A guide to Lebanon’s street protests

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Public sector employees demonstrating in downtown Beirut for higher wages. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Marc Abizeid

Published Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thousands of Lebanese workers and activists have been pouring onto the streets over a litany of issues since parliament resumed work this month following a year-long hiatus.

Most of the protests are related to the country’s startling income inequality and stark poverty levels. Even before the Syrian war triggered an influx of over a million mostly poor refugees into Lebanon, about 28% of the country’s population of 4 million lived in poverty or extreme poverty, respectively earning a per capita average of less than $4.00 to $2.40 per day, according to UN figures.

Parliament has addressed some demonstrators’ grievances with the adoption of several new laws, such as those granting contracts to civil defense and electricity workers. But in most cases legislators have either fallen short of their demands, or continue to drag their feet, fueling an unending stream of protests.

Here is an overview of what has been going on:

Wage scale

Thousands of Lebanon’s civil servants have gone back to the streets in a resumption of last year’s month-long open strike for wage hikes. The mass protests had only been suspended after the March 2013 resignation of former Prime Minister Najib Mikati put parliament out of commission, while political forces spent nearly a year negotiating a new cabinet.

The movement for a wage increase, led by Hanna Gharib, a former communist stalwart, highschool chemistry teacher and head of the Union Coordination Committee (UCC), has come to represent a struggle pitting society’s underpaid and overworked labor class against their corporate masters.

The UCC is a coalition of smaller unions and associations that include many government workers and the private school teachers’ syndicate, which is the only private sector body under the umbrella of the UCC. Some of those groups are negotiating directly with the officials, such as the airport traffic controllers who held a two-hour strike earlier this month separate from the main UCC actions. But most of those talks have reached a dead end, with activists urging for collective action as the most effective route, and calling for more public and private sector unions to join their movement.

Demands: The UCC wants salaries to increase by 121% -- more than double their current salaries -- to match the pay hikes promised to public university professors. It would be the first wage scale increase since a 2011 bill raised the country’s monthly minimum wage from $333 to $467. That bill also increased salaries for all workers in the country earning up to $1,200.

The UCC also calls for the pay increase to be implemented immediately, rejecting proposals by business officials and their political allies to introduce wage hikes in increments over a period of three years. Moreover, the union has warned parliament against increasing taxes on necessities to pay for the wage scale so as to not overburden the country’s poor.

Opponents: Lebanon’s banks and other powerful business interests represented by the Economic Committees (ECs) have been fighting tooth and nail against the adoption of a wage scale bill. Bankers held a one-day strike on April 11 to warn legislatures against a proposal to increase tax on their profits by even a sliver to fund the wage scale.

These opponents say the wage scale will bankrupt Lebanon’s economy, drain the cash-strapped treasury, increase inflation and reduce citizens’ purchasing power. All of those claims have been bitterly rejected by UCC officials, noting that banks rake in billions of dollars in profits and pay little in taxes, accusing them of greed.

Electricity workers

Less than two weeks after part time electricity workers handed out sweets to celebrate parliament’s passing of a bill that could grant them full time contracts, their union was once again announcing strikes and threatening to block fuel deliveries.

The April 2 adoption of the electricity workers contract law gives about 1,500 part-time employees with the state-run Electricite du Liban (EDL) the chance to be placed in full time positions if they pass a test, ending two years of disruptive strikes and protests. The bill also promises to offer retirees a compensation package.

Their actions peaked in the summer of 2012, when a three month strike caused severe power outages during a blistering heat wave in the country. That strike was called off after an agreement was reached with officials on the issue, but a draft bill was never approved, spurring more protests.

Demands: EDL union chief Loubnan Makhoul had expressed satisfaction with the adopted bill, but now workers may face new hurdles of getting it enacted and properly enforced. The union went on strike on April 15 calling for an end to delays in enacting the bill, and pushing the government to ensure that vacant positions are filled based on merit, expertise and the results of the exam. The workers have also added their voices to the UCC movement for a new pay scale.

Opponents: For two years a conglomerate of forces tried to prevent the electricity workers bill from going through. Lebanon’s private sector and its political allies lobbied for the workers to be transferred to private electricity companies such as KVA, promising contracts. But dozens of part timers who took them up on the offer found themselves facing lay offs.

Another of their staunch opponents was then-energy minister Gebran Bassil who in 2012 argued that the ministry simply couldn’t absorb over 1,000 day laborers and part time workers. But there was also a sectarian aspect to this story. Some Christian members of parliament opposed the law because they feared that hiring the part-time workers - most of whom are Shia and are seen as partisans of Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri - would throw off the composition of EDL’s so-called sectarian balance.

Old rent

MPs on April 2 overwhelmingly passed a bill that will gradually dissolve rent contracts signed before 1992, which will affect tens of thousands of Lebanese still on old rent contracts for apartments and shops whose prices were set before hyperinflation set in during Lebanon's 15-year civil war (1975-1990).

The bill has been drawing the country’s poorest residents to protest the liberalization of old rent prices, which will increase in increments over a period of six years until reaching so-called market value. To soften the blow, the bill also sets up a temporary fund to help the poor pay their increased rent, but sceptics fear it is not a long term solution and will eventually lead to the eviction of thousands of families.

Only two of the 128 MPS voted against the rent bill. The anti-legalization activists also fear that the new law will intensify the country’s hypercapitalist development projects, allowing landlords to force tenants from their homes and sell their properties to high-end developers keen on constructing luxury suites and skyscrapers enjoyed by Lebanon’s top 1%.

Demands: Tenants and shop owners have been calling on President Michel Suleiman to reject the bill. They have been holding protests in different areas of Beirut, as well as in villages across the country from the south to the north, in desperate pleas to keep them from losing their homes.

Opponents: The passage of the law also spawned a two-dimensioned countermovement. One group of property owners hailed the bill, and have been holding counter demonstrations to ask Sleiman to sign the law without delay. But another group led by the Syndicate of Landlords, says the law doesn’t go far enough, arguing that it fails to provide assurances that property owners will receive the government-promised remunerations for poor residents who cannot afford the increased rent prices.

This issue is made more complicated with many tales emerging of property owners being made poor by their tenants, as it isn’t always the case that those paying old rent can’t afford to pay more. In some instances wealthy tenants are found bullying their poor landlords who live off nothing but the crumbs collected from old rent, blurring the lines on this issue between the good guys and the villains.

Domestic violence

While not an economic issue, the campaign for a domestic violence bill to criminalize marital rape and violence has been one of the most bitterly fought struggles for the country’s justice seekers. After years of protests, parliament on April 1 passed a domestic violence bill, lacking many safeguards, that activists described as a travesty.

The issue gained momentum in recent months after local media began to spotlight numerous cases of husbands beating to death or shooting their wives and getting away with it. Critics of the new law argue that its text remains too vague, fails to specify women as the victims of abuse, and uses religious language in place of rights-based terms to effectively strip it of any meaning. For example, the bill, as a result of lobbying by clerics, fails to protect women from marital rape, defining sex between spouses as a “conjugal right.”

Kafa, a leading rights group that advocates for the rights of women and children, had for six years spearheaded the campaign for a domestic violence bill, which involved numerous rallies that at times drew thousands of supporters. It had asked parliament to incorporate a list of amendments to the draft bill which were essentially ignored. To protest the passage of the law, activists on April 1 hung portraits of legislators near the parliament building and smeared their faces with red ink, vowing to renew efforts for a real law.

Demands: Kafa has called on President Sleiman to return the bill to parliament to be modified with amendments that specify protection for women against violence, and that dismiss the designation of marital rape as a conjugal right, among other demands.

Opponents: Religious authorities have been the most outspoken opponents of any legislation that would allow the state to punish men who abuse their spouses. Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s highest Sunni authority, last year decried the draft bill as an attack on family and religion. They want family issues and cases of marital abuse to be dealt with by a religious judiciary without the interference of state police or courts.

Other protests

Smaller groups or subgroups of the larger protest movements have also emerged in recent weeks to demand certain rights and contracts.

Among them are interior architects who are calling for the Order of Engineers and Architects to let them join their union, and if not that, then for the right to establish their own independent syndicate.

Ministry of Information part time workers held a one day strike earlier this month calling on parliament to pass a bill that would grant them full time contracts. These workers included reporters with the National News Agency and Radio Lebanon.

In one of the few successful recent struggles, civil defense workers, who include firefighters and other emergency workers, won a hard-fought battle for full time contracts. Thousands had previously worked as “volunteers,” receiving meager monthly salaries.

In the eastern Bekaa Valley, about a dozen day workers responsible for maintenance at the ancient ruins of Baalbek held a one day strike on April 11 calling for full time contracts. They said they have been working at the UNESCO heritage site since 2006 for little pay with no benefits or medical care.

On April 12, day laborers with the state-run South Lebanon Water Authority, one of four regional branches, threatened to strike. Three days later they blocked roads in the town of Zahrani with burning tires, calling on Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri to bring the issue of full time contracts to a vote.

Comments

Very well analyzed and reflected. Provides a great summary of the events, which comes in handy to many who are to busy to keep up with everything nowadays

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