PARIS: Diplomats met behind closed doors in Paris on Wednesday to consider measures to help Lebanon as it grapples with ongoing political turmoil and its worst economic crisis in decades.
The international group, co-chaired by France and the United Nations, is weighing conditions for providing financial aid to Lebanon. Lebanese businesses and households are growing increasingly desperate as cash supplies there have dwindled.
For two months, protests have decried government mismanagement and the current political system. But even as the financial crisis deepens, protesters have denounced the Paris meeting and promised to condemn any international financial assistance to a government they see as corrupt and illegitimate.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned Oct. 29, but he has stayed on as caretaker prime minister since politicians have been unable to form a new government. Protesters want to see a non-sectarian, technocratic government — and they want all traces of the old regime, including Hariri, out of office.
France and the US have made clear they support a new government in Lebanon.
Caretaker economy minister Mansour Bteish told broadcaster MTV on Wednesday that Lebanon’s economy is losing at least $70 million-$80 million a day — about half its usual income — due to the crisis that has paralyzed the country.
Bteish said the situation is “worsening” and requires a quick solution. Lebanon has been swept by protests since Oct. 17 and is now facing the worst economic strains since its 1975-1990 civil war. The pound currency has slumped and banks have enforced capital controls.
Speaking in Washington on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that “the responsibility lies with the Lebanese people” to push for a new political order. He said the US is ready to “do the things that the world can do to assist the Lebanese people getting their economy right and getting their government right.”
The US has escalated its sanctions on the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group, which dominates the national unity government that Hariri headed.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said at a press conference ahead of the Paris meeting that Lebanese authorities must “take into account the call of the street.” He urged Lebanese authorities to “form a government rapidly because any delay will aggravate the situation.”
Meanwhile, dozens of protesters in Beirut and Paris rallied Wednesday to call on the leaders meeting in France not to give financial assistance until a new government comes together.
“This authority ... no longer represents the Lebanese,” said a protester in Beirut reading a letter to be delivered to the French ambassador. Calling the current government corrupt, the protester said: “We don’t want (that aid) to go to waste.”
Hariri has called on Saudi Arabia, France, Turkey, the United States, China, and Egypt to send funds to help Lebanon finance imports.
But international donors are unlikely to write a check without substantial commitments to reform. More than 50 countries pledged last year to give Lebanon $11 million in aid, conditioned on Hariri implementing long-stalled reforms. Promised reforms never materialized.
Hundreds of Lebanese business owners gathered in central Beirut protesting the delay in forming a new government and threatening a collective tax strike. Organizers said most private businesses have already been unable to pay taxes and are still getting slapped with penalties.
“What we are asking for is to cancel the penalties. We can’t afford paying,” said Samir Saliba, a business owner.
Saliba said a new campaign is aimed at educating the private sector about their rights and advocate for a blanket tax strike. “People are fed up. We don’t have anything to lose anymore.”
In the last weeks, hundreds of people have been laid off or are receiving reduced salaries, while many businesses had to shut down.
Lebanon’s international support group said Wednesday the country faces a chaotic unwinding of its economy and increased instability if it does not enact swift reforms that give international financial institutions the confidence to offer support.
“In order to halt the sharp deterioration in the economy ... there is an urgent need for the adoption of a substantial, credible and comprehensive policy package of economic reforms to restore fiscal balance and financial stability,” the ISG said in a final communique after a meeting in Paris on Wednesday.
The group urged the Lebanese authorities to adopt a “reliable 2020 budget” in the first weeks after the formation of a new government and fight more rigorously against corruption.
“The ISG members consider that the support from international financial institutions is pivotal to help the authorities sustain their efforts to implement the necessary economic reforms over time,” the statement added.
(With AP and Reuters)