BEIRUT: Prime Minister Najib Mikati said Wednesday he would propose at next week’s Cabinet meeting that proposed salary increases for presidents, ministers and lawmakers be reconsidered after an initial plan came under fire from top officials.
Mikati spoke during a Cabinet session he chaired at the Grand Serail. He had also held Cabinet sessions Monday and Tuesday.
Mikati’s remarks came as both President Michel Sleiman and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri were reported to have voiced their objections to salary hikes to the three top leaders, ministers and lawmakers while the state treasury was cash-strapped and the country’s economy was struggling. Hezbollah’s MPs also rejected the salary raise to top officials, ministers and lawmakers.
The Cabinet is scheduled to meet at Baabda Palace Monday to follow up on discussions aimed at finding revenues to finance the new salary scale for civil servants, which is estimated to cost the government over $1.6 billion annually.
Last week, the Cabinet approved a draft law for public sector salary increases without the amendments that had been demanded by some ministers, bringing an end to the monthslong dispute that led to strikes by civil servants.
Also approved were a series of taxes that would be used to finance the public sector’s pay increase.
Industry Minister Vreij Sabounjian said Sleiman opposed applying the public sector’s salary hike to the country’s executive and legislative leadership.
Sabounjian told The Daily Star that he had suggested to the Cabinet last week that current and former lawmakers and ministers be excluded from the salary hike.
“President Michel Sleiman welcomed the suggestion and he totally agreed to the idea,” Sabounjian said.
He added that his proposal had not been opposed by any of the Cabinet ministers, but that none had supported the suggestion. “The matter is not only related to ministers; it is also the concern of deputies. Lawmakers should reject such an increase,” Sabounjian said.
“I am not asking for eliminating the benefits for top officials. However, I am saying they shouldn’t get an increase to their salaries. That would just be a waste of the public money,” he added.
Berri was also reported to have voiced his rejection of a salary hike to the three top leaders, the president, the speaker and the prime minister, as well as to ministers and members of Parliament, saying the move should be delayed until Lebanon begins exploiting its offshore oil and gas reserves.
“If any Lebanese top leader, minister or lawmaker wants a salary raise, he or she should wait for Lebanon’s offshore oil to be extracted,” the speaker told As-Safir daily in remarks published Wednesday.
Parliament passed an oil exploration bill in August 2010 that calls for the establishment of a treasury and a committee to oversee exploration and drilling off the country’s coast.
Lebanon has been slow to exploit its maritime resources compared with other eastern Mediterranean countries.
Israel, Cyprus and Turkey are all much more advanced in drilling for oil and gas.
According to media reports, the proposed salary increases and benefits to be given to top Lebanese leaders are LL6 million to the president, the speaker and the prime minister, and LL4 million to ministers and lawmakers in line with the new salary scale for civil servants.
“The country is going through an exceptional economic and financial situation,” Berri told the daily, noting that “the treasury should not be burdened any further.”
Berri said that his parliamentary Development and Liberation bloc would seek to reject a raise for legislators, “even if some lawmakers do not like [the idea].”
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s parliamentary Loyalty to the Resistance bloc issued a statement calling on the Cabinet to reject the salary increase for top Lebanese officials.
“The bloc does not see a need for such an increase,” Hezbollah’s Minister of State for Administrative Reform Mohammad Fneish told The Daily Star.
The bloc’s statement called on all other parliamentary blocs to support its stance “out of a sense of national responsibility, in light of the country’s hard economic situation.”
“The increase occurred naturally in the course of the Cabinet approving the draft law for public sector salary hikes. However, the high cost of living has prompted us to reject such an increase,” Fneish said.