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French Version

Third labor protest in Beirut draws healthier crowd

The third in a series of sit-ins organized Monday by Lebanon's opposition-backed General Labor Confederation (GLC) saw hundreds of protestors crowd in front of the Ogero Telecom building in Bir Hassan.

Protesters carried Lebanese flags and placards denouncing the government of Premier Fouad Siniora and its policies, which they argued had "impoverished Lebanon."

The government's reform bill - and especially proposals to privatize the telecom sector - was the target for the protesters' ire. As part of its privatization program, the government aims to create Liban Telecom through the incorporation of Ogero, a government-owned entity, and two departments of the Telecommunications Ministry by mid-2007 and its privatization by 2008.

Hizbullah MP Amin Cherri and MP Jamal Taqsh attended the sit-in together with GLC president Ghassan Ghosn, Hizbullah political bureau member Ghaleb Abu Zeinab, union leaders and representatives of opposition parties.

Monday's demonstration witnessed an increase in the number of protesters since the last two sit-ins.

"The advice of the World Bank to privatize the public services is rejected by the General Labor Confederation," Ghosn said in a speech. "We shall remain opposed to privatization because our experience with the mobile-sector privatization has been costly for citizens and incurred huge losses on the government."

Ghosn said the GLC refuses selling the "people and the government's property" by claiming their administration is inefficient: "We call on the government to set a comprehensive reform program by removing politicians' influence over these departments, bolstering the monitoring authority and creating accountability."

Ghosn said by fixing the problems at state-owned service utilities these companies can generate income for the government, which he said was far better than selling them off to "monopolies" at the "cheapest prices" and harming the interests of citizens and workers.

Ghosn called on workers to be ready for further protests against "oppression," but did not specify the GLC's next move. He told The Daily Star that as on previous occasions, the GLC's board would meet and decide its next move and convene a news conference to announce the move.

Ghosn said the GLC will convey the grievances of the Lebanese workers and people to international and Arab workers associations and will submit memoranda detailing these grievances to all embassies concerned with the "Lebanese file" to protest the government's economic policies.

Placards carried by protesters, many hand-written, promised to keep up their actions as long as the government continues to ignore their demands.

A heavy security presence was evident outside the ministry's building in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Access to cars was blocked by security forces in one direction along Camille Chamoun Avenue in front of the Ogero building, opposite the Sports City, which created a minor traffic jam in the afternoon.

Lebanese Army troops in riot gear and armored personnel carriers blocked protesters' access to the Ogero building. Soldiers also positioned themselves on the roof of the Ogero building overlooking the protest.

Khalil, who would only give his first name, said he came to the protest to express his disdain at the nonrepresentative nature of government.

"This unconstitutional government holds meetings and takes decisions on whose behalf?" he asked. "The World Bank or the people of Lebanon? We will continue the protests until our demands are met."

Hisham, who also would only give his first name, said privatization will not succeed.

"They want to sell the telecommunications sector that brings in billions to the Treasury," he complained. "With this government we will all be reduced to begging."

According to the reform paper, the privatization of telecom sector firms will be undertaken in a transparent manner through a public offering that ensures the widest possible stockholder base. The paper said this operation will play a major role in developing the Beirut Stock Exchange, fueling growth and job creation, and improve telecoms services.

Beirut 16-01-2007
Hani M. Bathish
The Daily Star

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