Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 October 2020

Germany warns Lebanon must fight corruption to receive aid

Western powers say there will be no freebies for Beirut’s political elite after port disaster

The destroyed grain silos at Beirut port, pictured on August 12, 2020. Getty
The destroyed grain silos at Beirut port, pictured on August 12, 2020. Getty

Politicians in Beirut rushed on Wednesday to form a new government to satisfy western powers wary of providing bailout funds despite the risk of Lebanon becoming a failed state.

With the official death toll rising to 171, residents of the capital are licking their wounds.

The port explosion a week ago, shown below from a Beirut hospital, exposed staggering ineptitude in a state that defaulted on its foreign debt in March and whose currency had lost enormous value since last year.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, during a trip to Beirut on Tuesday, spoke in business terms about any bailout.

“The international community is ready to invest but needs securities for these investments. It is important to have a government that fights the corruption," Mr Maas said.

He said that whoever took over responsibility in Lebanon had to deliver economic reforms and good government.

But most of the Lebanese elite have made it clear that any political change will not go beyond replacing the short-lived government, which resigned on Monday.

Hezbollah representatives met this week with their main political allies, parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and former foreign minister Gebran Bassil.

Mr Bassil heads the Free Patriotic Movement, which commands the largest bloc in Parliament.

Hezbollah has indicated that it is not opposed to the return of Saad Hariri, the prime minister forced by the street protest movement to resign last year. The authorities crushed the uprising by January.

Under Lebanon’s sectarian political system, the prime minister has to be Sunni and the Speaker Shiite.

Mr Berri, who was installed by the Syrian regime almost three decades ago, is Shiite, and President Michel Aoun is Maronite Christian.

Mr Hariri became prime minister in 2016 in a deal under which Mr Aoun, one of Hezbollah’s main Christian allies, became president.

Hezbollah has indicated it is not opposed to the return of Saad Al Hariri as prime minister. Reuters
Hezbollah has indicated it is not opposed to the return of Saad Al Hariri as prime minister. Reuters

Possible challenger to old guard emerges

With typical pragmatism, the pro-Iranian militia Hezbollah has not flatly come out against another possible candidate who regarded as acceptable to the protest movement.

Nawaf Salam is a rare figure without party affiliations who serves as an international judge in the Hague and has good ties with Washington.

But a source close to Mr Salam told The National that if he were offered the premiership, he might not accept it.

“Nawaf knows well that with Aoun as president, the premiership is hugely undermined,” the source said.

Parliament will meet on Thursday to question the departing government about the explosion.

Mr Berri will convene the legislature away from the parliament building in downtown Beirut, where mass demonstrations have revived by the blast.

After the explosion, Hezbollah was quick to indicate that Mr Diab had become politically expendable, sealing his fate despite his loyalty to the group.

Hezbollah also distanced itself from the corruption and patronage that defined the port's operations.

The once world-class port deteriorated after Syrian troops entered the country in 1976, the start of decades of Assad family tutelage over Lebanon.

Veteran lawyer Ghassan Moukheiber told The National that there was some strong support for the return of Mr Hariri, but Mr Salam or "someone like him" might be the only figures western powers would feel confident in dealing with.

Mr Moukheiber, a former parliamentarian, said Mr Hariri was too controversial because of his falling popularity with Saudi Arabia and a record of failing to halt Lebanon’s slide to disaster.

“Hariri is seen as part of the oligarchy responsible not only for the corruption of the country but also for the Beirut port explosion,” he said.

“Without a government that can be effective and inspire confidence, no one will know where things will go."

Updated: August 13, 2020 09:36 AM

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