BEIRUT: The trade unions affiliated with the General Labor Union in Lebanon carried out a general strike on Thursday to protest the country’s deteriorating economic conditions as they also pressed for a new government.
The strike paralyzed the state’s official departments and the banking sector as the private institutions stopped working for one hour in solidarity.
Protesters demanding the formation of a government did not, however, bother the ruling political authority, which also participated in the strike alongside private banks, making it impossible to know whom the workers were protesting against.
Short roadblocks were reported in Beirut and other areas before security forces quickly reopened the roads.
Lebanon has been without a functioning government since August while Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, named to the post in October, has failed to gain support from Lebanese President Michel Aoun over his Cabinet picks.
All mediations to resolve the issues facing the formation of a new government have been halted because of prolonged political bickering. Hezbollah’s two allies — the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri — cannot come to terms with Aoun, who insists on naming Christian ministers and, according to Berri, wants to obtain the blocking third in the government.
Aoun says Berri is seeking to “marginalize the role of the president, limit his powers, obstruct and exclude him.”
In light of the political stalemate, Anne Grillo, France’s ambassador to Lebanon, met with FPM lawmaker Gebran Bassil at his home. Bassil’s media office said their discussion focused on “the importance of forming the government despite all obstacles impeding it.”
Thursday’s strike in and around Beirut received mixed reactions.
Activists in the protest not affiliated with any party in power believed the General Labor Union’s strike had actually turned into a “movement against the people” after the FPM and the Future Movement joined the strike.
Other protesters, who refrained from participating in Thursday’s movement, said the “oppressor has assumed the identity of the oppressed.”
Halima Qaqour, a specialist in public international law, who was active in previous protests, told Arab News: “The civil society’s reluctance to participate in the General Labor Union strike is due to the fact that this union represents the ruling parties and we will not engage in this game. We say everyone must be held accountable and pay the price.”
There were a few reasons why people did not respond to the strike.
“The General Labor Union cannot mobilize people to protest. The people have become politically aware and they simply do not want to take to the streets,” Qaqour said.
“People are divided into three groups: A group awaiting the parliamentary elections to see some accountability, a group that has lost all hope and is trying to leave Lebanon, and another that is gathering under non-sectarian parties and preparing political projects for the upcoming stage."
Thursday’s strike could just be the beginning as those who participated said it was only a trial run for future protests “that may be more painful.”
Qaqour said the timing was not right for this protest but predicted more strikes.
“The people are the ones who decide when it is time to take to the streets again, and that time is yet to come,” she said.
In front of the General Labor Union headquarters in Beirut, several union representatives and trade unions gathered. Bechara Al-Asmar, head of the General Labor Union, defended the strike, saying the labor union is “the only unifying force in Lebanon without any bias and was able to gather both loyalists and opponents.”
Al-Asmar rejected “all accusations claiming that the union always gives in to politicians,” saying that the movements that accompanied the strike were “civilized” as there was no attack on public and private property.
He added that the union operates under one slogan, which is to save what is left of Lebanon by forming a new government and preserving institutions.
Al-Asmar addressed the politicians by saying: “Stop leaving your people for dead and form a salvation government. If you do not take this initiative, chaos will prevail.”
He also addressed those who criticize the General Labor Union and urged those who want to change this authority “should do so at the polls.”