BEIRUT: Politicians in Lebanon shouted and hurled insults at each other during a meeting of a joint parliamentary committee on Tuesday. It came as tensions continued to rise amid the ongoing failure to choose a new president and growing concerns that it will be impossible to hold municipal elections scheduled for May.
Amal Movement MP Ghazi Zeaiter, who has been accused of involvement in the events leading up to the massive explosion at Beirut’s port in August 2020, clashed with independent MP Melhem Khalaf, who has been staging a sit-in at the parliament for more than two months over the failure of MPs to elect a new president. As tensions rose, Zeaiter was accused of publicly insulting Khalaf.
Another dispute, over the municipal elections, broke out between Sami Gemayel, head of the Kataeb Party, and the Amal Movement’s Ali Hassan Khalil, who is also accused of involvement in the port explosion. The former accused the latter of using “immoral” insults.
As the rows continued, the meeting was ended. It took place a day after caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati reversed his unpopular decision, announced last week, to delay the start of daylight saving time for a month “to allow those fasting during Ramadan to rest for an hour.”
“What happened during the session was shocking,” said MP Hadi Abu Al-Hassan, a member of the Democratic Gathering bloc. “The country’s situation will become too dangerous if we continue this way.”
Politicians need to heed the voice of reason and consider carefully the best interests of the country and its people, he added.
“We need to elect a president, form a government and start implementing reforms instead of carrying on with this tense drama.”
The presidency has been vacant since Michel Aoun’s term concluded at the end of October last year. Politicians have been unable to reach agreement on a successor.
Abu Al-Hassan said that Walid Jumblatt, the head of the Progressive Socialist Party, has been talking with members of a number of parties in an attempt to ensure the volatile political situation remains under control but underlying tensions remain high.
After the ill-tempered parliamentary meeting, Gemayel refused to go into the details of the dispute but said that he considers what happened to be “a dangerous offense against sanctities and we cannot accept this.”
He warned that if some officials persist with their current approach to managing the country’s affairs, even bigger problems lie in store.
“If I disclosed what happened, I would be contributing to creating the strife that some want to drag the country into, and we do not want that,” Gemayel added.
He called on Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri to “address what happened” and added “if he does not want to deal with it, then he can consider the message received and we will discuss with our allies how we will take things from here.”
Warning of the potential dangers of failure to hold the municipal elections, Gemayel stressed “the need for the state to cover the cost” of the polls “as the required amount is $8 million.”
The Lebanese government has said it is unable to cover the cost of the elections, according to a source in the Ministry of Interior, as “there is no money or staff to hold them.”
The ministry has set the cost of the elections at $12 million. International donors, including the EU, the US Agency for International Development, and the UN Development Program, have pledged $3 million, which would cover the cost of necessities such as printing, stationery and logistics. The Lebanese state would need to provide the remaining money for election workers, judges, security, the transportation of ballot boxes, and electrical power, among other things.
Any decision to postpone the elections would require the calling of a legislative session. Christian parliamentary blocs refuse to agree to such sessions on the grounds that “Parliament is currently an electorate body whose sole purpose is to elect a president.” Meanwhile, other political forces do not want to be the ones responsible for passing a law that extends the terms of the current municipal councils.
In other news, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on Lebanese citizens Hassan Daqqou and Nouh Zeaiter, who are accused of being drug lords.
Daqqou is a Lebanese-Syrian dual national from Tufail, a town the straddles the border with Syria. He was arrested in Lebanon in 2021 and remains in detention. The Criminal Court in Beirut last year sentenced him to seven years of hard labor for manufacturing Captagon and trafficking it to other countries. The US Treasury accuses him and his drug-trafficking operations of having direct links to Hezbollah.
Zeaiter is wanted by the Lebanese state on charges of drug trafficking. He is said to surround himself with no fewer than 14 armed guards and travels in four-wheel-drive vehicles with darkened windows. The US Treasury also links him with Hezbollah.
A few days ago, an army force ambushed a convoy on the outskirts of the town of Harbta in which wanted members of the Zeaiter family were traveling. During the armed battle that ensued, Zeaiter’s son, Mahdi, was injured and arrested.