BEIRUT: French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s visit to Beirut has indicated that there is no international decision to support Lebanon financially, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said Tuesday, casting gloom on prospects for any international aid to help the cash-strapped country out of its worst economic and financial crisis in decades.
Diab spoke during a Cabinet session that approved a recommendation by the Higher Defense Council to extend the state of general mobilization until Aug. 30 as Lebanon witnesses an alarming surge in coronavirus cases.
The Higher Defense Council had recommended the extension ahead of the Cabinet session, marking the eighth extension giving authorities the legal powers necessary to implement strict measures designed to contain the virus.
Awash with coronavirus infections, Lebanon Thursday will begin another phase of tightened containment measures, with banks, parks, pubs, nightclubs, markets and indoor pools forced to close.
The partial lockdown falls over the Muslim Eid Al-Adha holiday, which begins Friday, and all worshippers will be prevented from taking part in religious gatherings. Restaurants and coffee shops will be restricted to operating at 50 percent capacity maximum.
The partial lockdown will run from July 30 to Aug. 3. There will be a two-day break in the lockdown before it comes into play again between Aug. 6-10.
“We are in a new phase in our war against the coronavirus pandemic, and we must take rigorous measures to protect our people and society. It is necessary to strengthen the enforcement of decisions in all regions, and leniency is forbidden,” Diab tweeted while the Defense Council was meeting under President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace. .
The 141 new cases and three new deaths announced Tuesday raise the total number of cases to 4,020, with 54 having lost their lives since the first case was detected in February.
Speaking during the Cabinet session chaired by Aoun at Baabda Palace, Diab was quoted as saying by Information Minister Manal Abdel-Samad: “French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s visit did not bring anything new. That’s why he adopted the method of warnings against a delay in reforms and linked any aid to Lebanon to [reforms]. He also stressed that the International Monetary Fund is the only path to any aid to Lebanon.”
Declaring that Le Drian lacked information about the size of reforms carried out by the government, Diab said the French minister’s remarks indicated two things: “First, that the international decision not to help Lebanon still stands, and second, the need to fortify our internal position in this stage marked by external imbalance, whose results could be difficult for Lebanon.”
Referring to Lebanon’s stalled talks with the IMF on a rescue program, Diab underlined the “importance of unifying the Lebanese position in the negotiations with the IMF and moving quickly to the second stage of negotiations.”
Lebanon began talks with the IMF on a $10 billion bailout package in May, but the negotiations have been bogged down by disagreements between different interest groups representing Lebanese banks and the government over the size of losses in the Central Bank. The government and the IMF in their negotiations have put these losses in the region of LL241 trillion, while Parliament’s Budget and Finance Committee places them closer to LL115 trillion.
After talks with Lebanon’s top leaders last week, Le Drian said Lebanon must respect its policy of dissociation from regional conflicts and press ahead with reform, telling officials to "help us to help you." Le Drian also stressed that there was no way out of Lebanon’s crippling financial crisis other than through a program with the IMF.
France hosted in 2018 the CEDRE conference, where international donors pledged over $11 billion in grants and soft loans to shore up Lebanon’s ailing economy and finance key infrastructure projects in Lebanon. However, the release of the promised aid was contingent on the implementation of a string of key and structural economic and fiscal reforms in Lebanon.
Among major decisions, the Cabinet tasked Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni with drafting and signing the contract with New York-based Alvarez and Marsal, KPMG and Oliver Wayman to conduct forensic and traditional accounting audits of the Central Bank’s books, Abdel-Samad told reporters after the session.
The forensic audit should reveal the scale of losses at Banque du Liban and expose evidence of any corruption in its transactions – a prospect that no doubt has many of the country’s ruling elite shifting uncomfortably in their seats.
The Cabinet also condemned Monday’s Israeli attack in the south and tasked Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti to file a complaint with the United Nations Security Council.
The Israeli military said it thwarted an infiltration attempt Monday by Hezbollah fighters into the occupied Shebaa Farms. Hezbollah denied exchanging fire with Israeli soldiers on the border or trying to infiltrate into an occupied strategic plateau, but vowed to avenge the killing of a fighter in Damascus last week.
Diab accused Israel of raising tensions along Lebanon's southern border in an attempt to modify the mandate of the UNIFIL force in Lebanon.
“This new [Israeli] aggression happened in tandem with an Israeli attempt to modify the mandate of the UNIFIL forces in the south and an attempt to pressure Lebanon through hinting at reducing the number of the UNIFIL forces if their mandate was not amended,” Diab said during the Cabinet session. ”Therefore, the new Israeli attack on Lebanon is an attempt to pressure in this direction.”
“We demand that the UN condemn the Israeli aggression and impose the implementation of Resolution 1701 on the Israeli enemy,” Diab said. “Lebanon is committed to it, but the enemy's continued violation of this decision will lead to its downfall. Lebanon rejects the amendment of UNIFIL’s tasks, and any reduction in the number of UNIFIL [troops] will weaken Resolution 1701.”
Aoun, speaking during the Higher Defense Council’s meeting, condemned the Israeli attack in the south, saying it threatened stability in the area.
Lebanon is pushing to have the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon renewed without amendments before it expires next month.
The US and Israel, as is customary each time UNIFIL's mandate nears expiry, have been lobbying to have it expanded to empower the force to search private properties in south Lebanon that they say may be used to hide Hezbollah's weapons.
Meanwhile, the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc criticized Diab’s remarks on Le Drian’s visit.
“The bloc expressed surprise at the reaction of the Lebanese government and its head toward the visit, which indicates a political flimsiness in approaching the economic problem, and places Lebanon in a reckless confrontation with the international community, especially with the friends, starting with France, its president and its government,” the bloc said in a statement Tuesday.
The bloc renewed its call on Aoun’s mandate and the government to implement “reforms immediately without hesitation, as long as they are a key to the assistance that Lebanon will not benefit from, in light of the policies of this mandate and its government to outsmart the Arab and international communities”.
Referring to Israeli threats against Lebanon and the Israeli artillery shelling that targeted border villages and struck the house of a citizen in the town of Al-Habaria, the bloc stressed the necessity to respect UN Resolution 1701 and coordinate with UNIFIL in this regard, and for “the state and its military, political and diplomatic institutions to fulfill their responsibilities, in light of the incomprehensible absence of the government and the relevant ministries, that decided to distance themselves from challenges at this level of seriousness and importance, and hand over the reins completely to the partisan factions.”
Taking an indirect jab at Hezbollah, the bloc said: “The defense of Lebanon is not the military and political prerogative of one group of Lebanese, and the government's suspicious absence from the southern scene adds to the record of its achievements, before it wakes up to the existence of a security event 24 hours after its occurrence and condemns it at the Cabinet meeting.”