Lebanon's Cabinet session postponed, Parliament to quiz ministers

The Cabinet move was viewed as a strong signal to the international community about the government’s determination to enact reforms.

  
Member of parliaments attend a parliament session as Lebanon's newly elected parliament convenes for the first time to elect a speaker and deputy speaker in Beirut, Lebanon May 23, 2018. Lebanese Parliament/Handout via REUTERS

Member of parliaments attend a parliament session as Lebanon's newly elected parliament convenes for the first time to elect a speaker and deputy speaker in Beirut, Lebanon May 23, 2018. Lebanese Parliament/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT: A flurry of foreign visitors to Lebanon has led to the postponement of this week’s regular Cabinet session until next week, while Parliament is slated to meet Wednesday to quiz the Cabinet on its performance after less than three months in office, officials said Tuesday. Meanwhile, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the premier’s Downtown Beirut residence Tuesday night, discussing the political situation in the country, according a statement released by Hariri’s media office. The talks continued over a dinner hosted by Hariri. Geagea was accompanied by former Minister Melhem Riachi.

The talks were believed to have also covered the new power plan that was unanimously endorsed by the Cabinet Monday.

The project aims to restructure the dysfunctional electricity sector, boost power supply and slash subsidies to the state-run Electricite du Liban, estimated at $2 billion annually.

The Cabinet move was viewed as a strong signal to the international community about the government’s determination to enact reforms.

International donors have called for reforms, including in the electricity sector, to unlock $11 billion in soft loans and grants pledged at the CEDRE conference held in Paris last year.

Earlier in the day, a Baabda Palace source told The Daily Star that “due to the flurry of foreign officials’ visits, the Cabinet session has been postponed until next week.”

The regular Cabinet session, held every Thursday, was supposed to tackle, among other things, the issue of four vice governors to Central Bank Gov. Riad Salameh, whose terms expired last month.

At least three vice governors, Mohammad Baasiri, a Sunni, Raed Charafeddine, a Shiite, and Harout Samuelian, an Armenian, will have their mandate extended, while there is still a rift over the fate of the fourth vice governor, Saad Andary, a Druze, political sources said.

Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt was reported to be seeking to replace Andary with banker Fadi Fleihan, whose nomination is opposed by Joumblatt’s Druze rival, MP Talal Arslan, who was reported to have his own candidate for the post. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev arrived in Beirut Tuesday on a two-day official visit at President Michel Aoun’s invitation. He held talks with Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Hariri focusing on expanding bilateral relations.

The Greek foreign and tourism ministers also arrived in Beirut Tuesday ahead of a two-day visit by Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos Thursday.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who is also in town to attend an Arab forum on sustainable development, met separately with Aoun and Hariri.

Deputy Parliament Speaker Elie Ferzli said Berri was set to chair a Parliament session Wednesday devoted to questioning the Cabinet on its performance since it was formed on Jan. 31.

“The session will deal with questions presented by 13 MPs to the Cabinet touching on political, economic and social issues,” Ferzli told The Daily Star.

Despite its approval by the Cabinet, the electricity blueprint still needs to be ratified by Parliament.

Hariri said the new plan would eventually provide 24-hour electricity. Energy Minister Nada Boustani said that if there were no obstacles, residents could start feeling the difference next year. “The plan will ensure electricity at the cheapest price and at fastest time,” Boustani, who belongs to the Free Patriotic Movement founded by Aoun, told MTV Tuesday night.

The plan will overhaul the state electricity company, introduce new pricing policies and boost power production.

“This plan will also reduce the budget deficit,” Hariri said Monday.

The electricity plan has won praise from all the country’s political parties, which called for its quick implementation.

The passing of the plan is “a qualitative step in the government path [to carry out] the required reforms, halt the waste [of public funds] and end the chronic cycle of political polarization over the means to secure energy to citizens in all areas,” the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc said in a statement after its weekly meeting chaired by Sidon MP Bahia Hariri.

While praising the consensus displayed by political parties on finalizing the plan and insistence by Aoun and Hariri on endorsing it, the bloc underlined the “importance of completing this step with the administrative and legal conditions that will put this plan quickly into effect and spare the country a return to the policies of wasting time in political bickering.”

“The approval of the electricity plan opens a big hole in the wall which had led to doubling the cost of public debt and made the state, the Treasury and Lebanese citizens bear financial burdens that nearly reached $40 billion in less than two decades,” the bloc said.

“The approval of this plan constituted a clear message to all friends and brothers who agreed to support Lebanon at the CEDRE conference to help it overcome its economic and financial crisis,” it added.

The bloc called for reactivating Cabinet work with a view to “achieving the desired reforms and closing the doors of waste and random spending in all sectors.”

The FPM’s parliamentary Strong Lebanon bloc also lauded the passing of the electricity plan, but stressed the importance of implementing it.

“What happened [the approval of the plan] is very important, but what’s more important is the implementation, which is to provide 24-hour electricity,” Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told a news conference after chairing the bloc’s weekly meeting that was also attended by Boustani.

Bassil, the FPM leader, voiced concerns over the risk of the plan’s implementation being obstructed, as had happened with previous FPM electricity projects. “It is the third time an electricity plan has been presented since 2010 but it was obstructed each time,” he said. “We have real fears about obstruction. We have felt this more than once in the past through the tenders.”

Bassil also called for the endorsement of the 2019 draft state budget with the aim of reducing the deficit. “The moment of truth has come and we must all face it. We must close the doors of waste in the budget. We can do this in the budget, which we will endorse,” he said. “There are many financial measures that must be taken in the country.”

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