Even before a vote of confidence could be held in the new Lebanese government, the country shouldered further security woes with the attack early this week on Lebanese army units in Hermel, a Hizbullah stronghold, leading to the deaths of three soldiers.
The attackers were not protesters or members of the hirak protest movement, and they seem to have been part of a move by local elements against the authority of the state and relying on the power of Hizbullah that leads the new government.
The perpetrator of the attack was an individual wanted on other charges, but many observers believe that Hermel families are used to breaking the law because of the protection Hizbullah provides them. Hizbullah has said that it does not wish to challenge the authority of the Lebanese state in Hermel.
A meeting between the Lebanese Supreme Defence Council and President Michel Aoun this week concluded with a decision to impose tighter security and judicial procedures against hirak members to prevent them from blocking roads leading to parliament and engaging in riots.
However, incidents such as that in Hermel have been repeated, leading to the deaths of army soldiers.
Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley is known for the arms and drugs trade. The majority of its inhabitants are Shias, with a minority of Sunni Muslims and a lesser population of Christians
Some Christian leaders in the area criticised the weakness of the government after the Hermel attack, amid fears the government would grow even weaker owing to Hizbullah’s hegemony.
The main victims of the government’s weakness in the area are Sunnis and Christians, and the latter have taken a firm stance amid the deteriorating conditions in Lebanon.
“Don’t the tens of thousands of Lebanese who elected you deserve that you fix the flaws in the country’s political, economic and financial performance and that you work night and day with true revolutionaries on securing a decent living for every citizen,” head of the Maronite Catholic Archeparchy of Beirut Paul Abdel-Sater asked in a sermon marking St Maron’s Day attended by Aoun, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab.
Lebanon’s new government has approved a policy statement that is set to include a clause demanding that all displaced persons leave the country. The repatriation clause, requested by Aoun, says “that the majority of displaced [persons] entered [the country] to escape dreadful security conditions, and they must return since those conditions no longer exist,” Lebanese Information Minister Manal Abdel-Samad said.
Lebanon’s government recently approved a rescue plan to pull the country out from its worst financial crisis in decades, including interest rate cuts, the recapitalisation of the banks and other “painful steps,” according to a copy of the plan seen by Reuters.
Following amendments to the 17-page plan, which also includes appeals for help from foreign donors, it will be presented to parliament next week for a vote of confidence, the speaker’s office said.
A government statement said that “interest rates on loans and deposits should be lowered to revitalise the economy and decrease the costs of public debt… The government will appeal to international donors to provide soft loans to refinance the treasury. It will also work towards restoring stability to the banking sector through restructuring and recapitalisation, using its reserves and selling investments abroad.”
Newly appointed Lebanese Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti said the government wanted to embark on comprehensive reforms in Lebanon’s economy, particularly boosting productive sectors such as agriculture and small industry, in order to create a better balance between Lebanon’s different economic sectors and deal successfully with the challenges of unemployment and threatened economic collapse.
“Lebanon is facing a serious economic crisis. If it is not treated comprehensively and quickly, the crisis may lead to dangerous social and political repercussions. This is why our priority is economic reform,” Hitti said.
“The economic-reform programme will come in three phases. The first is a 100-day phase to bring in pressing and necessary measures that touch upon matters of the utmost importance to the public and halt the plummeting of the economy. The second phase will take a year, and the third three years, during which we will embark on comprehensive reforms,” he added.
Saroj Kumar Jha, director of the Mashreq Department at the World Bank, said Lebanon was facing an unprecedented financial, economic and cost-of-living crisis and that it was essential for the government to implement reforms.
Jha’s statement was made during a meeting with Lebanese Finance Minister Ghazi Wazne, in which he affirmed the World Bank’s commitment to support Lebanon in creating job opportunities and widening the scope of investments in different sectors through projects financed in cooperation with the bank, particularly in the health, education and electricity sectors.
According to World Bank estimates, the number of Lebanese people living under the poverty line has increased drastically. “We are all waiting for the government’s reform programme, and accordingly the World Bank will determine how it can best support the Lebanese people. It is necessary for the new government to embark... on an ambitious reform programme and serious steps with specific deadlines,” Jha added.
The meeting was held after the Lebanese banks started to impose strict measures on monetary operations, especially withdrawals in dollars, reducing the ceiling for cash withdrawals in dollars by 50 per cent to two monthly payments instead of one weekly and not exceeding $500.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.