“We haven’t slept for years; We decided to wake up today;
Don’t blame us, oh dear country; We are now beyond the realm of blame;
For the thousands of oppressed; our blood of all these years is here for you.”
Anthem of the Revolution by Ziad Rahbani
In the midst of political and security instability and growing concerns with the spillovers of the Syrian crisis, Lebanon has been witnessing one of its most important labour demonstrations in years. Soon to enter its fourth week, public and private sector teachers, joined by civil servants, launched an open-ended strike demanding the government refer a long-awaited pay scale draft to Parliament for ratification. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has reiterated his commitment to find the necessary $1.2 billion to fund the salary scale annually, calling protesters to withdraw from the streets in the meantime. Representatives of private businesses have lobbied the government to rethink any future measures to raise funds for the salary scale, threatening disastrous consequences on an already fragile economy.
But the demonstrators, spearheaded by the Union of Coordination Committee (UCC), are not backing down anytime soon. “Enough procrastination and excuses”, says head of the UCC Hanna Gharib. “If Prime Minister Mikati drafts a fair tax law on profits, combats corruption, illegally-built seaside properties, and levies taxes on financial and real estate gains, he can fund more than one salary scale.” Government suggestions to provide the rise by instalments or even hinting at taxing retirement wages have been met by equally vociferous cries by demonstrators. They will not accept anything less than what the government owes them, they say.
Current demonstrations are fuelled by genuine economic demands by a sector that has not benefited from pockets of growth and prosperity witnessed in the Lebanese economy in recent years. It cannot be denied that the public sector is itself in dire need of reform and restructuring, being one of the country’s main employers, also used by politicians to employ constituents who are not necessary qualified in turn for political support. Yet most demonstrators are honest men and women, fighting for a decent life and eager to have their voices heard for once.
Thus, the demonstrations have also become a means to protest against the system as a whole, and a state that has ignored the most basic needs of its people for far too long. A means to say enough to widespread corruption, lack of decent public services, unequal economic development, disregard to people’s health and welfare, and a political class having poisoned the country with hatred and confessionalism solely with their own personal interests in mind. As the demonstrations promise to escalate and more people pledge support to the cause, it seems that anger isn’t about young or old, public sector or private sector, women or men, Christian or Muslim, right or left, people who may be well-off out of their own hard work or those that barely are able to make ends meet. It has become more about saying enough to a system that has truly impoverished the Lebanese, a political class that has used its people for years (for which the Lebanese have also themselves to blame), and making up for too many years of silence (for many different reasons, valid or not). The fight of the private and public sector workers has become more than a simple, yet needed salary increase. It has become a struggle to bite into the arrogance of politicians and a small number of monopolistic business conglomerates, who have become almost untouchable, bound in a mafia-like pact against the rest of the country, being held accountable to nobody. It has become about restoring rights, justice and dignity.
The coming weeks will be critical to judge the success of the movement and whether it pushes the government to give in to its demands. The presence of respected and charismatic Gharib, which some have already compared to former Polish president and trade unionist Lech Walesa, would have played a pivotal role in such success. Nonetheless, Lebanese remain highly skeptical of popular movements and their ability to lead any change in the country. “There may be physical and operational similarities between Walesa and Gharib, but their destinies will surely differ”, noted one Lebanese on social media. “I dread the deception that [union leaders]may go through in case all they have been struggling for falls apart under this hideous government”, said one union activist close to Gharib. Regardless, this grassroots movement has finally risen. It will certainly remain a force to be reckoned with because it is certainly here to stay…
Written by Marina Chamma and Hala Gharib
Marina Chamma is a freelance writer and blogger at EyeontheEast.org. She blogs on politics, society and culture of Lebanon and the broader Arab world. You can also follow her on Twitter @eyeontheeast.
Hala Gharib is a translator; she works as a research analyst in an insurance broker company in London