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PM urges patience, protesters pile pressure

Thousands of civil servants and teachers thronged Beirut Central District to push for their demands.

BEIRUT: Prime Minister Najib Mikati Wednesday urged patience in dealing with the salary scale as thousands of teachers and civil servants marched toward the government headquarters at the Grand Serail to demand a wage raise.

Mikati said the Cabinet was committed to referring a wage increase draft bill to Parliament as soon as it secured the necessary funds, a statement that the prime minister has often repeated over the past few weeks and which the Union Coordination Committee sees as an attempt to forestall the issue.

“Be ready for a general strike across Lebanon if the pay hike [draft bill] is not referred to Parliament this week,” UCC head Hanna Gharib told thousands of protesters, who rallied outside the Grand Serail in the largest gathering so far of a 9-day-old strike.

Shortly after the sit-in outside the Grand Serail finished, the Cabinet held a session during which Mikati described threats by the UCC to escalate protests as “pointless.”

“We ask the UCC to show patience and allow the government some time to find revenues to fund the hike,” Mikati said.

The UCC warned that Wednesday’s move was not the peak of their strike action. “It is the beginning of the hunger revolution in Lebanon,” Gharib said.

Nearly 500 heavily armed riot police and Lebanese soldiers deployed along the route between Barbir and the Grand Serail in Downtown Beirut ahead of the planned protest.

Waving placards criticizing the government, protesters took off at 11 a.m. from Barbir square, the starting point 3-kilometer away from the Serail.

“Oh, Najib [Mikati], the liar goes to hell,” a banner held by one protester read. “Release the salary scale,” another read.

Despite threats by the UCC to fully paralyze state institutions as well as public and private schools if the government fails to endorse a wage hike this week, a government source told The Daily Star Wednesday that the Cabinet would not hold a session anytime soon to discuss the issue. The source added that the ministerial committee tasked with evaluating potential funding sources to pay for the wage hike was also unlikely to convene in the coming few days.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah urged Wednesday President Michel Sleiman and Mikati to hold an extraordinary Cabinet session to settle the demands of civil servants and teachers and refer the draft bill to Parliament.

“All political parties that are represented in Parliament and parliamentary blocs can state their positions. It is also possible for unions and economic committees to participate and express their point of view,” Nasrallah added.

Head of the Association of Private School Teachers Nehme Mahfoud accused Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi of succumbing to pressure from the private sector, which argues that the wage hike will lead to soaring inflation and higher budget deficits.

The wage hike is estimated to cost the treasury around $1.2 billion annually.

Among suggestions to fund the wage hike, Mikati proposed amending urban zoning regulations to increase the investment factor, allowing the construction of additional floors in return for higher taxes.

Other ministers have lobbied in favor of increasing taxes on profits made on real estate transactions and collecting fines on illegally built properties on state-owned seaside lands.

However, many economists say the above proposed revenue streams would fail to cover the $1.2 billion annual cost to be incurred by the treasury, which would eventually require raising the value added tax among others.

Economists also argue that the government is better off paying the hike in installments to keep inflation under control, a proposal rejected by the UCC.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 28, 2013, on page 1.

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