Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 August 2019

No time to lose, Lebanese President Michel Aoun tells new government

Prime Minister Saad Hariri says statement outlining priorities will be ready within a week

Lebanese President Michel Aoun chairs the new government's first cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda last Saturday. AFP
Lebanese President Michel Aoun chairs the new government's first cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda last Saturday. AFP

President Michel Aoun on Saturday urged Lebanon's cabinet not to waste time in setting out its priorities, as ministers held their first meeting two days after the formation of a new government ended nine months of political deadlock.

“We must face many challenges together and the circumstances do not allow us to waste time," Mr Aoun said during the meeting on Saturday morning.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri told reporters the ministerial statement, which spells out the new government's agenda and must be approved by parliament, should be finished by Monday or Tuesday. The Lebanese constitution gives a government one month to produce the policy document.

The cabinet formed a committee of 10 ministers to work on the ministerial statement and Mr Hariri said he had prepared a draft that they would examine on Monday.

“It would be similar to the ministerial statement of the previous government and include all the reforms required by Cedre and other conferences," Mr Hariri said, referring to the funding conference held in Paris last year.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri also said that the ministerial statement would be done in the next few days.

However, the committee may face some sticking points in preparing a statement acceptable to all government members.

Asked whether it would address the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons, Mr Hariri said it would include no “controversial articles”, without elaborating .

Hezbollah, which has become the leading political force in Lebanon, was the only militia allowed to keep its weapons after the 1975-1990 civil war, in the name of the resistance against Israel.

Mohammad Fneish, the Hezbollah-affiliated youth and sports minister, warned against attempts to raise the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons in the policy statement. “If we want to open this discussion from the beginning, we will be throwing a stick into the wheel of cabinet from the get-go," he told The National.

Mr Hariri said the economy would be his government's first priority, telling reporters that it would do its best to reduce the budget deficit by one per cent a year over the next five years.

Reducing the deficit is among the steps Lebanon has promised to take in return for nearly $11 billion in soft loans pledged during the Cedre conference.

Deputy Prime Minister Ghassan Hasbani called on the government to “take quick steps to implement reforms and bold political decisions, or we will increase our old debts with new debts”.

Minister of State for Administrative Reform May Chidiac, one of the four women in the new government, , told Lebanese newspaper Al Joumhouria that she would work on implementing Cedre reforms in parallel with developing e-government services.

After taking nine months to form a government, Mr Hariri and his team were keen to show they were taking their new responsibilities seriously. “Off to work…," was Mr Hariri’s first tweet after the new cabinet was announced late on Thursday.

“There is a government although its formation took time," he said. “This is only normal after an absence of parliamentary elections for nine years … and I hope the ministers will realise that the challenges are great and that we cannot waste time and not even one day."

Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil urged ministers to take their work seriously. “There is a clear agreement with the president and the prime minister to replace non-productive ministers," he tweeted.

“I will work day and night to preserve the environment and find appropriate solutions," promised Environment Minister Fadi Jreissati in an interview to Lebanese TV network MTV. “New laws are not needed," he said. “Solutions are available and stopping corruption and enforcing existing laws should be enough."

Despite the abolition of the post of anti-corruption minister in the new government, several members including Mr Jreissati and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mahmoud Qmati, a Hezbollah member, said they were intent on fighting corruption.

Lebanon was ranked 138th out of 180 countries Transparency International's latest Corruption Perception Index. “Corruption in Lebanon is widespread and permeates all levels of society, the graft watchdog noted.

Mr Hariri explained the abolition of the anti-corruption ministry by saying parliament was working on a new anti-corruption law. However, he recognised that Lebanon had difficulty in implementing regulations. “The problem here is that we create bodies without activating them," he said.

Updated: February 2, 2019 10:04 PM