BEIRUT: Two ministers in the caretaker Cabinet were locked in a war of words Monday over the failure to clear sewage drains across the country before winter, leaving Lebanese stranded for hours in flooded streets last week.
The exchange of accusations between Caretaker Transport and Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi and caretaker Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi came on the eve of the first major snowstorm, which was due to hit Lebanon Tuesday night.
Aridi said Safadi refused to approve funds allocated for the Transport and Public Works Ministry for road maintenance in order to pressure him to endorse violations he claimed Safadi was making.
But Safadi hit back at Aridi, saying the public works minister was attacking him for political reasons in order to thwart his chances of becoming a prime minister. Safadi also denied committing any violations.
Aridi extended his apologies to the Lebanese who spent hours on the roads because of the floods.
“I understand the circumstances of people and I understand and endure the tough and insulting words that targeted the caretaker transport and public works minister on the personal level, because these are my people and there is no justification at all for what happened,” Aridi said.
Lebanon’s roads flooded last week due to heavy rains, most notably at the Lebanese University in Hadath, south Beirut, and the airport road. The phenomenon has become a regular occurrence in Lebanon with the first major rainstorm every year.
Heavy rains brought mud into the tunnel of the vital airport highway, blocking it in both directions, with drivers stuck for hours.
Speaking at a news conference, Aridi said Safadi reneged on his approval of funds allocated for the Transport and Public Works Ministry.
Aridi said that on May 7, Safadi signed off on transferring to the Transport and Public Works Ministry funds to carry out road maintenance works which were approved by the Cabinet in 2012 prior to its resignation. But he said that on Sept. 2, he got another memo from Safadi withdrawing approval for the projects. “My question was why these funds were suddenly disapproved after being initially approved,” Aridi said.
He added that his ministry only received LL3.775 billion ($2.5 million) from the Finance Ministry, while Cabinet had approved LL122 billion for road maintenance prior to its resignation.
Aridi said the reason for Safadi’s stance was Aridi’s refusal to endorse illegal construction carried out by the caretaker finance minister in Barbara, north Lebanon, when the latter was a public works and transport minister.
“He was a transport and public works minister entrusted with seafront properties, but he built a port without a license or a permit,” Aridi said.
Aridi added that he had rejected a request by the finance minister on May 24 to place cement blocks to support a port, displaying a map of the project to reporters.
Aridi said he also refused to endorse illegal construction he alleged Safadi was carrying out in Beirut’s Zaitunay Bay, as the move was not approved by Urban Planning, showing reporters photos of the construction site.
“Safadi said he would not sign any formality unless I sign off on his violations,” Aridi said.
Aridi said that a private company rather than his ministry was responsible for cleaning works in the tunnel on the airport road.
Shortly after Aridi’s comments, Safadi responded to the transport minister in remarks to several local television stations.
He rebuffed Aridi’s claims and said the campaign against him was “political par excellence.”
“The campaign launched by Aridi against me is political since I am a Sunni and a candidate for the premiership and some [parties] do not want a prime minister with a strong personality at this stage,” Safadi said.
Safadi said that Aridi should not be blaming the Finance Ministry for the Transport and Public Works Ministry’s failure to fulfill its missions.
He also denied building illegal properties in Barbara or Zaitunay Bay, saying “these are all lies, lies, lies.”
“Let a committee be formed and inspect the allegations of the minister,” Safadi said.
He added that a licensed breakwater rather than a port was constructed in Barbara.
Safadi said that authorities had approved the construction in Zaitunay Bay, but that the process required a decree from the Cabinet.
The minister added that not all funds for the Transport and Public Works Ministry had been approved because the current Cabinet was in a caretaker status.
“We were allocating funds to the Transport Ministry, unlike Aridi’s claims, and we were working within the rules of the caretaker Cabinet, but Aridi did not like that,” Safadi said.