Taxi drivers incensed by a looming government crackdown on diesel-operated cars, prompted the troika to join ranks on Wednesday, pledging to implement an anti-air pollution law this weekend.
Taxi drivers from two labor confederations vowed to demonstrate during Thursday’s Cabinet session and block roads on Saturday and Sunday, but all three senior politicians denied they would back down from seeing the law go into effect.
Law 341, passed last August, is designed to reduce air pollution from the transport sector and bans the import of diesel engines within a one-year deadline from its passing.
Earlier this year, after being pressed by Parliament on the issue, the government pledged to ban vehicles running on diesel in two stages taxis by June 15 and mini-vans a month later.
The Interior Ministry also reiterated its intention to stop taxis operating on diesel, after several thousand drivers gathered in Cola for a general assembly by the two confederations of taxi drivers.
President Emile Lahoud and Speaker Nabih Berri discussed the issue at Baabda Palace, with the speaker remaining firm.
“I call on the interior minister to implement the decision, especially since the Cabinet, in its last session, backed the minister’s decision,” Berri said.
The speaker said taxi drivers had the right to ask for bigger compensation payments for returning to gasoline, “as long as this does not come at the expense of implementing the law.”
A labor source said that only one of the two public drivers confederations was serious about the protest efforts.
One is headed by Abdel-Amir Najda, a Communist Party official, while the other is headed by Bassam Tleis, an Amal Movement official and Berri ally.
The source said that although Tleis attended the demonstration at Cola, he was forced to get involved due to anger over the government decision, rather than from any signal from Berri.
Prime Minister Rafik Hariri said the government would implement the law, beginning June 15. Hariri vowed to reporters upon leaving the Grand Serail that the law would be implemented “to the letter.”
The confederations’ plans to challenge the crackdown on diesel, have drawn a chorus of protest from pro-Hariri MPs, who say the issues of tourism and public health took priority over other considerations.
But one Hariri ally, Koura MP Farid Makari, said that “intelligence agencies” were behind the union protests, an echo of previous Hariri governments’ problems with labor unions.
The Defense Ministry on Wednesday categorically denied any involvement, issuing a statement that said “security agencies attached to it are not involved in any way in union affairs or labor (protest) actions.”
For his part, Berri could not resist getting in a dig at the security bodies, saying that when “intelligence bodies get involved in something, they produce the opposite result, thank God.”
“These moves will not prevent the implementation of the law,” he said.
Makari on Wednesday evening reiterated his charges that intelligence bodies were behind the protests. Makari said a union official’s accusations that he imported diesel-operated mini-vans through an exclusive agency proved that, “diesel (security) bodies were moving their puppets” in the ranks of the unions.
“It would be more correct to say that I was one of the first MPs who signed a petition in 2000 ... suggesting a ban on diesel,” Makari said.