BEIRUT: Speaker Nabih Berri adjourned discussions on the public salary scale Wednesday to May 27 after MPs failed to agree on how to finance it, as thousands of public school teachers and civil servants rallied to urge the passage of the bill.
A marathon session saw tense moments as lawmakers debated controversial proposals such as imposing taxes on illegal seafront properties, increasing the rate of value added tax, and hiking taxes on the profits of banks.The MPs remained deeply divided on the proposal to tax seafront properties despite attempts by Berri to press lawmakers to reach an agreement on the issue.
The proposal to raise VAT from 10 to 11 percent was vehemently rejected by most of the MPs, who warned that such a tax would affect the poor and middle classes.
Lawmakers were also deeply divided over the MP Fouad Siniora’s proposal to freeze for one year any hiring in the public education sector.
Observers fear that the MPs may not be able to meet on May 27 if lawmakers fail to elect a new president by May 25.
Nearly all the Christian MPs in both the March 8 and March 14 coalitions have threatened to boycott any Parliament session if the president is not elected before May 25.
The MPs did agree to increase the office hours of civil servants, requiring them to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with an hour-long break from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. According to the agreement, civil servants will no longer work Saturdays as they have in the past.
MPs also agreed to increase the minimum wage for civil servants to LL675,000 and give promotions to employees in public administrations.
During the session, MP Sami Gemayel tweeted that Parliament approved an item of the draft law that would require travelers on private jets to pay a LL500,000 “exit fee.”
The MPs approved 23 of the 45 proposed items on the agenda but most of the measures passed did not address the needs of the civil servants and teachers.
The Union Coordination Committee said it would consider its next move after May 25 and called on teachers in public and private schools to resume teaching.
The head of the UCC rejected any compromise over the draft salary scale, as Hezbollah lawmakers expressed solidarity with thousands of teachers and civil servants gathered in Beirut in a “day of rage.”
“We will not back away from our rights, and we want the salary scale fully implemented. We are protesting today because we want to thwart the draft law being [stalled] in Parliament,” UCC head Hanna Gharib told protesters gathered at Riad al-Solh. “We demand that lawmakers listen to our voices.”
A Hezbollah lawmaker insisted that his bloc would stand united with the civil servants.
“The draft law on the salary scale that the subcommittee put forth is unfair and does not address the weaknesses in the original bill,” Ali Fayyad, a member of the Loyalty to the Resistance bloc, said in a news conference held in Parliament.
Fayyad said Hezbollah also rejected a tax increase and proposed that VAT be increased from 10 to 15 percent on luxury products.
MP Ali Ammar, from the same bloc, joined the union rally outside Parliament, saying “Hezbollah is supportive of the rights of the workers” and vowing that his bloc would review the draft law item by item.
Dozens of buses carried groups of protesters from the north, south and east of the country to the Banks’ Association headquarters in Beirut Wednesday morning.
From there, the demonstrators marched to Riad al-Solh Square near Parliament in Downtown to coincide with a legislative session at which MPs were debating a compromise on the controversial pay hike.
Gharib, who called for the “day of rage,” has threatened to launch a popular uprising if MPs failed to meet the demands of the public sector.
The protesters, some of whom waved the Lebanese flag while others banged drums, started heading to Riad al-Solh at the same time as the session got underway at 11 a.m., half an hour late.
“I don’t care about the economy. What’s important to us is that they [MPs] give us our rights,” said one protester, Abdel-Nasser Kabbara, a 65-year-old teacher at one of Tripoli’s top private secondary schools.
Another teacher at a public school in the southern border village of Bint Jbeil echoed his sentiment.
“I’m here because I want to put pressure on MPs to approve a fair pay raise,” said Samer Fawwaz, 39.