BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Cabinet Thursday passed another difficult test since its formation in February, ending years-long stagnation at the Lebanese University and allocating funds to pay the monthly salaries of civil servants.
During a Cabinet session, which convened at 10 a.m. at the Grand Serail, ministers unanimously voted in favor of the vital LU decree, appointing deans to the council and hiring contract professors as full-time lecturers.
“The Cabinet agreed to appoint 14 deans to the Lebanese University Council,” Information Minister Ramzi Joreige told reporters after the end of the session.
“It also gave the university permission to sign contracts to employ candidates as per Education Minister Elias Bou Saab’s recommendations.”
The Education Minister said the approval of the decree was a "victory for the university," joining dozens of LU contract teachers who gathered in the capital's Riad Solh in celebration.
"It took 10 years for a dean to be appointed and eight years to employ the teachers," he said, as contract lecturer cheered and clapped, rejoicing at the long-awaited decision.
Among the agreements that had led to the approval of the decree was allowing the Kataeb Party to appoint two members in the council, as well as the dean of the agriculture school.
Growing disputes over the LU issue prompted Prime Minister Tammam Salam last week to refrain from calling for a Cabinet session, a move that threatened the government’s unity.
Ministerial sources said Speaker Nabih Berri fulfilled his promise to the prime minister and succeeded in his contacts with Kataeb head Amin Gemayel and Michel Aoun, head of the Free Patriotic Movement.
The Kataeb and the FPM had sought to appoint a Maronite figure from their parties to replace Pierre Yared, acting dean of the Faculty of Medicine. MP Walid Jumblatt had insisted instead that Yared, a Greek Catholic, remain in his post.
Jumblatt’s party, the Progressive Socialist Party, gave up on naming a dean to the Faculty of Tourism in exchange for keeping Yared.
Health Minister Wael Abu Faour, a member of the PSP, said the party relinquished a dean post in a bid to facilitate a breakthrough in the university dispute.
“We agreed to give up the post of dean of the Faculty of Tourism and Hotel Management, which belongs to the Druze sect,” Abu Faour told reporters before joining the Cabinet meeting.
He said the move would pave the way for Pierre Yared, acting dean of the Faculty of Medicine, to become a full-fledged dean.
The last time the Cabinet appointed deans to the council was in October 2001. Their terms expired three years later and acting deans have been on the board since then, crippling the university’s work.
The council manages the financial, academic and administrative affairs of the university, which has more than 70,000 students. It is made up of deans from LU’s 16 faculties and institutes, in addition to a professor representing each faculty, a representative of the National Union of Lebanese University Students – which has yet to be formed – and two academics.
The Cabinet also agreed to allocate LL1.585 trillion to pay public sector salaries, which hung in the balance for weeks due to differences among ministers, according to the information minister.
Ministerial sources said Berri showed flexibility in dealing with the issue of extra-budgetary spending, paving the way for the issue to be resolved in the Cabinet.
Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, from Berri's bloc, has insisted that Parliament should pass a law that would allow the required extra-budgetary spending for Cabinet to pay salaries of public sector employees.
Speaking after the Cabinet session, Khalil said “the remaining funds in the state treasury were allocated to pay the public sector salaries.”
“I was clear from the beginning: no spending without a legal cover,” he said.
Ministerial sources said the funds would cover salaries for two months and that officials were working on drafting a law that would retroactively legalize extra-budgetary of previous governments.
Due to the fact that no state budget has been approved since 2005, Cabinets are obligated by law to adhere to the financial ceiling of the last approved budget, prompting Cabinets of former PMs Fouad Siniora and Najib Mikati to authorize extra-budgetary spending.
The sources also sounded optimistic that the public sector salary scale could also be resolved after the two-day Eid Fitr Holiday, expected to begin Monday.