FRI 5 - 6 - 2020
Date: Jun 12, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Hariri defends presidency deal, hits back at Bassil, Sunni critics
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Prime Minister Saad Hariri Tuesday staunchly defended the 2016 political settlement that led to the election of Michel Aoun as president and brought Hariri back to the premiership, saying the deal had protected Lebanon’s stability and prevented sectarian strife.

Speaking at a news conference at the Grand Serail hours after his return to Beirut early Tuesday from Eid al-Fitr holiday with his family abroad, Hariri said he was very annoyed by comments attributed to Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in which the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement was quoted as attacking the Sunni political leadership for allegedly grabbing the Christians’ rights to key state posts.

Hariri also struck back at critics within the Sunni community who accused him of keeping silent on attempts to undermine his constitutional powers as prime minister.

“Some say that Saad Hariri is the representative of the Sunnis in the political system and that the [2016] settlement had given concessions to others from the Sunnis’ share [in power]. Frankly and straight forward, I tell all the Lebanese and the Sunnis in particular that this is the biggest lie fabricated against Saad Hariri. The premiership’s powers are in good shape and no one can lay his hands on them. Stop this game,” Hariri warned.

Hariri appeared to be responding to former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, an MP and a key figure of the Future Movement who last month warned that the “continued infringement” on Hariri’s powers would undermine the country’s sectarian-based power sharing formula.

Asked whether he feels he is facing opponents from within the Future Movement he heads, Hariri said: “The Future Movement is a democratic movement. If someone from inside it wanted to open a front against me, he is welcome ... Every person has the right to have ambitions to be a prime minister. I am not against this.”

Yet Hariri accused some politicians, whom he did not name, of seeking to scuttle the settlement reached between him and Aoun that ended a presidential vacuum that lasted more than two and a half years. He warned that the alternative would be destructive.

“There are those who want to torpedo the settlement by any means. The alternative to the settlement is taking the country to the abyss,” Hariri said, adding that the country and its economy would pay the price for any dispute between the president and the prime minister.

“There are those who wish to see stability and the settlement destroyed. We have paid the price in the [2018 parliamentary] elections, but the country is still standing on its feet and we nipped the strife in the bud. Constitutional institutions are functioning and we made sacrifices in order to protect the country and the [Sunni] sect,” said Hariri, whose remarks were broadcast live by local TV stations.

The Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc, which used to have 33 MPs, lost 12 parliamentary seats in last year’s elections. Hariri warned against political bickering in Parliament that might further delay the final ratification by MPs of the draft 2019 state budget after it had been endorsed by the Cabinet last month.

He called for a 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 of GDP. Slashing the fiscal deficit is a key demand of international donors. The budget contains a string of austerity measures, including cutting public spending, tax hikes and a reduction of public-sector benefits and pensions.

“Do you want the CEDRE conference [decisions] to be implemented or not? Do you want the McKinsey plan [to stimulate the economy] to be enforced? Do you want Arab brothers to return to Lebanon?” he asked in his plea for parliamentary blocs to speed up the budget ratification.

Noting that the international community cannot wait long for Lebanon to enact a string of promised structural economic and financial reforms, Hariri said: “The budget must be passed and all political parties represented in the government have committed to this. We must preserve the deficit ratio we have reached. This is the first financial reform in the country.”

Lebanon is under heavy pressure to enact key economic and financial reforms recommended at last year’s CEDRE conference to bolster its ailing economy, reeling under $85 billion in national debt, an endemic budget deficit and slow growth. The reforms are deemed crucial to unlocking over $11 billion in grants and soft loans pledged by international donors at the CEDRE conference.

Hariri said the Sunni sect was committed to the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the 1975-90 Civil War. “The Sunnis will not try to dominate the partnership [with Christians]. The Sunnis’ strength stems [from the fact] that they are the protectors of national partnership. No one should put the Sunnis in the category of frustration and weakness. The Sunnis are the country’s nerve and without this nerve there will be no country,” he said. “When we succeed in convening the CEDRE conference, the Rome and Brussels conferences, and open the door to the largest investment program, we are protecting the Sunnis’ historic role in Lebanon.”

Hariri praised Aoun as a guarantee for the country’s political stability, saying he would meet with the president to set the stage for the resumption of Cabinet sessions. The last Cabinet session that endorsed the draft 2019 state budget was on May 27.

“The lack of confidence is the biggest danger. President Aoun is a guarantee for us and for political stability and coexistence,” he said, describing his relations with Aoun as “distinguished.”

Hariri’s return is bound to launch a flurry of activity and meetings aiming to reduce escalating tensions among rival factions that threatened to deepen political divisions, put the 2016 settlement in peril and jeopardized Cabinet unity at a time the country is facing major political and economic challenges.

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].”

Bassil’s office had already distanced him from the comments, without denying that he made them.

Responding to the FPM and PSP campaigns against the Future Movement, Hariri said: “In the past two weeks, they imposed on us verbal spats on several fronts. ... But frankly, the rage reported within the Sunni community, we cannot cover it and considers it to be nonexistent. This is real rage resulting from behavior, practices and political positions by major partners who gave the chance to some to add fuel to the fire of rage.”

“We cannot continue to remain silent on unacceptable words that affect the dignity, the Constitution and norms ... The country cannot be run by exaggerations and slips of the tongue that make us pay the price from our relations, our economy and our internal stability,” he said.

Responding to PSP leader Walid Joumblatt’s criticism of the Future Movement over the removal of a PSP loyalist from the municipal council of the Chouf town of Shehim in the Iqlim al-Kharroub district, Hariri said, “Walid is Walid.”

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