BEIRUT: Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmy has allowed the reopening of mosques for Friday prayers and churches for Sunday mass.
This is provided that the number of worshipers does not exceed 30 percent of the capacity of each mosque or church and adherence to sanitary conditions and preventive measures. Mosques and churches were closed on March 15.
The move is part of mitigating home isolation measures after the containment of the COVID-19 pandemic in Lebanon. This is despite the recording of new cases from people who recently returned to Lebanon, or quarantined people who were in contact with infected persons.
According to the Ministry of Health report, there were nine new COVID-19 cases, seven of them from abroad. The ministry then announced 25 confirmed COVID-19 cases among passengers on board a flight from Nigeria to Beirut, raising the total number of cases to 775.
President Michel Aoun said that “the new coronavirus increased the blockage of the arteries of Lebanon’s economy and exacerbated the economic downturn that we are suffering as a result of policies that overlooked the production economy.
“The virus also increased unemployment and poverty rates, and there was a significant increase in commodity prices, a fall in the Lebanese pound exchange rate, a decline in tax revenues and a deterioration in our social security,” he said.
Lebanon is seeking aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help it out of its severe economic crisis.
The indicators of the crisis are evident: An economic contraction of about 13 percent; an increase in the inflation rate, which reached more than 50 percent; a deterioration in the exchange rate of the Lebanese pound; paralysis in the banking sector; a significant increase in poverty rates, which exceeded 45 percent of citizens; and unemployment exceeding 35 percent, along with high fiscal deficit and high unsustainable debt.
On Wednesday, a national meeting of party leaders and leaders of parliamentary blocs was held at the Presidential Palace, at the invitation of President Aoun, to discuss the government’s reform plan. The meeting was boycotted by the Future Movement bloc and the Lebanese Kataeb bloc. The leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt, and the leader of the Marada Movement, Suleiman Frangieh, also did not attend the meeting.
The leader of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, joined a meeting that brought together Hezbollah’s allies. He stressed that he did not leave “our allies in the opposition, but we each have a (different) approach to things.” He said after the meeting that his party’s MPs “will not agree to the plan before the government shows its seriousness in filling the waste gutters in the state.”
On Wednesday, the Lebanese judiciary interrogated two former ministers of energy, Mohammed Fneish and Nada Boustani, the general director of Electricity of Lebanon (EDL), Kamal Hayek, and engineer, Yahya Mawloud, on a charge of importing adulterated fuel for the benefit of the EDL, which was found through investigations to involve forgery and bribery.
Boustani said after her interrogation that she did not receive the results of the analyzes of adulterated fuel when she was a minister. Fneish said that the problem was not in “the contract signed with the company that imported the fuels, which was extended by six ministers after me, but the problem is with adulterated fuel, and the party that violated the terms of the contract must be pursued.”
The judiciary issued four arrest warrants against the representative of the importing company, Sonatrach, the director of the Oil Control Company and employees of the PST company. Others are expected to be interrogated, including the manager of oil installations, and the owner, CEO and tender manager of ZR Energie company. Most of the people involved are affiliated with political forces inside and outside of the authority.
The government plan set five years for Lebanon to recover from its crisis. In his presentation of the plan, Minister of Finance Ghazi Wazni said that “it will adopt the flexible exchange rate policy in the coming stage gradually and deliberately.”
He said that the plan “reduces the deficit in the public budget from 11.3 percent of GDP in 2019 to 5.3 percent in 2020 and then to 0.7 percent in 2024 by reducing public expenditure (electricity reform, pension reform, rationalization of current expenditures) and in revenue: Combating waste, improving tax collection, value-added tax and fighting tax evasion.”
Prime Minister Hassan Diab briefed Arab and foreign ambassadors about the government’s financial plan in a separate meeting. US Ambassador Elizabeth Chia said that “there are other areas within the plan that can be reconsidered.” She did not provide more details.
The ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE did not attend the meeting.