Charbel Nahas: The End of an Experiment?

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Nahas was led to understand that it had been agreed that the wages issue could be settled in accordance with the “consensual agreement,” but that the Change and Reform bloc and Hezbollah ministers would not necessarily vote for it. (Photo: Haytham al-Moussawi)

Published Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lebanon’s labor minister battled against entrenched sectarian and neoliberal alliances to implement a just and systematic law of wage increases. But after his closest allies did not back his plan, he resigned.

Labor Minister Charbel Nahas did not want to tender his “indirect” resignation. He always expressed his desire to stay by the side of General Michel Aoun – head of the Change and Reform parliamentary bloc – in all his “reform” battles and in any capacity inside or outside the Cabinet.

But Nahas’ road to Rabieh, Aoun’s residence, has been blocked since Monday when he called asking for an appointment to discuss an urgent and necessary matter. He was informed that the general would be busy on Monday and Tuesday. Nahas got the message. It had been conveyed to him through more than one channel: “sign [the labor law] first, and then object.”

According to people who acted as go-betweens, Nahas wanted a one-on-one meeting with Aoun to propose a formula he had reached. He decided, after much thought, to go to Rabieh with two papers.

One paper he called “loyalty” to Aoun. It bore his signature on the decree governing the transportation allowance – which he had been instructed to sign by Aoun, who had nominated Nahas for his current job and as minister of telecommunications previously.

The second paper he called “dignity”. This was a letter of resignation. He believed that, unlike many so-called pragmatists, Aoun knew what that meant.

After all, it was Aoun who once vowed never to sign a” deed of surrender.” He famously said this when a war was waged to force him out of the presidential palace in Baabda, after the Taif Agreement was concluded and the international community consented to Syrian tutelage over Lebanon.

Nahas also wanted to give Aoun a draft of the law that the Cabinet asked him to prepare, which he had worked on for over a month. It dealt with protecting wages rather than determining transportation allowances.

Some insiders say that perhaps Aoun was not properly informed of Nahas’ intentions. The only thing he understood from the messages being exchanged was that “his” minister didn’t want to sign a bill he wanted him to. Nahas did not want to do this because the bill violates the law and endorses irregular practices that have been going on since 1995 (and which President Michel Suleiman sees as having become precedent and gained the force of law).

That is why Aoun decided to close his door to Nahas on the basis of “no talks before signing the law.” Perhaps there was some confusion here, leading Aoun to say, commenting on Nahas’ resignation after the meeting of his parliamentary bloc, that “the story surprised us in its final stage.”

Was Aoun really surprised? Insiders go back to the January 18 Cabinet meeting when Nahas was left alone to vote for his proposed wage hike.

The rest of the ministers, including those from Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), voted for the alternative draft that legalizes the so-called “consensual agreement.” This denies wage-earners many gains regarding the value of and legal protection accorded to their wages.

That day, Nahas declared in the Cabinet meeting, before the transportation allowance law was put to a vote, that he would not sign the decree because the State Council had issued three opinions stating there is no such thing in the law as a transportation allowance separate from an employee’s salary.

In addition, more recently the council issued initial determinations requiring that all transportation allowance decrees and education grants issued since 1995 be cancelled based on 32 reviews of appeals filed by bodies that represent employers.

Nahas was supported in his position that day by the Minister of Justice, Shakib Qortbawi, and the Cabinet Secretary-General, Judge Suheil Bouji. They alerted the Cabinet that the alternative legislation, as proposed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, clearly recognizes a violation, as the draft opens with the words: “Pending the passage of a law by the parliament, the value of the transportation allowance will be determined at.....”

This would entail the Cabinet making a decision in the full knowledge there is no law authorizing it to do so.

Mikati, however, insisted on putting the draft decree to a vote. It passed with 19 ministers voting for it. They included the ministers from the Amal movement, Marada movement, and political allies of the FPM, while the ministers of the Change and Reform bloc and Hezbollah voted against it.

At that point, Nahas was about to leave the Cabinet meeting, but Hezbollah minister Muhammad Fneish intervened proposing a comprise, under which Nahas would prepare a draft law as a way out of this impasse. This compromise was seen as a solution based on passing the law first and then signing the decree.

Nahas, however, was not comfortable with the outcome of the Cabinet session. It had been preceded by a meeting with fellow Change and Reform bloc minister Gebran Bassil, Amal’s Ali Hassan Khalil, and Hezbollah’s Fneish.

Nahas was led to understand that it had been agreed that the wages issue could be settled in accordance with the “consensual agreement,” but that the Change and Reform bloc and Hezbollah ministers would not necessarily vote for it. Moreover, they would join with Amal’s ministers in denying the Cabinet a quorum if Mikati insists on putting the transportation allowance up to a vote.

However, none of this happened in the events that transpired. It could have been described as deception.

Nahas thought seriously about resigning. But he reconsidered after meeting with Aoun, who clearly informed him that he supported his position not to sign a decree that violates the law and threatens the rights of workers. Nahas was satisfied with this position, thinking that Aoun had only made a tactical retreat, but was persevering in his battle for reform.

After that, there was no more talk about the need to sign the transportation allowance decree. The Cabinet met several times, and Nahas waged many battles in the name of the Change and Reform bloc, until Aoun clashed with the president and prime minister over appointments. Mikati declared he was suspending Cabinet meetings until Aoun would acquiesce.

The real surprise was that Nahas suddenly became the center of the dispute. His signing of the decree before parliament met ended up being the quid pro quo for calling the Cabinet into session again.

Pressure started to mount from every direction, including President Suleiman, saying Nahas should be sacked or given a different ministerial portfolio. This angered Aoun, who announced nine days ago that Nahas was a red line, and that if he fell, so would the government.

Nahas felt confident about Aoun’s position until he saw him at a dinner organized for the general’s birthday last Saturday, two days after Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri hosted Aoun for lunch.

Nahas was surprised when Aoun informed him of the need to sign the decree, even though he had announced during his speech that it would not be signed until it was made legal.

Thus began the quest to look for a way out. A proposal was made that Nahas sign the decree and then forward it to the State Council for its legal opinion. On Sunday, Nahas agreed, on the proviso that his signature would not become valid before the State Council had given its view.

However, the labor minister was informed on Monday by intermediaries that Aoun did not agree to this idea, as he had made a commitment to Berri that the decree would be signed directly and he had to abide by that.

As they say, the rest is history. Nahas eventually tendered his resignation.

Some members of the Change and Reform bloc tried to mediate later, but Nahas was hearing the same message: that he needs to respect Aoun’s decision first. Yet Nahas was not told by Aoun about the content of his agreement with Berri, although Mikati was apparently informed straight away.

The failure to give Nahas an appointment in Rabieh complicated matters more. Nahas simply had to do as his mind and heart dictated.


This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Charbal Nahas asked the people to protest!

Why should the Lebanese people protest? Why should they ask for 24/7 electricity, or for jobs or for their god given right to live better!?! Why should they go out and embarrass themselves?

Aren't we smart, we've polluted our food and water, destroyed our forests, nipped and tucked ourselves to look pretty, emigrated, joined a sectarian bloc, left our brothers and sisters to defend themselves against a common enemy and weakened the state in doing so, no we are extremely smart, so smart in fact our own ministers invites us to protest against the government he himself controls (that's how smart we are).

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