BEIRUT: Rival politicians struggled Monday to clinch a deal over the wage hike bill, in a last-ditch attempt to avert a looming showdown over official exams between the education minister and unions representing civil servants and teachers ahead of a crucial Parliament session Tuesday.
Although a quorum for the Parliament session intended to discuss and approve the public sector’s controversial salary scale draft law appeared to be secured, it remained unclear whether lawmakers would be able to endorse the bill, as parliamentary blocs disagreed over proposed taxes to fund the increases.
“A quorum for Tuesday’s session is guaranteed, but the passing of the wage hike bill is not,” a source in the parliamentary Future Movement bloc told The Daily Star. The source said the Future bloc along with its Christian March 14 allies, the Kataeb Party and the Lebanese Forces, would not attend the session, underlining their rejection of the wage hike bill.
Former Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Tripoli MP Ahmad Karami also said they would not attend.
Political sources said Tuesday’s session might not be held if it was boycotted by the Future bloc and March 14 Christian lawmakers, in addition to Mikati and Karami.
“The absence of Sunni representatives will deprive the session of its legitimacy as stipulated by the National Pact,” the sources said. They added that Speaker Nabih Berri is known for not convening Parliament sessions in the absence of representatives of any one of the Lebanese sects.
Political sources ruled out the passing of the wage hike bill unless there was a change in Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil’s proposal to balance revenues and the cost of the salary increases estimated at $1.6 billion annually. Education Minister Elias Bou Saab and the Union Coordination Committee locked horns over the sensitive issue of official exams for Grade 9 students planned to begin Thursday.
While Bou Saab said the exams would take place as scheduled even if Parliament failed to endorse the wage hike bill Tuesday, the UCC, which represents civil servants and public and private school teachers, pledged not to allow the tests to be conducted unless the salary increases were endorsed first.
The Future bloc rejected the wage hike bill outright, warning that its endorsement would drive Lebanon into bankruptcy.
“The Future bloc will not agree to anything that would push Lebanon into bankruptcy and turn it into a failed state,” former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said in a statement after chairing the bloc’s weekly meeting. He said that the rash approval of the salary scale bill would have “catastrophic repercussions” on the daily lives of the Lebanese.
Siniora said the draft law in its current version would certainly increase the deficit, harm the purchasing power and raise the inflation rate to a level the Lebanese could not tolerate. The bill, which has been under study by a parliamentary subcommittee, lacks needed reforms that would put an end to squandering and corruption, he said.
Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt also warned against passing the salary hike bill.
Berri held a series of consultations at his office in Parliament with Prime Minister Tammam Salam, Mikati, Siniora, Bou Saab, Khalil and Health Minister Wael Abu Faour to try to reach agreement on the salary scale bill.
Bou Saab sounded optimistic that lawmakers could reach a deal on the disputed wage hike bill during Tuesday’s session, while insisting that official school exams would be held Thursday despite a boycott by public teachers.
“I have hope that it will be approved,” Bou Saab told reporters after meeting Berri. “If it is not passed, we will continue discussions to give the teachers their rights but that does not mean that exams would be put on hold.”
Despite a boycott of official exams by teachers protesting against Parliament’s failure to approve the bill, Bou Saab has revealed a backup plan in which he will use contract teachers to replace the full-time staff.
The Committee of Contract Teachers confirmed that they would take part in correcting and monitoring the exams for the sake of students’ interests, saying such a decision was “not directed against the Union Coordination Committee, which we support in its demands.”
The UCC, which has spearheaded support of the wage hike for teachers and civil servants for three years, observed a nationwide strike, with its leader, Hanna Gharib, calling on contract teachers to defy Bou Saab and boycott exams. The strike paralyzed ministries, public departments and institutions as well as municipalities across Lebanon and the Grand Serail in Beirut. The strike will be observed Tuesday to coincide with the Parliament session.
With mounting pressure on the contractors not to go against the UCC’s will, the Directorate of Education Inspection at the ministry said the teachers would risk prosecution if they fail to do their “national duty.”