BEIRUT: Education Minister Elias Bou Saab said he had agreed with the Union Coordination Committee Tuesday night to postpone official exams for one day in a last-ditch deal that averted a confrontation between the two sides.
The deal, reached following a marathon meeting between Bou Saab and UCC officials that lasted until midnight Tuesday, came after Parliament had failed to discuss the wage hike bill, the UCC’s key demand for holding official tests.
“We have agreed to delay official exams for one day from Thursday until Friday so UCC officials can participate in monitoring the exams,” Bou Saab, flanked by UCC head Hanna Gharib, told a news conference at his office at the Education Ministry.
But the correction of exams and announcing results were unresolved pending Parliament’s action on the wage hike bill, an aspect both Bou Saab and Gharib highlighted.
Speaker Nabih Berri, meanwhile, warned that the disruption of Parliament sessions on the pretext of the presidential vacuum would lead to the disruption of Cabinet sessions, thus bringing all constitutional institutions to a standstill.
Commenting on Parliament’s failure to meet for a lack of quorum to debate the public sector’s salary scale bill, Berri was quoted by visitors as saying: “What happened in Parliament [Tuesday] constituted a danger to the [ruling] system. It’s not a matter of a salary scale and exams only, but it is an attempt to paralyze the system by paralyzing institutions.”
He praised Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s participation in Tuesday’s Parliament session, which he said showed the latter supported holding legislative sessions despite the vacancy in the presidency.
Referring to the rift within the Cabinet over exercising the president’s powers during the presidential vacuum, Berri was quoted as saying: “The prime minister has the right to call the Cabinet into session, prepare its agenda and also look into any reservations [by ministers] about any item he proposes in the Cabinet.”
Due to a lack of quorum, Berri Tuesday postponed a Parliament session on the controversial wage hike bill, which is at the root of the standoff between the UCC and Bou Saab, to June 19.
Only 54 MPs showed up while the required quorum is 65.
Berri urged Bou Saab to postpone official school exams for Grade 9 and Grade 12 students.
“I say to the education minister that you cannot hold the official school exams in this climate and be careful so we do not ruin the country and reach a point of no return,” Berri told Bou Saab in Parliament.
Bou Saab said the agreement with the UCC followed a series of contacts involving Berri and Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun. The minister’s meeting with UCC officials was also attended by MP Ali Bazzi from Berri’s parliamentary bloc.
Earlier in the day, Bou Saab remained adamant on holding the exams Thursday, dismissing calls to postpone them by the UCC, which threatened an open-ended strike after the Parliament session on the wage hike failed to achieve quorum.
“I am not willing to postpone the exams, not even for 15 minutes,’ he told a news conference in Parliament.
UCC officials insisted that exams could not be conducted without public school teachers. “We are the ones who announce exam dates. [Exam] certificates in exchange for the salary scale,” Gharib warned during a sit-in at the Education Ministry.
Soon after the UCC sit-in kicked off at 9 a.m., protesters moved inside the Education Ministry headquarters in a bid to block access for teachers hoping to sign contracts to monitor and correct official exams.
Bou Saab has announced a backup plan for holding official exams whereby he would hire contract teachers to replace the full-time staff. But the UCC pledged not to allow the tests to be conducted unless the wage hike was endorsed first.
Berri disclosed details of an agreement over the salary scale bill on the sidelines of the failed Parliament session Monday to elect a president.
He was quoted as saying the agreement was reached during a meeting at his office in Parliament attended by Salam, former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, head of the parliamentary Future bloc, and MP Bahia Hariri. As a solution to the row over the wage hike bill, which is estimated at $1.6 billion annually, Berri was quoted as saying he had proposed reducing the cost of the wage hikes by 10 percent in a bid to balance revenues and spending.
But Berri, according to visitors, was surprised by a change in the Future Movement’s position by not attending the Parliament session, which amounted to “a coup against Monday’s agreement.”
“The obstruction of what had been agreed on is not linked to the salary scale only, but also to the position of the Future Movement and its allies by disrupting the legislative sessions and linking the disruption of Parliament to the failure to elect a new president,” Berri was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, air traffic controllers Tuesday disrupted flights at Beirut airport for two hours to press Parliament to endorse the salary scale bill.