BEIRUT: Security officials forcibly restrained some protesters who attempted to storm the Education Ministry Monday during a sit-in held to condemn the death of George Zreik, who had set himself on fire following a dispute with his daughter’s school over the payment of fees.
The sit-in was organized by the Sabaa Party and the League of Parents’ Committees at Private Schools in Lebanon, and attended by prominent activists including former Labor Minister Charbel Nahas.
Attendees chanted, “George is a martyr of their corruption.”
One protester Monday carried a banner that read, “How many Georges do you need before you mobilize?”
“Do not burn us with your tuition,” another said.
Zreik's act of defiance took place Thursday after the director of his daughter’s private elementary school in the Koura town of Bkeftin refused to give him his child’s transcripts, preventing him from registering her at a more affordable, public school.
Zreik succumbed to serious burns Friday morning.
According to Zreik’s brother, Shukri, the school director had refused even after Zreik promised to sign a document ensuring that he would eventually pay back all the money he owed.
His death sparked an outpouring of both sympathy and anger across large strata of the country, reigniting public criticism of the governing class and Lebanon’s economic situation.
The protesters Monday called on new Education Minister Akram Chehayeb to come down from his office to talk with them.
But Chehayeb did not. Shukri Zreik said Chehayeb had offered to meet with him in his office, but that he had refused because he was not the only person to have turned up in support of his brother. “All these people came here for George,” he said.
Mahmoud Kataya, the financial adviser of the league, told The Daily Star that the group was demanding the ministry, which provides financial support to both public and private schools, take on a stronger oversight role on school budgets.
“Today, school budgets are going to the ministry without being overseen, while tuitions rise like fire every year,” he said.
Former Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh previously attributed the rise in tuition fees at least in part to an increase in teachers’ wages resulting from the 2017 public sector wage hike.
The Education Ministry could not be reached for comment.
“We are asking that the ministry increase support of public schools, not private ones, to rejuvenate them until they can take some of the weight off private schools,” Kataya said.
Hamadeh previously told The Daily Star that 30,000 students had migrated from private schools to public schools during his tenure because the wage hike caused tuition costs to rise. This has in turned, he said, increased the burden on public schools and placed extra financial burden on the state, which provides greater funding to public than private schools.
Since George Zreik’s self-immolation, Chehayeb pledged to cover the tuition fees for Zreik’s two kids.
But attendees treated this with ire.
One protester shouted: “Burn yourself, and you get a scholarship.”
This article was amended on Monday, February 11 2019
A previous version of this article said the school refused to give Zreik his daughter’s transcripts. This article has been updated to clarify that this is according to Zreik’s brother and has not been confirmed by the school.