At vital moment, Lebanon paralysed by political conflict

Tom Perry and Laila Bassam –
The political repercussions of a deadly shooting in Lebanon have paralysed government at a critical moment and risk complicating efforts to enact reforms needed to steer the heavily indebted state away from financial crisis.
Two aides of a government minister were killed in the shooting when his convoy passed through a village in the Chouf mountains a month ago, an incident he declared an assassination attempt by adversaries. They deny the accusation.
With major parties in Lebanon’s national unity government involved, Prime Minister Saad al Hariri has been unable to convene a cabinet. Efforts to mediate a way out of the standoff are deadlocked over which court should hear the case.
The minister involved is Saleh al Gharib, an ally of Druze politician Talal Arslan who is close to Damascus and enjoys the backing of the Hizbullah. Arslan holds the party of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt responsible for the bloodshed.
Jumblatt’s party says the incident was an exchange of fire initiated by Gharib’s entourage in which two Jumblatt supporters were also wounded. A fierce critic of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Jumblatt’s party views it as part of a wider campaign to weaken his influence over Lebanon’s Druze community.
A senior official said the paralysis has held up discussions of the 2020 budget, a vital part of efforts to plug gaping holes in the public finances and convince investors the state is finally serious about long-delayed reforms.
“Frankly, we can’t stay like this for much longer,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were offering a personal assessment of a sensitive situation.
The official said that two credit ratings agencies are due to issue reports on Lebanon in the coming weeks and while a prompt start to cabinet’s budget discussions could reflect positively, continued tension may have the opposite impact.
Parliament approved the 2019 budget earlier this month with the aim of slashing the deficit. The International Monetary Fund has called this “an important moment for Lebanon”.
After years of backsliding, the impetus to reform has grown due to economic stagnation and a virtual halt in the flow of dollars into Lebanon’s banks from abroad. Lebanon has
depended on such flows from its diaspora to finance the current account and the state budget deficits. Cabinet last met on June 27.
The Chouf mountains where the June 30 incident occurred was one of the bloodiest theatres of the 1975-90 civil war. Lebanon’s top clerics said in a joint statement on Tuesday the incident had “led to the obstruction of government work that is a pressing necessity for political and security stability and economic revival”.
Further complicating the picture, the incident has also drawn in President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian and the political movement led by his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
They are part of the same political camp as Arslan.
The tensions that day spiralled from protests by Jumblatt supporters against plans by Bassil to visit the Chouf.
The Aounist camp has aligned against Jumblatt, a civil wartime adversary of Aoun, with Defence Minister Elias Bou Saab sharing Gharib’s view that the incident was an “ambush”. — Reuters