BAABDA, Lebanon: Teachers and public sector employees will strike Thursday after the government failed in a heated session to approve a new salary scale for the public sector. Despite lengthy discussion of the scale, the Cabinet postponed the issue to Thursday for further deliberations.
“Due to the need to know the actual figures and the cost of any of the raise options, the means to finance it ... and the payment method, the Cabinet will convene Thursday at 10 a.m.,” acting Information Minister Wael Abu Faour told reporters at Baabda Palace Wednesday following the session, which lasted more than six hours.
Abu Faour said that prior to Thursday’s Cabinet session, Prime Minister Najib Mikati will chair a meeting at the Grand Serail with Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi and economic experts about the pay scale.
During Wednesday’s session, Safadi and Economy Minister Nicholas Nahhas, who is close to Mikati, opposed the levels of salary increase initially agreed upon among teachers, public sector employees and a ministerial committee, citing grave repercussions on the economy.
This angered Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, from the Amal Movement, who said it was unacceptable to renege on the agreement with the ministerial committee, which represented all Cabinet parties. Supporting Khalil was Mohammad Fneish, who is a Hezbollah official as well as minister of state for administrative development.
Ministerial sources doubted the Cabinet would pass the salary scale Thursday, either.
“What could change from today till tomorrow?” one of the ministers told The Daily Star. Seeking a solution, Mikati and March 8 ministers engaged in a flurry of contacts late Wednesday night, trying to find a compromise.
The new salary scale, which reports predict will cost the government more than $1 billion a year, would allow teachers at public and private schools and state employees to benefit from a salary raise the government gave the private sector in January.
Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud said ministers did not discuss how the government would finance the raises Wednesday, adding that the $1 billion figure was not necessarily accurate.
“Finance Ministry employees will present accurate figures tomorrow,” Abboud said, also doubtful the Cabinet would pass the scale Thursday.
But in separate remarks, Abboud also said he opposed to the proposed raise in the scale.
“I don’t think there is a country on earth that would introduce such a raise amid the circumstances the international economy is witnessing,” he said.
Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the Association of Private School Teachers, said that teachers and public sector employees will go on a one-day strike to protest the delay in passing the scale. Public sector employees will hold protests near their buildings at 10 a.m.
“We will decide on the second step in light of what the Cabinet decides,” Mahfoud said.
“The move also comes in protest of the stance of some ministers like Nicholas Nahhas and Fadi Abboud, who said that the country cannot bear the consequences of the raise,” he said.
Mahfoud asked why Nahhas, who was a member of the ministerial committee on the pay scale raise, did not express opposition to the raise during earlier talks with the Union Coordination Committee, a coalition of teachers at public and private schools and public sector employees.
“If the salary scale is not passed [Thursday], there will be a big problem in the country,” Mahfoud said.
Separately, the Cabinet agreed to extend Middle East Airlines’ right to be the country’s sole commercial airline on the routes they fly for another 12 years.
The Cabinet tasked Transport and Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi with making suggestions in the next month for ways other Lebanese airlines might fly routes MEA does not offer.
Addressing ministers at the beginning of the session he chaired, President Michel Sleiman said that Lebanon’s new chairmanship of the Arab League should solidify Lebanon’s policy of dissociating itself from events in neighboring Syria, where an anti-regime uprising is now in its 17th month. Lebanon took over the chairmanship of the Arab League in Cairo Wednesday for six months. “I and the prime minister will continuously follow up on this chairmanship to guarantee the neutrality of Lebanon and the independence of its stance,” Abu Faour quoted Sleiman as saying.
Sleiman also highlighted the importance of his visit last week to Tehran, where he participated in the Non-Aligned Movement summit and met with several Iranian and international officials.
The president noted that his visit to the Iranian capital was a chance to affirm Lebanon’s presence in the international arena.
As for Pope Benedict XVI’s three-day trip to Lebanon that will begin Sept. 14, Sleiman called on the relevant ministries to coordinate with authorities to ensure that the visit is a success.
He explained that a “great and inspiring meeting” will be held at Baabda Palace on Sept. 15 in the presence of all Lebanese politicians and the pope, which will affirm the unity of Lebanon and agreement among its people.
As Cabinet convened, Lebanese University contract professors gathering near Baabda Palace had a verbal spat with Army soldiers who stopped their attempts to advance to the palace. The professors gathered to protest the government’s delay in passing a draft law making them full-time professors.