Date: Jul 16, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Lebanon: Joumblatt says open to any fix to Aley fallout
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Although official attention remained focused on this week’s Parliament sessions to ratify the draft 2019 state budget, mediation efforts persisted to find a resolution to the fallout of the deadly Aley incident that has paralyzed the Cabinet and heightened tensions between the two main Druze parties.

Delegations from the Progressive Socialist Party continued calls on top political and religious leaders to discuss the reverberations of the June 30 clashes between PSP supporters and bodyguards of Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib in the Aley town of Qabr Shmoun that left two bodyguards dead and two others wounded.

PSP leader Walid Joumblatt said Monday he was open to any solution that helped bring the country out of the impasse.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at his Ain al-Tineh residence, Joumblatt went as far as to declare his readiness to attend an inter-Druze reconciliation conference hosted by President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace to defuse escalating tensions between the PSP and its Druze rival, the Lebanese Democratic Party led by MP Talal Arslan. Gharib belongs to the LDP.

“We are following with Speaker Berri [efforts] to devise possible, acceptable and necessary solutions to emerge from this predicament that happened in the mountain,” Joumblatt said after the 20-minute meeting. “I am open to any solution ... of course, in consultation with Speaker Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to be crowned by President Michel Aoun.”

Asked if his openness meant he was ready to accept referring the Qabr Shmoun incident to the Judicial Council, as demanded by the LDP and its ally, the Free Patriotic Movement, Joumblatt said: “We don’t want to jump into conclusions. There is an investigation going on. An investigation does not take place with one side, but it should include the two sides. Later, in light of the investigation, the Cabinet and the leaders [Aoun, Berri and Hariri] will decide on this [the Judicial Council question].”

Joumblatt acknowledged political differences with the LDP, but said he was ready to attend any enlarged meeting that might be hosted by Aoun at Baabda Palace and attended by Berri and Hariri to resolve the issue once and for all.

A political source familiar with the case said a proposal for an inter-Druze reconciliation conference at Baabda Palace was part of mediation efforts being undertaken by General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim. Ibrahim has been meeting with top officials, as well as PSP and LDP leaders, as part of his shuttle diplomacy to defuse inter-Druze tensions and reach agreement on the handover of suspects from both sides involved in the Aley incident.

The source said once the proposed inter-Druze reconciliation conference had been held and suspects from both sides arrested, the incident would be referred, in agreement with all components of the government, to the Judicial Council, the country’s highest judicial court.

“This step will eventually set the stage for resuming Cabinet sessions that have been stalled since the incident,” the source told The Daily Star.

In the aftermath of the clashes, Hariri postponed a Cabinet session two weeks ago in order to avert a split among ministers over the handling of the Aley shootout, including a request to refer the case to the Judicial Council.

MTV quoted Berri as saying he was displeased with the current situation, adding that all political parties were responsible for this. He called on the Lebanese to close ranks, warning that divisions would lead the country to ruins.

Berri, according to MTV, criticized the Cabinet for failing to meet since the Qabr Shmoun incident.

“The country cannot be run by remote control,” the speaker was quoted as saying.

Commenting on the three-day Parliament sessions scheduled from Tuesday through Thursday to begin discussing the draft budget, Berri reiterated his call on the Cabinet to meet and send to Parliament as soon as possible a breakdown of accounts for 2017.

Berri is set to chair all the Parliament’s morning and evening sessions to discuss and approve the draft budget, amid opposition from some blocs that argue the proposed austerity measures fall short of the major structural reforms required to rescue the flagging economy.

In remarks published Monday, Berri stressed that Parliament could not discuss and vote on the draft budget before the Cabinet met to approve the state’s closure of accounts for previous years.

On the eve of the sessions on the draft budget, Hariri chaired a meeting of the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc.

“The bloc stressed the need not to exceed the deficit ratio reached by the Cabinet for any reason and to ascertain the authenticity of the additional reductions made by the Finance and Budget Committee and the ability of the relevant bodies to comply with them,” a statement issued after the meeting said.

The FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc said it would vote for the draft budget, even though it was not fully satisfied with the proposed economic reforms. “We did a review of the budget and its provisions and we outlined our position on them. ... Despite our dissatisfaction with some items, we will vote for the budget,” Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, the FPM leader, said after the bloc’s special meeting.

“We cannot say this is a reformist budget. We have missed an opportunity to carry out real reforms,” Bassil added, renewing the bloc’s call for an audit of spending from 1993 to 2017.

At last year’s CEDRE conference, Lebanon pledged to significantly reduce its budget deficit, which reached 11.1 percent of gross domestic product in 2018.

The draft 2019 budget, which the Finance and Budget Committee passed to Parliament’s general assembly last week, reduces the deficit to 6.59 percent of GDP, down from 7.59 in the draft approved by the Cabinet.

The draft budget and the repercussions of the Qabr Shmoun incident were discussed during a meeting between a delegation from the PSP’s parliamentary Democratic Gathering bloc and Hariri.

Another PSP delegation visited Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian at Dar al-Fatwa, discussing the repercussions of the Qabr Shmoun incident.