BEIRUT: A breakthrough in the long-running crisis over public workers’ salaries is expected next week, a ministerial source revealed to The Daily Star Thursday.
“We are close to an agreement on holding a Parliament session on July 17 to pass laws adopting the new salary scale and government expenditures,” the source said.
The ministerial source spoke after Cabinet failed Thursday to resolve the thorny issues of the Lebanese University’s contract professors and extra-budgetary spending.
Speaking following a six-hour session chaired by Prime Minister Tammam Salam at the Grand Serail, Information Minister Ramzi Joreige said the issue of employing LU’s contract professors as full timers was discussed at length by the Cabinet, but it was decided to postpone it until next week’s session amid lingering differences among ministers.
“Although there was a consensus on many articles related to it [LU’s professors], it was agreed to postpone it to the next session,” he said.
Asked about the fate of civil servants’ salaries, currently stuck in a row between Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil and the March 14 coalition over the legalization of extra-budgetary spending, Joreige said: “The finance minister expressed his view, saying he needs a legal basis approved by Parliament. The issue was discussed but no decision was taken on it.”
He added that the ministers signed a number of decrees approved in previous Cabinet sessions according to the new mechanism of exercising executive powers during the presidential vacuum, which requires decrees to hold the signatures of all 24 Cabinet members.
Salam underlined the need for electing a president to succeed former President Michel Sleiman, whose six-year term expired May 25. “The work of constitutional institutions cannot be exercised in a right manner except after the election of a new president,” Salam said, according to Joreige.
For his part, Speaker Nabih Berri, who was briefed by Khalil on the results of the Cabinet session, especially the failure to approve the decree on LU’s contract professors, expressed his resentment over the obstruction of the roles of Parliament and Cabinet. Khalil belongs to Berri’s parliamentary bloc.“Where are we taking this country?” Berri asked according to visitors. Praising Salam’s “patience and honesty,” the speaker was quoted as saying: “We have worked and are still working to push the Cabinet’s work forward despite the obstruction of Parliament’s [role].”
Referring to the row over the payment of civil servants’ salaries, Berri was quoted as saying: “They [March 14 parties] are asking us to violate the law as they did. But the Amal Movement will not do that while it is holding the Finance Ministry.”
Education Minister Elias Bou Saab said the discussion on appointing deans to LU’s council was postponed to the next Cabinet session, delaying the decree that would provide contract professors with full-time employment.
“It turned out that no one has heard of the mechanism we had suggested,” Bou Saab said, joining the LU professors’ protest on Riad al-Solh Square near the Grand Serail after the Cabinet session.
“I suggested moving 600 professors to full-time positions if moving all of them is unfeasible.”
The Cabinet had initially approved giving full-time status to the LU contract professors, who have been carrying out strikes and protests for months.
However, many ministers refused to finalize the professors’ status without approving the appointment of new deans at the university, saying it was a package deal, while Bou Saab had called for dealing with one matter at a time.
“The two cases of contract professors and the university council cannot be separated,” Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said after the session.
Bou Saab convinced the ministers to approve the professors’ decree, but then a dispute erupted between ministers from the Kataeb Party and the Progressive Socialist Party over the appointment of the dean of the faculty of medicine. The PSP insisted on the appointment of Pierre Yared, but this was opposed by the Kataeb Party, which said that the PSP was not supposed to choose who gets a Christian post in the LU. Bou Saab said the Kataeb Party demanded the appointment of two deans as a condition to agree to the council of deans.
After the initial agreement, many ministers refused to announce a decision before resolving the second matter, which led to freezing the professors’ deal.
The Cabinet session coincided with a protest by about 100 contract professors, who blocked a road on Riad al-Solh Square in Downtown Beirut to pressure the ministers into granting them full-time employment. They have threatened to resign if their demands were not met.
Khalil stood firm against any extra-budgetary spending without a new legislation approving it. “If there had been irregularities [in past governments] ... I’m not willing to commit the same violations,” he told reporters before entering the Cabinet session.