In last week’s debate running up to the adoption of the ministerial statement, the surreal quality of Lebanon’s political culture again took center stage. There were charges and countercharges regarding the respective roles of former (assassinated) president Bashir Gemayel and Hezbollah in Lebanese affairs, while some members claimed that the CEDRE projects are a plot to keep Syrians in Lebanon by providing employment for them. This, of course, conveniently overlooked the fact that for 20 plus years, some half million Syrians in Lebanon have worked in agricultural and construction jobs that many Lebanese shun.
Other anomalies peppered the debate such as the role of pro-Syrian minister Saled al-Gharib, responsible for the refugee portfolio, who “has vowed to do whatever it takes to push Syrian refugees back into their country,” according to The Arab Weekly. Members accepted a watered-down reference to a controlled and safe return for the refugees, which placed an emphasis on the Russia plan for repatriation and reconstruction, largely a smoke and mirrors proposition at this point. Another complicating rumor that diverted attention was that the Syrian regime had issued a “terrorist list” that included Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
Undeterred, Prime Minister Hariri began the debate with a comprehensive and strong statement that challenged those who put narrow interests above what is good for Lebanon. In some of the strongest passages, referring to proposed reforms, he said:
Here I want to ask. Who is against a modern law for public tenders? Who is against the development of customs, the facilitation of the business environment that attracts investments from abroad? Who is against the computerization of all state administrations to reduce squander and corruption and facilitate the lives of citizens? Who is against the restructuring of the public sector? Who among you is against the reduction of budget deficit? And most importantly, who among you believes that the infrastructure in our country does not need any rehabilitation or development?
It is important for me today to emphasize that the country has a real opportunity, and we have a clear program that needs a workshop in which everyone participates. Whether we like it or not, this is our country, and we are all partners in the good and bad days. We have a clear program, and we have responsibilities in the government and parliament to turn words into actions.
In this regard, he was joined by two of Lebanon’s national leaders in emphasizing the importance of fighting corruption. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech, noting “the real battle today is against financial corruption and administrative waste,” and stressing that Hezbollah is adamant on fighting this battle, which as he said, “started in the Parliament sessions devoted to discussing the ministerial statement and giving confidence to the government.” Referring to the $ 11 billion dossiers, Nasrallah vowed to “pursue it till the end,” according to Al Masdar News.
Samir Geagea took a similar tone in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat noting that “The priority at the moment, however, must be the economy. Statements about combating corruption must be translated into practical steps,” he said. He emphasized the importance of first approving the state budget, “which he described as a ‘leaky bowl’ that has been spilling its contents for 30 years.” Geagea concluded that “As long as the leaks remain, the squandering of funds will continue. We must therefore, plug this hole if we are serious about tackling the budget.”
So the work begins. Various committees and working groups have assignments related to implementing or passing reform legislation called for under the CEDRE program. In a meeting this week, Hariri presided over a meeting with the Minister of Finance Ali Hassan Khalil, the World Bank Regional Director Saroj Kumar Jha, the President of the Council for Development and Reconstruction Nabil Jisr, Hariri’s Advisor Nadim Munla, and representatives of Arab, European, and international financial institutions. Discussions focused on the necessary steps to accelerate the implementation of the CEDRE conference decisions, in particular, ensuring that projects are started on a timely basis reflecting the new laws passed by the government and conforming to international standards.