THU 9 - 4 - 2020
Date: Feb 7, 2020
Source: The Daily Star
Lebanon: Cabinet approves plan, Diab pleads for EU help
Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Lebanon’s new government Thursday approved a policy statement that calls for “painful steps” as part of a rescue plan to save the protest-hit country from one of the worst economic crises in decades.

Shortly after attending the Cabinet session, Prime Minister Hassan Diab appealed to the European Union states to provide immediate assistance to help Lebanon overcome the current economic and financial crisis, the worst since the end of the 1975-90 Civil War.

“Lebanon today needs urgent aid at various levels, in electricity, medicine, foodstuffs and raw materials. It is inviting European states to open a line of credit that is essential to secure Lebanon’s needs,” Diab said during a meeting with the ambassadors of the EU countries at the Grand Serail.

“Lebanon is also waiting for the results of the CEDRE conference to be quickly translated into action, especially since the government has drawn up the essential reforms that conform with the CEDRE conference program,” he added.

Diab said that as spelled out in the policy statement, a joint committee would be formed among ministries to follow up on steps to implement the CEDRE program.

“Lebanon is looking forward to the friendly European states to stand on its side in this crisis. It knows how keen the European states are on its stability because any setback to this stability will have negative repercussions on Europe, too,” Diab said in his remarks.

The draft policy statement, which outlined broad action plans, including reducing interest rates, recapitalizing banks, restructuring the bloated public sector and seeking support from international donors, was endorsed unanimously during a Cabinet session chaired by President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace, Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad told reporters after the meeting that lasted two and a half hours.

Abdel Samad said the document was approved with some minor amendments. It was not immediately clear what amendments were made to the 17-page policy statement, which is expected to be presented to Parliament next week for the government to seek a vote of confidence.

Speaker Nabih Berri Thursday called for parliamentary sessions to be held Feb. 11 and Feb. 12 to discuss the policy statement and hold a vote of confidence on the government.

Lebanon is coming under mounting international pressure to enact a string of key economic reforms promised at the CEDRE conference as a condition for extending financial aid. The reforms are deemed essential to release over $11 billion in grants and soft loans pledged by donor countries at the CEDRE conference held Paris in April 2018 to finance the implementation of vital infrastructure projects in Lebanon.

Declaring that the presence of over 1 million Syrian refugees has added “heavy burdens” on Lebanon that exceeded its capacity, Diab said that fighting corruption was one of the government’s priorities. “Our government has come as a result of a popular revolution that started on Oct. 17, 2019, due to difficult economic, financial and social conditions. This government has adopted the demands of the popular uprising,” Diab said.

Addressing the EU envoys, Diab said: “I hope you will convey to your governments our wish for further cooperation and our need for strong support to save Lebanon from the crisis through which it is passing.”

The EU representative to Lebanon Ralph Tarraf congratulated Diab on the formation of the government. “The preliminary meetings we have had with the new ministers are encouraging. They are committed to serious work,” Tarraf said.

Speaking during the Cabinet session, Aoun said: “After the government wins a vote of confidence, it is imperative to start work immediately to make up for lost time during the past weeks.”

Aoun, according to Abdel Samad, requested that the provision on the Syrian refugees’ return to their country be added to the policy statement.

“Some countries are still opposing the return of the displaced [Syrians]. We ask about the reasons for this opposition, even though we had raised this issue in all international and regional meetings to encourage them to return. We are still waiting for an international response,” Aoun said.

Diab labeled his Cabinet “a government to confront challenges.”

“The session is devoted to approving the draft policy statement which we consider to be a program of action that outlines our aspirations and the method of our thinking. This [policy] statement is not a copycat and is the result of 11 meetings in a short period and it will be an example for the governments to come,” Diab said.

Diab asked each minister to put a list of projects related to his ministry so that they could be discussed in meetings with international officials or during working visits abroad.

Asked what amendments were added to the policy statement, Abdel Samad said: “They were technical amendments that were added as a result of observations made by concerned specialist ministers.”

She added that the government would implement an electricity plan that was endorsed by the Hariri Cabinet in 2019 with “some amendments if the need arises.”

In reply to a question, Abdel Samad said there was no dispute within the Cabinet over the controversial tripartite equation: “The Army, the people and the resistance.” The phrasing confers legitimacy on Hezbollah as an armed force and has sparked controversy in the past after being included in previous Cabinet statements.

This equation, long upheld by Hezbollah as the best means to defend Lebanon against any possible Israeli attack, has been rejected by the Future Movement and its allies, who stress that the Lebanese Army is solely responsible for protecting Lebanon against any Israeli attack.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s parliamentary Loyalty to the Resistance bloc criticized the government formation process, saying it lacked the rescue programs to address the economic crisis.

“The way the government was formed explains the absence of rescue programs to address the financial and economic crises, in addition to other social crises,” said a statement issued after the bloc’s meeting. “Lebanon, under the difficult economic circumstances, is facing financial challenges in the coming months. Confronting these inherited problems requires some kind of national consensus.”

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea sounded skeptical about the Cabinet’s policy statement, reiterating that the LF’s bloc would not grant the government a vote of confidence.

“What we read in the first draft of the policy statement does not augur well. However, we will be waiting for the final version [of the policy statement] to judge it,” Geagea said during a meeting with heads of the LF’s election offices in Beirut, the Chouf mountains and the south held at the party’s headquarters in Maarab, north of Beirut.

“This matter does not mean that there is a possibility to grant this government a vote of confidence. In this respect, we have decided our choice not to grant it [a vote of confidence],” he added.

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