BEIRUT: The Union Coordination Committee is poised for a confrontation with the education minister over official exams after it warned Sunday against holding the tests without teachers as it called for massive participation in a two-day strike.
The escalating row between the UCC, the umbrella group for civil servants and public and private school teachers, and Parliament over the wage hike bill threatens to add further tension in the country, already reeling under a vacancy in the presidency following the lawmakers’ failure to elect a successor to former President Michel Sleiman.
The presidential vacuum has already paralyzed Parliament’s legislation and is threatening government work, as the Cabinet remains split over how to exercise full executive powers, including the president’s prerogatives, during the presidential void.
Separately, Speaker Nabih Berri said after returning to Beirut Sunday night from Cairo where he attended the inauguration of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as president of Egypt that Saudi Crown Prince Salam was eager to see stability in Lebanon.
Berri, according to visitors, met in Cairo on the sidelines of Sisi’s inauguration with Salman, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and an Omani official, all of whom voiced their support for holding the presidential election.
In response, Berri said he had called for a new Parliament session Monday to elect a president after five failed attempts.
However, Monday’s session is also destined to fail to elect a successor to Sleiman, whose six-year term ended on May 25, due to lack of the two-thirds quorum (86) of the legislature’s 128 members.
The UCC defied Education Minister Elias Bou Saab’s decision to hold official exams Thursday even if a Parliament session set for Tuesday failed to approve the wage hike bill. It vowed not to allow the exams to be conducted unless the public sector’s salary increases were endorsed first.
Addressing Bou Saab, the UCC said in a statement after its meeting: “The official certificate is a red line, which we will not allow anyone to manipulate. If you decide to hold the official exams without [public] teachers, then there is a problem, and we warn you against the repercussions of such action.”
Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the Private School Teachers Union, linked the official tests to Parliament’s approval of the wage hike bill.
“If the salary scale [bill] is not approved, there will be no exams. If the salary scale [draft law] is approved Tuesday, exams can be conducted Thursday,” he told a news conference after the UCC meeting.
In a stern warning to Bou Saab, UCC head Hanna Gharib said the decision to conduct the official exams lay with the UCC.
He said the education minister’s plan to give the tests with assistance from contract teachers, thus overriding public teachers, was “an insulting and unprecedented bazaar.”
“They want to remove the official character from official exams. They had tried to commission the exams to a private company. This is Lebanon’s certificate, the certificate issued by the Education Ministry in Lebanon,” Gharib told the news conference. “This bazaar is insulting, your highness the education minister.”
Calling for massive participation in a two-day nationwide strike for Monday and Tuesday, Gharib said: “Tomorrow is an uprising against all unjust decisions that bypass the official character of exams.”
Responding to the UCC’s warning, Bou Saab said he was determined to hold the exams Thursday, denying plans to privatize the official tests. “It’s up only to the Education Ministry to decide to hold or not hold official exams.”
Bou Saab announced a backup plan last week in case public school teachers boycotted the official exams over the salary standoff.
The minister said he could hire contract teachers and members of the Parents Committees to monitor and correct the tests. The Committee of Contract Teachers said they agreed to the minister’s proposal and that Bou Saab had promised to refer their demands of full-time employment to the concerned parties and pay them transportation fees for exam days.
Although a quorum for a Parliament session Tuesday over the salary scale bill seem secured, it is not clear whether lawmakers will approve it, as parliamentary blocs remain split over proposed taxes to fund the increases.
Lawmakers are in dispute over means to finance the wage hike, expected to cost the cash-strapped treasury some $1.6 billion annually, including raising the rate of VAT from 10 to 11 percent, as well as proposed taxes on illegal seafront properties.
Lawmakers from major Christian parties have been boycotting Parliament, arguing that it cannot legislate while the presidency seat is vacant.
Lawmakers with the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition, including MP Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc, will attend Tuesday’s session along with MP Walid Jumblatt’s bloc, securing the needed quorum, political sources told The Daily Star.
Bou Saab, who belongs to Aoun’s bloc, appealed to lawmakers to attend Tuesday’s session and endorse the controversial wage hike.
The UCC’s two-day nationwide strike for Monday and Tuesday is part of its efforts to pressure Parliament into approving the wage hike bill.
The strike will paralyze ministries, public departments and institutions and municipalities across Lebanon as well as the Grand Serail in Beirut, Gharib said. He called for a sit-in outside the Education Ministry Monday at 10 a.m.
“March on the Education Ministry,” he told civil servants and teachers.
Defying Bou Saab’s decision, Gharib said the UCC would not allow anyone to prepare the exams or monitor or correct them. “We still haven’t acted in a negative way to what the education minister said, and we hope we are not forced to take negative action,” he said.
Urging parliamentary blocs to endorse the salary scale bill, Gharib reiterated the UCC’s insistence on a 121 percent salary raise similar to that granted to judges and Lebanese University teachers.
Meanwhile, air traffic will be suspended at Beirut airport for two hours Tuesday due to a strike by air controllers in protest of Parliament’s failure to endorse the public sector’s salary increases, the National News Agency reported. It said inbound and outbound flights would be suspended from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m.