if the issue continues to be stalled.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati vowed last week to refer the salary plan to parliament on Monday, but did not deliver. An estimated $1.2 billion would be needed to finance the hike.
Minister of Economy and Trade Nicolas Nahas said Monday that funding the wage hike requires further study in order to balance budget and funding. The minister added that the cabinet will not take any step before studying its consequences on the economy.
Many of the protesters leveled their chants and banners at Nahas and other business leaders, such as Chamber of Commerce chief Mohammed Choucair, who are staunch opponents of the salary hikes.
"We're with the Union Coordination Committee, against the Committee of Thieves," said one placard held by a protester in a Guy Fawkes mask, in an apparent reference to economic committees against the salary revisions.
Meanwhile, activists accused TV media outlets of under-reporting Wednesday's march, devoting larger chunks of air time to factional issues, soap operas and Pope Benedict's farewell ceremony in the Vatican.
"I think politics is nothing compared to someone demanding their right to live, and to live with dignity," one protester, a student at Notre Dame University, told Al-Akhbar.
"Teachers raised us. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have gotten where we have in life, we wouldn’t have gone to universities. If we don’t stand by their side, who will?"
Teachers and public workers marched in droves from the popular inner-city neighborhood of Barbir to the prime minister's office (the Serail) in central Beirut. They hailed from all parts of Lebanon to say, "We are fed up."
The protest is considered to be the largest economic protest since the end of the country's civil war (1975-1990).
"We need laws that protect our rights. We are fed up. I have been teaching for thirty years. I have a family and children in universities. How can I live?" said one woman who teaches at Beirut's International College, considered one of the country's most prestigious schools.
Starting salaries in schools range between $500 and $800, and go up to around $1,300 for those with several decades of experience.
"I made this poster, these are all symbols that I just made up," said one artist and teacher at a private school in Aintoura. He was carrying a yellow poster with pseudo-heiroglyphics that alluded to a famous Arabic swear word (see photo).
"I wrote in the only language that they understand. They keep promising and lying. We should have done that a long time ago, but we just kept postponing it for the sake of our students. But we reached a point where it is intolerable, and now we’re here today."
[Reporting by Sandra al-Hadi and Ahmad Nassar]