Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 November 2019

Hariri promises ‘too little too late’, Lebanese labour minister says after quitting

Massive protests across Lebanon continue for sixth day

Former labour minister Camille Abousleiman, who quit at the weekend, said Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s reform promises were “too little too late”, as Lebanon entered its sixth day of anti-government protests.

He submitted his resignation on Sunday evening along with three other ministers from the Christian majority Lebanese Forces party, after an announcement by party leader Samir Geagea.

Mr Abousleiman spoke with The National on Monday afternoon in his Beirut home, minutes after Mr Hariri announced that Cabinet had backed his reforms to try to appease protests.

Mr Abousleiman described the package as unrealistic and populist.

Mr Hariri said that the 2020 budget would have a 0.6 per cent deficit, paid for in part by a new tax on bank profits. Lebanon is one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world.

His 18-point package includes halving salaries for current and former officials, privatising telecommunications and ensuring 24-hour electricity.

“If protesters want early parliamentary elections, I will support it,” Mr Hariri said.

Mr Abousleiman said that for the government to achieve a deficit of 0.6 per cent, it would “basically raid the people’s money in the banks or take money from the central bank".

"That is money that belongs to the people in both cases," he said. "It’s not really that helpful.”

Like most protesters, the Lebanese Forces have called for the government to resign and hand over power to technocrats who would organise early elections.

Mr Abousleiman also called for independent judges to be appointed to lead a national commission against corruption.

Lebanon is suffering from an economic and financial crisis. A recent attempt at increasing taxes triggered the protests that have spread throughout Lebanon.

Grievances include corruption and the high costs of education and health care.

On Monday evening, demonstrators in Beirut chanted: “All of them means all of them, Geagea and all of them.”

They were referring to their demand that the government resign.

Thousands had gathered to continue protesting in a festive atmosphere.

“The time is not to discuss substance, but who has the trust of the people to implement change and really combat corruption," Mr Abousleiman said.

"These are not these people. We need a government consisting of competent, professional, independent people who understand economic and fiscal agendas much better than the current group."

Mr Abousleiman worked for most of his life abroad as a finance lawyer and returned to Lebanon this year for his first stint in politics.

He said the Lebanese Forces ministers resigned because they felt that the government was pursuing flawed policies.

“We voted against the 2019 and 2020 budget both in Parliament and in the government,” Mr Abousleiman said. “There were reasons to stay and reasons to leave.

"But we felt it was much more important to leave because they were not going to pass what we think are necessary reforms to save the country from the financial, fiscal, economic and social crisis we are now living under.”

Mr Abousleiman said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the protests.

“People should be heard,” he said. “What is happening is completely unprecedented."

The last time Lebanon protested on this scale was mass demonstrations in 2005. Called the Cedar Revolution, they lasted several weeks and were sparked by the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

They succeeded in pushing out the Syrian troops that had occupied the country for 29 years.

In 2005, protests were concentrated mainly in Beirut, Mr Abousleiman said, but the current protests are happening "across communities and regions".

"It’s really something that inspires awe and confidence in the people," he said. "They cannot and should not fail. This is a cry from the heart that politicians should listen to.

“I could not go to demonstrations yesterday because I was part of the government. My wife is there demonstrating as we speak. So as soon as I’m finished, I’ll probably join her."

Updated: October 23, 2019 01:13 AM

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