Lebanon: Pay Raise Protests Gain Steam

Al-Akhbar is currently going through a transitional phase whereby the English website is available for Archival purposes only. All new content will be published in Arabic on the main website (www.al-akhbar.com).

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They are demanding an entitlement which has been denied them for the past 12 years. (Photo: Marwan Bu Haidar)

By: Mohammad Zbeeb

Published Thursday, February 28, 2013

Yesterday, 27 February 2013, was a day that cannot be ignored. The range of participants in the “March on the Serail” exceeded all expectations. From first-time participants to the usual base of office employees and teachers, the demonstration delivered an eloquent message to all public actors, inside and outside the government.

Each day the snowball will get bigger, attracting more disaffected groups, until it becomes uncontrollable.

The message – to implement the pay raise – reached its target quickly and many began to reposition themselves yet again. Statements were issued by Hezbollah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), calling for a quick solution, before having to confront their own supporters.

Head of the Business Owners Association, Adnan al-Kassar, told Al-Akhbar, “We should all go back to the dialogue. We do not want this negative situation to continue,” following his meeting with with Prime Minister Najib Mikati prior to the cabinet session.

Does this mean he is beginning to change his mind about rejecting any discussion of sending the pay raise bill to parliament and the end of the boycott of dialogue with the government?

“They are demanding an entitlement which has been denied them for the past 12 years. OK then, we will cut from our own flesh. But how much?” he replied. “We are afraid the outcomes will be catastrophic. So we must all sit down at the table.”

“I agreed with Mikati to meet with the [bosses] committees at the beginning of next week. The boycott was just a position we took at a particular time. It is behind us now,” he continued.

Kassar’s words, regardless of their true intentions, indicated an ostensible variation from the intransigent stance that the committees announced to tourism minister Fady Abboud the day before the demonstration.

On Tuesday, the committees had met with Abboud and handed him an uncompromising message to the prime minister that rejected the pay raise bill altogether. They raised the level of extortion, aiming for more gains instead of paying their share of funding in the new scale.

They dictated conditions for their return to the “dialogue,” demanding the amendment of the pension systems; abolishing teacher education grants and military reserve compensations; and adopting privatization for infrastructure projects.

However, Kassar reformulated these conditions on Wednesday. “The committees are fully prepared to discuss the real estate profit tax if it is within the expected reforms to reduce pressure on the state treasury,” he said.

The council of ministers, for its part, did not seem less perturbed by the size of the demonstration. However, it did nothing but repeat its recognition that the time has come to do something.

The special ministerial committee for the salary scale will meet today to continue discussions on sources of financing, thus buying more time to reach a consensus with the bosses committees.

However, a ministerial source told Al-Akhbar following Wednesday’s cabinet meeting that “nothing indicates that the solution will be quick. Even if everyone is saying they want it, they continue to disregard what might happen in the street later.”

Will this lead to a halt of the escalations by the Union Coordination Committees (UCC)?

UCC head Hanna Gharib knows that this type of reaction from the cabinet and the economic committees is old news.

The UCC knows very well that they fill a huge void in politics, created over the years through the “domestication” of citizens and their unions through clientelism and structural corruption. They also know that their success entails greater responsibilities that exceed their representative positions.

What happened yesterday, and what is being prepared for next week, is no longer an issue of sending the pay raise bill to parliament. That was merely the spark.

Many see this mobilization as a serious and trustworthy space for a different kind of confrontation. Their chants carry a threatening note. Beware.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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