BEIRUT: Tuesday’s legislative session reflected the chaos and confusion that Lebanon is experiencing, with caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri tossing the issue of scrapping subsidies on wheat like a hot potato.
The session highlight was the approval of an amendment to the banking secrecy law, which had been discussed in the presence of US ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, as it falls within the reforms demanded by the international community as a condition for helping the country.
“Approving the amendment to the banking secrecy law should be perceived positively by the international community,” said MP Ibrahim Kanaan. “We expect the government to restructure the banks to go in line with what we have adopted. The capital control law also needs to be amended and the government is required to work seriously in this regard.”
During the session, which included several debates and fiery responses, Mikati addressed an item on the agenda regarding an approval request for a $150 million World Bank loan agreement to implement an emergency response project to secure wheat supplies. “Most of the bread bundles that are produced with subsidized flour go to non-Lebanese, and everyone knows that.”
He told MPs: “If you want to lift subsidies on wheat, and you want the government to do so, issue a recommendation from parliament in this regard.” Berri refused to do so.
Caretaker Economy Minister Amin Salam said if subsidies on wheat were lifted that the price of a bread bundle would range between LBP30,000 LBP (around $1) and LBP35,000.
“Under the agreement with the World Bank, the mechanism for implementing the loan will begin in the coming weeks to secure the necessary funds, and thus secure a social safety net,” he noted.
Dozens of bakeries ran out of bread on Tuesday due to the lack of flour, which is now being sold on the black market at exorbitant rates. What bread was available was snapped up by people who rushed to bakeries in the early hours of the morning, depriving others of the hope of finding any during the day.
People often insult the state or Syrian refugees, blaming them for what is happening.
Salam said Syrian refugees consumed about 40 percent of the imported subsidized wheat: 500,000 bundles of bread a day.
Mikati told MPs: “The government is seeking to address the issue of public sector employees who have been on strike for over a month to provide solutions within the available capabilities.
“We are spending within limits amid the lack of resources. We are waiting for the finance minister’s report on the cost of the salary increases. We do not want to give with one hand and take with the other to avoid inflation.”
MP Hadi Abu Al Hassan said: “The ongoing strike is paralyzing the country. Parliament ought to discuss the 2022 draft budget, otherwise, we are heading toward more inflation. If the issue is the absence of a unified exchange rate, then the government ought to suggest to parliament a fixed rate for it to discuss. We want a draft budget law and a recovery plan, instead of spending while having no revenues and thus worsening the crisis.”
MP Waddah Al-Sadiq said: “Tuesday’s session was about coming up with temporary solutions while the ship sinks further. The entire country is facing economic collapse. The rescue process begins with an economic plan, followed by a budget emanating from the plan, and finally approving laws. Our governments work backward.”
Among the items approved by parliament was forming a supreme council for the trial of presidents and ministers, consisting of seven MPs from different sects. Berri insists that this council, not the judiciary, try the defendants, including former ministers and current MPs, accused of being involved in the Beirut port explosion.
This followed a protest organized by the families of the victims in the vicinity of parliament, in opposition to forming this council.
They also demanded that the partially destroyed wheat silos be preserved as a silent witness to the crime.
“Forming this council is an attempt to escape from the judicial investigation, to prevent the prosecution of defendants in any crime,” the families of the victims said.
Caretaker Minister of Environment Nasser Yassin, a member of the ministerial committee in charge of reviewing the silos’ status, told Arab News: “The silos are tilting. We put sensors in coordination with French experts to study this tilting movement, which began with the explosion in 2020 and increased with time, especially with the ongoing fires erupting inside the structure due to the summer heat and humidity. The silos are tilting more now, about 2.5 millimeters per hour. We fear part of the remaining structure could cave in and result in catastrophic consequences.”
On Monday evening, the Ministry of Health warned people living within a 500-meter to 1,500-meter radius that “in the case of any collapse or a partial collapse of the silos, dust that is the result of construction leftovers and some fungus from rotten grains will be released and will spread in the air.”