BEIRUT: On their “day of rage,” throngs of union members marched while clapping, waving Lebanese flags and banners depicting cartoons, and banging drums as onlookers stepped out onto their balconies to snap photos with their mobile phones.
Downtown was effectively shut down Wednesday as thousands of members from the Union Coordination Committee marched from the Banks’ Association building to Riad al-Solh Square in their largest demonstration in the last three years.
After three years of debate, Parliament is widely expected to find a compromise over the wage scale going into Wednesday’s session, but union members were not overtly optimistic.
“[Parliament] said they were going to pass it every, time but they haven’t done anything,” said Samer Fawaz, 39, a high school teacher from Bint Jbeil, in south Lebanon.
The UCC, a coalition of private and public school teachers and public sector employees, has spearheaded several protests over the past two years in attempts to press the passage of a 121 percent wage increase approved by the government and referred to Parliament in 2013.
Lawmakers have said they will increase Lebanon’s value added tax to raise the funds for the pay hike, but this solution has faced widespread criticism.
“We only want our rights, but not from the pockets of the poor,” said Imad Masri, 50, a principal at Khreibet al-Metn.
“We are responsible for the students and we will prolong the school year, but we need our rights,” he said, a public school employee for the last two decades. “After 20 years, I’m still not making $1,000 a month. Is that reasonable?”
“Let the government put an end to the corruption taking place in the airport and on the port,” said Ali al-Masri, vice president of primary education in the Bekaa Valley. “When they put a stop to this waste of money, the government will be able to finance not only one wage hike, but three of them.”
In addition to Wednesday’s march, the UCC also laid out its most serious ultimatum to date by threatening to not finish the current school year unless its demands were met.
“We’ve been asking for a long time but [Parliament] still hasn’t taken this issue into consideration,” Imad Masri said. “Today, either they [pass the salary scale increase] or we don’t complete the scholastic year no matter what happens, even if students are affected.”
As the protest carried on, scores of attendants took refuge in the shade,standing against buildings or sitting under trees a couple blocks away from the action. The majority of the crowd appeared to be gray-haired men and women irate at the country’s politicians, the corruption that plagues various sectors of the country and the perceived injustice concerning Parliament’s failure to pass the wage scale increase.
Education Minister Elias Bou Saab waded into the protest to give UCC leader Hanna Gharib a warning from Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to apologize for calling Parliament a group of thieves. As Bou Saab slipped out of the protest with an army escort and walked toward Parliament, protesters ran to the concertina wire and began booing the minister, showing that many of the protesters concurred with Gharib’s statement.
“We would like to tell the politicians to stop stealing from us,” said Suzan Kishly, 35, a social studies teacher at Hariri High School. “All they want is to increase their salaries and burden us.”
Gharib quickly responded to Berri, saying his remarks were aimed at "money whales" and not MPs.
"The word 'thieves' was not meant for MPs but for money whales," he said during his rally speech in Downtown. "I haven't harmed the dignity of any MP, and in case I did, I apologize."
Berri later acknowledged the apology, telling MPs that he had just received a letter of apology from Gharib.
Protests are expected to continue should Parliament fail to satisfy the UCC’s demands. The group’s leaders, however, said they would make a decision based on Parliament’s actions Wednesday.
“We’ll see if they decide to give us our rights or not,” Mahmoud Haidar, head of the Association of State Employees, told The Daily Star.