THU 12 - 12 - 2019
Date: Jun 15, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Lebanon: De-escalation set to help Cabinet pass key appointments
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: De-escalation attempts picked up momentum Thursday as Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil sought to defuse tensions with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, saying he was ready to meet with the premier to iron out the latest spat between the Free Patriotic Movement and the Future Movement.

Bassil’s remarks came a day after Hariri’s meeting with President Michel Aoun reduced political tensions among rival factions, mainly between the FPM, founded by Aoun and headed by Bassil, and Hariri’s Future Movement, and set the stage for the resumption of Cabinet sessions after a two-week break caused by the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

“Undoubtedly, the de-escalation efforts will help Cabinet to fill vacancies in key administrative and judicial posts smoothly,” a source at Baabda Palace told The Daily Star Thursday. The source said Aoun and Hariri had agreed during their meeting at Baabda Palace Wednesday to hold two Cabinet sessions next week that would begin addressing a new batch of key appointments in the public administration, a sensitive issue that had caused divisions among ministers in the past.

“There are over 50 Grade 1 posts vacant in the public administration that need to be filled, including heads of boards in the water, electricity and hospital sectors, and the National Electricity Regulatory Authority,” the source said.

Bassil, whose reported comments against Sunni political leaders had ignited a new war of words with the Future Movement in the past two weeks and caused rage within the Sunni sect, denied reports of strained ties with Hariri.

“Relations with Prime Minister Saad Hariri do not need to be repaired because they were not originally affected,” Bassil told reporters upon his arrival in Dublin on an official visit to Ireland after paying a similar visit to Britain.

Bassil said he would meet with Hariri in Beirut when the need arose to resolve the latest crisis between the two parties.

After his arrival in Dublin, Bassil met with Irish President Michael Higgins, discussing bilateral relations between the two countries and Ireland’s contribution with troops to the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, UNIFIL, the state-run National News Agency reported.

During a meeting with Lebanese expatriates in London, Bassil touched on the latest spat between the FPM and the Future Movement. “They always create problems for us and they cannot accept any understanding in Lebanon’s interest. This is what they did for our relations with Prime Minister Saad Hariri with whom we have presented this beautiful picture of Lebanon. We stress that our real unity is to be together for the sake of Lebanon,” Bassil said in his remarks carried by the NNA Thursday.

He did not name those who allegedly stood behind the FPM-Future tensions, but he was referring to the 2016 political settlement that led to the election of Aoun as president and returned Hariri to the premiership. The settlement reached between him and Aoun ended a presidential vacuum that lasted more than two and a half years. Hariri Tuesday strongly defended the settlement, warning that the alternative would be destructive for the country.

Commenting on Hariri’s remarks at Tuesday’s news conference that the Sunnis are the country’s nerve, Bassil said: “Our genuine unity is in standing with each other. The Future Movement said yesterday [Tuesday] that it is the nerve of patriotism. We only want this: to bring the Lebanese together in partnership in order to live the Lebanese Christian-Muslim partnership.”

The tensions were triggered by a fresh war of words pitting the FPM against the Future Movement, and the Progressive Socialist Party against the Future Movement. The latest episode began last month when Bassil accused Sunni politicians of assuming key state posts “on the corpse of the Maronite political establishment, taking all the Christians’ rights [to public posts].” Although Bassil’s office had already distanced him from the comments, without denying that he made them, senior Future officials struck back at the FPM leader, accusing him of jeopardizing the 2016 settlement and the country’s power-sharing formula.

Meanwhile, Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee Thursday evening ended its eighth meeting this week devoted to studying the draft 2019 state budget after endorsing a series of provisions related to combatting tax evasion. The committee decided to resume its sessions next Monday, instead of Friday as was originally planned.

A statement from committee chair MP Ibrahim Kanaan’s office said the committee endorsed articles forcing petroleum companies to report on taxes and other articles related to municipalities.

The committee amended Article 60 of the draft budget, which had levied a tax on nargileh; the tax is now levied on designated smoking areas.

During the morning session, the committee approved Article 45, which increases the fees on work permits for foreigners, Kanaan said after the meeting, according to the NNA. He said Palestinians and Syrians were not exempted as had been proposed.

The committee voted down Article 43, which proposed that hotels and short-term rentals pay a fee for each room they rent out a night, though MPs will allow the ministers of tourism and public works to provide their points of view on the issue. “Any article of the budget that is related to securing revenues [for the state] that is [voted down] will be compensated with an alternative based on the MPs’ suggestions” when the draft is passed on to the general assembly, Kanaan said.

MPs approved Article 44, which increases a range of fees related to motor vehicles, such as fees for driving tests; Article 46, which fines the family members of foreigners who violate the labor law; and Article 47, which increases fees for passengers at Beirut airport.

Articles 48 and 49, both of which would amend income taxes, were put on hold to be studied later alongside other related articles in order to forge a “homogeneous vision,” Kanaan said.

According to local TV channel LBCI, lawmakers approved Article 41, which gives companies that are behind on their taxes four months to settle them and the option to pay them in installments.

“We are against reducing revenues that will negatively affect the deficit ratio,” Kanaan said. He added that MPs in the morning session began discussing a proposal for a cut in the remunerations of presidents, ministers and lawmakers as part of austerity measures to slash the deficit.

Thursday morning’s session picked up from the previous evening, which saw the approval of articles 23 through 30 of the budget. The articles approved Wednesday included a tax increase on interest earned on bank deposits from 7 to 10 percent for a period of three years.

Hariri Tuesday called for Parliament’s quick approval of the draft budget, which seeks to reduce Lebanon’s deficit to 7.59 percent of gross domestic product from an estimated 11.5 percent last year. Slashing the fiscal deficit is a key demand of international donors. The budget contains a string of austerity measures, including cuts to public spending and tax hikes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 14, 2019, on page 1.

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