BEIRUT: The Cabinet decided in a marathon session Thursday to refer the long-awaited public sector salary raise bill to Parliament, finally bowing to demands by the Union Coordination Committee which swiftly hailed the move, saying it would recommend the suspension of an open-ended strike.
The Cabinet’s decision was announced by acting Information Minister Wael Abu Faour after an eight-hour session chaired by President Michel Sleiman at the presidential palace in Baabda.
The Cabinet also decided to meet again Friday to discuss two contentious issues: the formation of a committee to supervise the June 9 parliamentary elections, and a proposal to extend the term of Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, director-general of the Internal Security Forces, who reaches retirement age on April 1.
Abu Faour, also the minister of social affairs, said ministers of Hezbollah, the Amal Movement and Ministers of State Ali Qanso and Nicolas Fattoush voiced objections to reducing the value of the new salary scale by 10 percent, while Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi expressed objections to the entire draft bill.
The Cabinet’s decision was welcomed by the UCC, which said it would meet Friday to recommend the suspension of the monthlong protests, which closed schools and paralyzed ministries and government departments. “The UCC considers the referral of the salary increase draft to Parliament an important union and moral achievement embodied by the unity of the Lebanese who rallied around it,” said a UCC statement.
The Cabinet’s move came on the day thousands of civil servants and public schoolteachers staged their biggest demonstration near Baabda Palace, where the session was held, to press the UCC’s demand for the new salary scale to be referred to Parliament for approval.
The UCC said it had staged its rally early in the day, prior to the Cabinet session, as a sign of good faith and to avoid disrupting the meeting.
The UCC’s open-ended strike also affected inbound and outbound flights at Rafik Hariri International Airport.
The UCC includes public school teachers and civil servants who have been demonstrating outside ministries and government departments since last month, venting their anger at the Cabinet for failing to refer the wage hike to Parliament.
Addressing the Cabinet session, Sleiman said the approval of the salary increase, holding the elections on time, carrying out appointments to fill hundreds of vacant posts in the public administration and diplomatic corps, and avoiding political differences are “the best gift we may offer to the mother on her day so that she can be reassured about her sons.”
But Safadi warned of the consequences of the new salary scale on the country’s struggling economy.
“Politically, the salary scale will be passed. But economically, it will be harmful for the country,” he told reporters before entering the Cabinet session.
Speaking during the Cabinet session, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said he hoped Rifi would be reinstated in his post in order to avoid a vacuum in the ISF chief’s position.
“There is no political consensus, but contradiction on the [election] supervisory committee and the extension of Rifi’s term,” Abu Faour said.
Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi told The Daily Star Wednesday that ministers from the March 8 camp were determined to vote against the naming of experts to a committee to oversee the elections if it was brought to a vote. The Hezbollah-led March 8 parties want to block the move, which they believe signals an official step to proceed with the polls based on the 1960 election law, which they reject.
March 8 ministers were also reported to be opposing the extension of Rifi’s term. Speaking to reporters before entering the Cabinet session, Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan, a Hezbollah official, said that the March 8 ministers would not vote for the creation of a committee to oversee the elections or the extension of Rifi’s term.
According to Abu Faour, Sleiman renewed his call for the reconvening of National Dialogue Committee to defuse political and sectarian tensions in the country arising mainly from the split over the 2-year-old bloody conflict in neighboring Syria.
Sleiman praised the “firm response” by various political and religious leaders to last week’s attacks on four Sunni Muslim scholars in Beirut in an incident that heightened sectarian tensions and threatened to sink the divided country into strife. He also lauded the quick measures taken by the military and security forces to maintain calm and prevent the country’s drift toward sectarian strife.
The president called on rival political leaders to avoid sectarian incitement in their public rhetoric, according to Abu Faour.
Sleiman said the 2013 draft budget has been finalized, hoping it would be discussed by the Cabinet before referring it to Parliament.
Sleiman condemned Monday’s Syrian airstrike in the northeastern Bekaa Valley and favored sending an official note of protest to Damascus over the incident, while Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry initially rejected the notion that the airstrikes had taken place, echoing official denials by the Syrian regime.
The salary raise would be tied to an increase in the working hours of civil servants and a tax hike on luxury goods, refunds to tourists, stamp fees and alcoholic beverages as well as taxing illegal construction and seaside property. It would also be paid in installments to ease the burden on the treasury.
Although it was approved 11 months ago, the Cabinet has delayed referring the salary scale draft to Parliament, arguing the funding for the pay scale needed to be secured. The wage raise is expected to cost the treasury some $1.2 billion annually.
Representatives of business and employers associations have repeatedly warned against referring the new wage scale to Parliament, arguing that any increase in salaries would inflict major economic losses on the country.