Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will begin lobbying parliamentary blocs next week to sustain momentum in the government’s economic reform drive, which he said deserved the description “too good to be true.”
In an interview with The Daily Star Friday, Hariri repeatedly emphasized the government’s “sacred” mission to implement what it promised when it took office late last year.
On Thursday, the Cabinet endorsed new reforms, after an earlier decision to eliminate the staff in the state-run media and restructure it.
Ministers were given two months to prepare a list of surplus employees, while the government will study the possible reduction of pay and compensation in the bureaucracy and public administration, including the military.
“For the first time ever, the military institution has received the message (regarding reducing expenditures),” Hariri said.
The prime minister exuded confidence about his government’s track record after approximately four months in office perhaps justified, since he indicated that neither the military nor Syria would place obstacles in the way of reform.
“The Syrians aren’t going to get involved in this, and President Bashar Assad has said this himself. They are supporting the Lebanese government in everything it does, without getting involved in the details.
“And watch out for the decisions that are taken jointly between the two countries regarding bilateral matters even if some Syrian interests are hurt in the short-term,” Hariri said.
The prime minister maintained that the will to reform was a purely domestic one.
“We’re the ones who invited (World Bank President James) Wolfensohn, and (European Union President Romano) Prodi here. We have a plan and a vision for this country and we’re implementing it. This requires domestic backing and the international community’s support,” Hariri said, playing down reports of foreign pressure to instigate reform.
The next step in the process should begin next week, when Hariri begins a series of consultations with parliamentary blocs to ensure that the economic and administrative reform steps agreed on last with Speaker Nabih Berri would be implemented as smoothly as possible.
However, dramatic changes will not come from reducing the salaries of top politicians, which Hariri called “low.” Any such initiative, the premier said, should be considered a sign by the government of its seriousness about cutting expenditures.
“We’re signaling that we’re headed toward reducing expenditure … In fact, the salaries of the president, prime minister and ministers are quite low.
“The money that is actually saved won’t be that much, but we’re sending a message to other institutions.”
Hariri maintained that the government could not be accused of dragging its feet.
“Up to now, I hear people asking ‘can you continue (with reform)?’ But no one is saying that what we’re doing is wrong. It’s as if they’re saying ‘it’s too good to be true’… And whoever stands against this program is standing against the country.”
Asked about his position in the event of a future disagreement with President Emile Lahoud about the reforms, Hariri responded by reiterating that he was a different politician in 2001 than during his earlier, often rocky six-year term of office.
“There is a contract between me and the people who voted for me … this contract is present in the government’s policy statement and I owe it to the people to deliver on this. If I face obstacles I will tell them.
“Personal issues don’t come into it, such as ‘I’m making this person angry or this person is upsetting me’ I respect everybody, but there’s something more important here: the sacred contract that I have with the people, and which the government has with the people,” he said.
Hariri spoke confidently about lobbying key political players about the need to support sometimes painful reform steps.
“I have trust in what I’m doing, because it’s the result of consulting with all political forces, both inside and outside the country and when I say outside, I don’t mean the political forces abroad as much as the international financial community.”
As for the climate of cooperation among the country’s top three leaders, Hariri was adamant that it did not mean a return of the troika.
“There is no troika in this country and no one wants a troika. I have no ‘complex’ about this. If someone criticizes the so-called existence of a troika, this isn’t going to prevent me from going down to Parliament and seeing Nabih Berri,” said Hariri, arguing that coordination between the legislative and executive branches of government was common in most countries of the world.
The optimistic picture painted by Hariri included a firm statement that no one should expect his government to oversee dramatic changes in Lebanese-Syrian bilateral relations in the foreseeable future, for several reasons.
And when asked if the government was stalling on promises to promote political dialogue and national reconciliation in order to concentrate on the economy, the premier was blunt.
“Look, there are many people in this country who say ‘I don’t want the Syrians here.’ In the policy statement, I said that Syria’s presence here is necessary, legitimate and temporary. And we received confidence on this basis. If I’d said something else, they could say ‘you haven’t done anything to implement what you said’.”
Not surprisingly, regional factors remain important to the equation. Hariri indicated that the situation in Israel provided another reason to maintain close coordination with Syria.
“Having a government in Israel headed by Sharon is enough for you to see how necessary this presence is … The Syrian presence here is playing a positive, not a negative role.
“We are now in a critical situation, with the new government in Israel, and discussing Syria’s presence here is out of place,” the prime minister maintained.
He said stability would continue to be a pressing issue, more than a decade after the civil war ended and almost a year since the Israeli withdrawal from
“Everyone wants stability, especially after the turmoil that Lebanon experienced for years. This doesn’t mean that if Syria leaves Lebanon, everything will fall to pieces. I’m not one of those who says that but Syria’s presence is in the interest of stability here.”
Hariri repeatedly played down expectations that the international community’s expectations or the regional situation should affect the country’s will to reform and weather socio-economic and other difficulties.
“Whether in the Middle East or the rest of the world, there’s no such thing as a quick political solution,” he cautioned.
But Hariri said that he rejected the view that no substantial economic recovery could begin without a regional peace deal or political reconciliation.
And as for people’s aspirations for an improvement in the country’s overall situation, the prime minister was emphatic: “It’s legitimate to be anxious, but not afraid.”