FRI 29 - 5 - 2020
Date: Jun 10, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Hariri’s return expected to ease escalating tensions
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s return to Beirut is expected to revive contacts to defuse escalating tensions among rival factions that threatened to deepen political divisions and imperiled Cabinet unity at a time the country is facing major challenges at various levels, political sources said Sunday.

This comes as Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee is set to resume its meetings Monday on the draft 2019 state budget amid mounting criticisms by various blocs of the austerity measures included in the document.

Hariri was due to return to Beirut overnight Sunday after spending the Eid al-Fitr holiday with his family abroad. “Hariri’s return will spark a flurry of activity and meetings aiming to reduce political tensions and set the stage for reactivating the Cabinet’s work following a two-week break caused by the Eid al-Fitr holiday,” a political source familiar with the latest crisis between the Free Patriotic Movement and the Future Movement told The Daily Star.

The source said that after his return to Beirut, Hariri was expected to meet with President Michel Aoun to clear the way for a smooth Cabinet session, likely to be held at Baabda Palace Thursday.

Despite the political tensions, triggered by a fresh war of words pitting the FPM against the Future Movement, and the Progressive Socialist Party against the Future Movement, the source said the 2016 political settlement that led to the election of Aoun as president and brought Hariri back to the premiership was intact.

“The political settlement was not shaken by the renewed tensions. The settlement was intact because it was not only made by local players, but had the support of foreign powers,” the source said.

Former Future MP Ammar Houri, a political adviser to Hariri, concurred that efforts would be intensified after Hariri’s return to ease tensions among various parties.

“Prime Minister Hariri was not the one who started the rhetoric against anyone,” Houri told The Daily Star, declining to confirm reports about an expected meeting between Hariri and FPM leader and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil this week to clear the air between the two powerful parties.

Senior Future Movement officials and Future TV have slammed Bassil, accusing him of jeopardizing the 2016 political settlement.

Although the two parties had in the past been embroiled in a spat over the constitutional powers of the president and the prime minister during the Cabinet formation efforts that lasted nearly nine months, the latest FPM-Future crisis broke after Bassil, during a dialogue with Sunni figures in the Western Bekaa region last month, was quoted as saying: “The Sunni political establishment came [to power] on the corpse of the Maronite political establishment, taking all the Christians’ rights [to public posts]. It is normal for me to try to regain them.” Bassil’s office had already distanced him from the comments, without denying that he made them.While the FPM-Future tensions raged on, a new political front erupted last Friday between the PSP and the Future Movement, sparked over the post of the head of the municipal council of the town of Shehim in the Iqlim al-Kharroub district.

PSP leader Walid Joumblatt lashed out in a tweet at Mount Lebanon Gov. Judge Mohammad Makkawi, a Hariri loyalist, implicitly accusing the Future Movement of being “confused” in its public options.

Joumblatt’s comments, which were later deleted, drew quick and harsh responses from Future officials.

Joumblatt entered in a new fracas with Bassil over the weekend, accusing the foreign minister of “racism” in dealing with Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

“We heard the Deir al-Ahmar news about the deportation of Syrians. We hear again news of Arsal and the demolition of tents and houses there. A prominent minister had come up with racist theories toward the Palestinians and Syrians. Who is the ruler in this country and what is the prime minister’s stance? Or all that is happening is part of the ill-fated [political] settlement? Shall we deport those [Syrian refugees] to be liquidated in Syria?” Joumblatt tweeted Saturday.

He was clearly referring to Bassil who, along with Aoun and their allies, have called for the Syrian refugees’ return to Syria without having to wait for a political settlement to the 8-year-old war.

Several hundred Syrian refugees have been displaced from an informal settlement in the Baalbeck town of Deir al-Ahmar since the imposition last week of severe restrictions on their movements, amid calls for their forcible removal. Local media gave estimates of around 700 refugees displaced, while the UNHCR provided The Daily Star with an estimate of 385. Bassil hit back at Joumblatt, accusing the PSP leader of frail loyalty to Lebanon.

“Some accused me of being racist. I understand those people because their belonging to Lebanon is not strong enough to feel what we feel and because they consider there is a second belonging that could be more important for them,” Bassil said at a dinner Saturday night at the end of the three-day Lebanese Diaspora Energy conference. “It is normal to defend the Lebanese labor force in the face of any other labor force, be it Syrian, Palestinian, French, Saudi, Iranian or American. The Lebanese comes first.”

Deputy Prime Minister Ghassan Hasbani, one of four ministers representing the Lebanese Forces, told Al-Jadeed TV that a new wave of anticipated appointments in the public administration was behind the latest escalation between the FPM and the Future Movement.

MP Alain Aoun from the Free Patriotic Movement said a “package of appointments” could be reached through an understanding between the FPM and the Future Movement.

“We need a good relationship with the prime minister and other parties represented in the government in order to be able to more productive in it,” Aoun told MTV Saturday night.

The political tensions involving major parties represented in the government come when Cabinet unity is badly needed to meet imminent major political and economic challenges, the most important of which is Parliament’s ratification of the draft budget after it had been endorsed by the Cabinet, and the implementation of key structural fiscal reforms recommended at last year’s CEDRE conference to bolster the country’s flagging economy.

After 20 sessions, the Cabinet on May 27 endorsed the draft budget that seeks to reduce Lebanon’s deficit, which last year reached 11.5 percent of gross domestic product, to 7.59 percent of GDP. The budget contains a string of austerity measures, including cutting public spending, tax hikes and a reduction of public-sector benefits and pensions.

Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee has set aside nine sessions this week to discuss the 2019 budget. The first session is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday and has two items on its agenda: a Q&A on the budget and its attachments with Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, and a study of the budget articles.

The committee will then convene for two sessions every day Tuesday through Friday, the first beginning at 10 a.m. and the second at 5 p.m., except Friday, when the afternoon session is expected to begin at 4 p.m. The meetings will take place as Parliament aims to complete discussions of the draft 2019 state budget and ratify it by mid-July.

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