|Date: Jul 31, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Lebanon: Aoun to sign budget, clear way for reforms|
|Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star|
BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun is set to sign the 2019 state budget Wednesday, clearing the way for the implementation of key economic reforms, long awaited by the international community, sources at Baabda Palace said Tuesday. “President Aoun will sign the 2019 budget law Wednesday and the document will be published in the Official Gazette the next day, Thursday,” a Baabda Palace source told The Daily Star.
Aoun’s final signature of the budget, after it was inked by Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri last week, “will set the stage for the implementation of a series of essential economic and financial reforms contained in the budget,” the source said.
Aoun has thus far abstained from signing the budget into law over the inclusion of a controversial article after it was passed by Parliament on July 19.
The president’s office cited “confusion” regarding Article 80 of the budget, which calls for employing applicants for state positions who had passed Civil Service Council exams, but were not hired due to sectarian imbalances.
The passing of the budget was viewed by Hariri and other officials as a positive message to international donors and credit rating agencies, underscoring Lebanon’s determination to carry out structural reforms recommended at last year’s CEDRE conference to salvage the country’s ailing economy.
The budget contains a string of austerity measures and tax hikes that aim to reduce the deficit to around 7 percent of gross domestic product from 11.1 percent last year.
Earlier in the day, Aoun dispatched Minister of State for Presidency Affairs Salim Jreissati to Berri to reassure him that the president would sign the budget and not lodge any appeals against it.
Jreissati, one of ministers loyal to the president, attributed the delay in signing the budget to carefully examining it and discussing ways to solve the issue of Article 80.
But along with his signature, Aoun will also request a clarification from Parliament.
Jreissati said the president would “send a message to Parliament through its speaker to explain Article 95 of the Constitution.”
Added after the 1989 Taif Accord, Article 95 calls for Parliament to form a national committee to eliminate confessionalism in the Lebanese state.
The committee is to be headed by the president and joins the speaker, premier and other officials. Cabinet and Parliament are to be put in charge of overseeing the implementation of the committee’s plan.
During the transitional stage, sects must be equally represented in Cabinet, and sectarianism in state jobs, judiciary, military and security positions must be eliminated, with the exception of top posts.
Meanwhile, mediation attempts resumed to end the monthlong Cabinet paralysis, sparked by the deadly Aley clashes.
Hariri met with Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt at the premier’s Downtown Beirut residence Tuesday night, discussing the latest initiative to resume Cabinet sessions, stalled since the June 30 Qabr Shmoun incident. Joumblatt was accompanied by Industry Minister Wael Abu Faour and Education Minister Akram Chehayeb.
They discussed the general situation and the latest political developments in the country, a statement released by Hariri’s media office said. It added that talks continued over a dinner hosted by Hariri.
The meeting with Joumblatt came a day after Hariri had met with Berri to consider the possibility of putting to a Cabinet vote a demand by MP Talal Arslan, the head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, for the Judicial Council to investigate the Qabr Shmoun shootout, local media reported.
General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim was also reported to have met shortly after his return from a visit to Qatar with Arslan, reviewing with him Joumblatt’s proposal to combine the Qabr Shmoun and Choueifat incidents and refer them together to the Judicial Council, the country’s highest court that deals with highly sensitive security cases.
Despite the weekend’s political escalation between the two rival Druze parties - the PSP and the LDP - over which court should handle the Qabr Shmoun incident, Future MPs said Hariri insisted on calling for a Cabinet session as soon as possible.
Sessions have been stymied since the shootout, which left two men dead and four others wounded.
The two were bodyguards in the convoy of Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Saleh Gharib, and were killed in clashes with PSP supporters in Qabr Shmoun.
Gharib belongs to the LDP.
The 30-member Cabinet is equally divided over the issue. While the LDP and its allies, the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah, have called for the incident to be referred to the Judicial Council, Berri, Hariri, the PSP and the Lebanese Forces oppose this, arguing that the case could be handled by the regular judiciary.
However, if the LDP’s request to refer the case to the Judicial Council is finally put for a Cabinet vote, the request is bound to be voted down as 15 ministers will vote against it, political sources said.
The case has been officially referred to the Military Tribunal after the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch concluded its investigation, but the Cabinet could still vote to refer it to the Judicial Council.
The Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc rejected attempts to sidestep Hariri’s powers, stressing that the premier was the only one entitled under the Constitution to call for a Cabinet session and prepare its agenda.
In a statement issued after its weekly meeting chaired by Sidon MP Bahia Hariri, the bloc lamented the time wasted over the past three weeks in attempts to find a solution to the aftermath of the Qabr Shmoun incident.
“It is useful to stress ... that if the national interest requires haste in reconvening the Cabinet, constitutional and national rules require a halt be put to sending conditional messages to the premiership, which asserts for the thousandth time that it is the only authority and solely concerned with calling the Cabinet to meet and is responsible for preparing the agenda and informing the president of it,” the statement said.
“Any call from any political group to impose items on the agenda is out of the constitutional and legal context and falls in the framework of obstructing the government’s work,” it added.
The bloc was apparently responding to Arslan, who said Monday that Gharib would attend a Cabinet session under one condition: Referring the Qabr Shmoun incident to the Judicial Council should be the first item on the Cabinet agenda.
Arslan has rejected attempts to link the Qabr Shmoun incident with last year’s clashes between PSP and LDP supporters in the Aley town of Choueifat that resulted in the killing of PSP supporter Ala Abi Faraj.
The suspected killer, identified as Amine Souki, was reported to be a LDP “security official” close to Arslan. Souki remains at large and was reported to have fled to Syria.