BEIRUT: Several hundred Free Patriotic Movement supporters marched without incident Thursday from Ashrafieh to Mar Mikhael to protest the continuing sit-in by the Electricite du Liban contract workers.
A standoff between the EDL administration and the contract workers has resulted in partial blackouts across the country and according to senior EDL officials, the state-run company is on the verge of a collapse unprecedented in Lebanon’s history.
Hundreds of contract workers say they are entitled to become full-time employees at EDL after working there in some cases for decades.
Holding colorful light sticks, flashlights and Lebanese flags, FPM supporters denounced the contract workers’ sit-in, which is supported by FPM ally Speaker Nabih Berri.
In Mar Mikhael, several hundred riot police stood between the supporters of the FPM and the EDL building, where the contract workers held an iftar dinner.
But unlike the FPM demonstration earlier this month that resulted in a clash with the contract workers, Thursday’s march remained peaceful.
“Ashrafieh is against thugs ... Ashrafieh is against the occupation of public institutions,” read several banners carried by protesters as they marched toward EDL.
The collection of electricity bills has been on hold since the sit-in by contract workers started several months ago, and EDL has been unable carry out major maintenance works.
But EDL announced Thursday that its staff would resume bill collection, with the help of police, and begin making repairs to the network.
“Starting from Monday, EDL will take firm measures and will continue its maintenance and bill collections with the help of the police,” said a statement by EDL.
“Only if they succeed in killing us will they go out to collect bills Monday,” Ahmad Shoueib, a member of the contract workers’ committee, told The Daily Star in response to EDL’s statement. “We will all be here Monday as every other day and we will defend our rights and our dignity ... Only over our dead bodies will they collect the bills.”
Meters away from the contract workers’ sit-in, Ziad Abs, the FPM official in Ashrafieh, called on supporters to stand with EDL staff Monday. “We say to you today that all of us, along with the police, will help you to continue to work next week.”
The controversy of EDL’s contract workers took a sectarian turn earlier this month when Christian parties from rival March 14 and March 8 coalitions voted against a draft law to allow the workers to become full-time employees at EDL.
Energy Minister Gebran Bassil has proposed new examinations for contract workers and other applicants interested in full-time employment at the company. But contract workers have rejected the proposal and have accused Bassil, an FPM official, of engineering a mass layoff.
The crisis has also hurt relations between the FPM and Berri, the leader of the Amal Movement.
On the ground during the march to Mar Mikhael, FPM supporters were divided in their approach to solve the problem. Many chanted anti-Berri slogans but others said they just wanted a fair solution to the crisis.
“We are not against anyone but we are here to say ‘no’ to the occupation of EDL and employment by force,” said Mireille Attiye, a resident of Ashrafieh.
Others were softer in their tone toward the sit-in.
“I support reform of the electricity sector and I believe some of the contract workers should be given full-time employment,” said Elie Barakat. “But not all 2,500 contract workers should be employed at EDL.”
Another FPM supporter criticized the government and Berri for campaigning against Bassil because of his plans for reform.
“This is all about a political campaign against Gebran Bassil; when Bassil leaves, these contract workers will stop their protest just like they have done in the past 15 years,” said Hajj. “Everyone will lose from this. If there is a power blackout, it will affect the entire country.”
George Maalouf said that FPM leader Michel Aoun had called for a peaceful demonstration. “Today we will have a peaceful march, and tomorrow we will see with General Michel Aoun what to do about our next steps,” said Maalouf, who participated in the demonstration.
In his brief speech shortly before the march ended, Abs said that the FPM’s priority was state-building. “Others have tried to bankrupt the EDL during their rule, but in our era we will only strengthen this sector,” said Abs.
Abs also said that electricity and water services are public rights that belong to all Lebanese and not only a group of people. “No one has the right to take that right from you.”
“We reject darkness, we are in this government to implement our state-building project ... if they think they can stop us they are wrong, they can only delay our project,” Abs added.