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Lebanon cabinet approves financial rescue package, but activists say protests will continue

Lebanon faces its worst economic crisis since its 15-year civil war [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 February, 2020

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Lebanon’s new cabinet has approved a political and economic plan to steer the country out of crisis, but protesters have called the statement ‘lip service’ to their demands.
Lebanon's new cabinet on Thursday endorsed a policy statement expected to outline a broad action plan to lift the protest-hit country out of one of the worst economic crises it has suffered in decades.

Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad said the document was backed unanimously during a cabinet meeting at the presidential palace before it is due to be presented to parliament next week.

Figures among the protest movement, which have campaigned tirelessly since October for complete political and economic overhaul, pointed out that the plan was largely similar to that presented by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in October.

Hariri’s successor Hassan Diab and his new government face the twin challenge of continued street protests and a collapsing economy, with Lebanon burdened with a debt of nearly $90 billion, or more than 150 percent of GDP.

Comment: Anger against Lebanon's banks is justified, legitimate and progressive

Diab, a 61-year-old computer engineering professor, formed a cabinet on 21 January after the previous government stepped down in October during unprecedented demonstrations. Protesters have criticised the new cabinet for being closely linked to the old guard.

The premier on Thursday described the policy statement as "a working programme laying out our aspirations", Abdel Samad said.

"It is the product of facts and studies" and was not influenced by individual interests, she reported him as saying.

Kareem Chehayeb, a Beirut-based journalist told The New Arab that the government's plans are "a continuation, or regurgitation, of things that have been called [for] by previous cabinets", namely privatisation and austerity.

The plan is set to be rolled out in three phases: 100 days, one year and three years.

"This cabinet adopted the budget of the previous cabinet of Saad Hariri, and didn’t have a chance to modify or change or anything. [Integrated into] that budget was the Hariri economic reform blueprint which he presented to protesters and cabinet passed it," he said.

Chehayeb emphasised that protesters have lost trust in the government after Diab promised a cabinet of independent technocrats, but many of the members turned out to have close links with the cabinet ministers they replaced.

"People have no trust. They don't think that there's anything that’s being done in their interests," he said. "Even if on paper something might look good, they don’t think it will be implemented at all."

Legitimacy to Hezbollah

The policy statement maintained the "tripartite alliance between the army, the people and the Resistance", she said, the third term referring to the Shia Hezbollah movement.

The phrasing confers legitimacy to Hezbollah as an armed force, and has sparked controversy in the past after being included in previous cabinet statements.

Hezbollah is the only militia force not to have disarmed after Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, credited with expelling Israeli forces from southern Lebanon.

It is listed as a "terrorist" group by the US and the EU, but it is also a prominent player in politics with seats in parliament.

Local media said the statement would be presented to parliament for a confidence vote on Tuesday.

Aid dependent on 'reforms, reforms, reforms'

The new statement comes as Lebanon grapples with a financial crisis, a liquidity crunch, and a fall in value of the Lebanese pound by a fourth on the parallel market.

International donors have repeatedly urged Lebanon to implement reforms before they release billions of dollars in frozen aid.

UN envoy to Lebanon Jan Kubis on Wednesday reiterated that the government must take its own steps to mitigate the economic crisis before any outside help.

"The conditions are reforms, reforms, reforms," he said.

I hope "the new government will come with a clear action plan... with deadlines," he said.

"And then, we will try to help, but it must start with the work of the government," Kubis said.

Comment: Nobody knows Lebanon's problems better than its women. It's time you started listening

On Friday, Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni is to meet a delegation from the World Bank, according to a statement from his office.

Lebanon has been rocked by protests since 17 October demanding a complete overhaul of a political class which activists charge is inept, corrupt and motivated by personal gain.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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