Pyrrhic victory

Prime Minister Najib Mikati heads a Cabinet session at the Grand Serail in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, March 21, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Cabinet has consistently stumbled along as it tries to endorse an election law that is satisfactory to all sides, so it comes as little surprise that the issue of endorsing a wage hike for civil servants and teachers has experienced a similar fate.

During Cabinet’s marathon session Thursday, ministers plowed through the latest set of complicated measures to raise the money needed to fund the pay hike.

The mess was preceded by a series of meetings and on-again off-again negotiations with the major players in the drama, namely the Union Coordination Committee, and representatives of the private sector.

But the watchwords throughout the sorry saga have been paralysis and procrastination. The government’s snail-like pace as it tackled the issue has had several detrimental effects. Divisions have widened, pitting business against labor, while the strike that began last month in public schools, with intermittent participation by private school teachers, has put a huge dent into the academic year. As it stands, the last part of the school year will be compressed into an intensive catch-up mode, and the fate of crucial end-of-year examinations still hangs in the balance.

The government acted only after it faced the growing clout of public servants and teachers, who have held daily sit-ins and protests to signal their determination. But the result, namely referring the draft legislation to Parliament, will likely open up a new round of acrimonious debate over the reliability of the sources of funding.

The public has been treated throughout to a confusing blizzard of public statements on exactly what will be changed in order to fund the salary scale, as ambiguity reigns. There have been publicly expressed doubts about the accuracy of the calculations, while the entire exercise has been outpaced by events. During the months that were required to bring the issue to a close, inflation has siphoned off any benefit that the unions were hoping for. Moreover, the private sector has been adamant in rejecting the move, while the nation’s schools appear set to raise their tuition rates as a result – if the legislation actually makes it through Parliament.

Finally, the public has experienced a halt to the process of getting its bureaucratic formalities done in a timely fashion, as if Lebanon’s bureaucracy needed any more hits to its productivity. Land sales, car registration, work and residency permits – all have fallen victim to the debilitating impasse over the salary scale increase.

Responsibility for the disaster can be safely laid at the feet of the Cabinet, which isn’t cohesive or dynamic enough to come up with an agreed-upon economic policy, or forward-looking planning and governance so that such catastrophes can be avoided.

Instead, officials only spring into “action” under duress, and their response is far from being a durable solution. Union officials and others have pointed out that the entire exercise smells of funding the wage hike for lower- and middle-class individuals through a series of fees and taxes that target lower- and middle-class individuals.

Instead of getting to the root of the problem by enhancing tax collection in the first place, and taking on the hidden sources of corrupt wealth in the country, the “end” of the strike would appear to be an occasion for the beginning of a whole new set of tensions and problems.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 22, 2013, on page 7.




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