Lebanon closer to government as economic pressures loom

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Al-Hariri gestures as he talks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon. (File photo / Reuters)
Updated 29 October 2018
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Lebanon closer to government as economic pressures loom

  • Prime Minister-designate Saad Al-Hariri has been trying to form a government since a parliamentary election in May
  • Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri suggested that a breakthrough could be imminent

BEIRUT: Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Al-Hariri looked closer to forming a new national unity government as a major Christian party declared on Monday it would take part despite being offered an “unjust” share of cabinet seats.
Hariri has been trying to form the new government since a May parliamentary election, with rivalry between the Lebanese Forces (LF) and President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) — both Christian groups — seen as the main obstacle.
The delay has held up economic reforms that have been put off for years but are now seen as more pressing than ever.
Lebanon is wrestling with the world’s third largest public debt-to-GDP ratio, stagnant growth and what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said are increasing vulnerabilities within its financial system.
LF leader Samir Geagea said the ministerial portfolios offered to his party represented a “very big injustice” when compared with the size of its enlarged parliamentary bloc and the ministries offered to other groups.
But the LF had nevertheless decided to take part “to continue to work from inside the government to achieve our goals,” he told a news conference.
A government formed on this basis would be seen as a political victory for Aoun, an ally of the Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah, over his old adversary Geagea, Hezbollah’s most prominent opponent in Lebanon.
The election produced a parliament tilted in favor of Hezbollah. Together, Hezbollah and its political allies secured more than 70 of the 128 seats. The group is proscribed as a terrorist movement by the United States.
The LF nearly doubled its number of MPs, winning 15 seats.
Government posts in Lebanon are filled according to a strict sectarian system: the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim. Posts in the cabinet of 30 ministers must be split equally between Christian and Muslims.
HEZBOLLAH DEMANDS
Hezbollah is expected to take control of the health ministry, the most significant cabinet post it has held, and to increase its number of ministers to three from two in the outgoing cabinet.
The group also wants to see one of its Sunni allies installed as a minister in the new government of 30 ministers, two senior officials familiar with the matter said.
Hariri, Lebanon’s main Sunni politician, has so far resisted this demand. He lost more than one third of his seats in the election, several to Sunni allies of Hezbollah and its regional allies Syria and Iran.
One of the officials said the Sunni issue may hold up a final agreement but would not derail it. A second political source familiar with Hezbollah’s demands said there would be no government unless one of its Sunni allies became a minister.
Hezbollah hopes the formation will be soon.
“We are in the last phase and the period of serious anticipation,” Mohammad Raad, a leading member of the group, said in televised remarks.


US targets two individuals, three entities in Hezbollah-related sanctions program

Updated 58 min 40 sec ago
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US targets two individuals, three entities in Hezbollah-related sanctions program

  • Targeted for sanctions under US regulations aimed at suspected terrorists or those who support them
  • Comes at a time of growing US concern about role of Hezbollah in Lebanese government

WASHINGTON: The U.S. Treasury, moving to boost pressure on Hezbollah, imposed sanctions on Wednesday against two people and three firms that Washington accuses of being involved in schemes to help the armed Shi'ite group backed by Iran evade American sanctions.

The Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said it was targeting Belgium-based Wael Bazzi because he acted on behalf of his father Mohammad Bazzi, a Hezbollah financier.

OFAC also took action against two Belgian companies and a British-based firm controlled by Bazzi.

In addition, the US Treasury designated Lebanon-based Hassan Tabaja, who it said had acted on behalf of his brother Adham Tabajha, also a Hezbollah financier. The U.S. action freezes their assets and property and prevents U.S. citizens and businesses from dealing with them.

The two men and three businesses were targeted for sanctions under US regulations aimed at suspected terrorists or those who support them, the Treasury said in a statement. Hezbollah is considered a foreign terrorist organization by the United States.

"Treasury is relentlessly pursuing Hezbollah's financial facilitators by dismantling two of Hezbollah's most important financial networks," Treasury Undersecretary Sigal Mandelker said in a statement.

"By targeting Hassan Tabaja and Wael Bazzi and their European-based companies, this administration is continuing to disrupt all avenues of financial support relied upon by Hezbollah," he said.

The US State Department earlier this week offered a reward of up to $10 million for information that could help disrupt Hezbollah's financing.

The move to boost pressure on the group comes at a time of growing US concern about its role in the Lebanese government. Hezbollah's regional clout has expanded as it has sent fighters to Middle East conflicts, including the war in Syria, where it supported President Bashar al-Assad.