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Lebanon, pushed to the brink, faces reckoning over graft

Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri in Beirut, Lebanon on 14 February 2019 [LEBANESE PRIME MINISTRY OFFICE / HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency]
Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri in Beirut, Lebanon on 14 February 2019 [LEBANESE PRIME MINISTRY OFFICE / HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency]

Lebanon is closer to a financial crisis than at any time since at least the war-torn 1980s as allies, investors and this week nationwide protests pile pressure on the government to tackle a corrupt system and enact long-promised reforms, Reuters reports.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s government on Thursday hastily reversed a plan, announced hours earlier, to tax WhatsApp voice calls in the face of the biggest public protests in years, with people burning tyres and blocking roads.

The country – among the world’s most indebted and quickly running out of dollar reserves – urgently needs to convince regional allies and Western donors it is finally serious about tackling entrenched problems such as its unreliable and wasteful electricity sector.

Without a foreign funding boost, Lebanon risks a currency devaluation or even defaulting on debts within months, according to interviews with nearly 20 government officials, politicians, bankers and investors.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said in a televised speech on Friday that he gave a paper at an economic crisis meeting in September saying Lebanon needed “an electric shock”.

“I also said that what little remains of the financial balance might not last us longer than the end of the year if we do not adopt the necessary policies,” he said, without describing what he meant by financial balance.

Beirut has repeatedly vowed to maintain the value of the dollar-pegged Lebanese pound and honour its debts on time.

But countries that in the past reliably financed bailouts have run out of patience with its mismanagement and graft, and they are using the deepening economic and social crisis to press for change, the sources told Reuters.

These include Arab Gulf states whose enthusiasm to help Lebanon has been undermined by the growing clout in Beirut of Tehran-backed Hezbollah, and what they see as a need to check Iran’s growing influence across the Middle East.

Western countries have also provided funds that allowed Lebanon to defy gravity for years. But for the first time they have said no new money would flow until the government takes clear steps toward reforms it has long only promised.

READ: Lebanon backtracks hours after imposing taxes on internet calls

Their hope is to see it move towards fixing a system that sectarian politicians have used to deploy state resources to their own advantage through patronage networks instead of building a functional state.

A crisis could stoke further unrest in a country hosting some 1 million refugees from neighbouring Syria, where a Turkish incursion in the northeast this month has opened a new front in an eight-year war.

“If the situation remains, and there are no radical reforms, a devaluation of the currency is inevitable,” said Toufic Gaspard, a former adviser to Lebanon’s finance ministry and former economist at its central bank and the International Monetary Fund.

“Since September a new era has begun,” he added. “The red flags are large and everywhere, especially with the central bank paying up to 13% to borrow dollars.”

The first reform on Beirut’s agenda is one of the most intractable: fixing chronic power outages that make private generators a costly necessity, a problem many see as the main symbol of corruption that has left services unreliable and infrastructure crumbling.

Hariri, in a televised speech to the nation, said he had been struggling to reform the electricity sector ever since taking office. After “meeting after meeting, committee after committee, proposal after proposal, I got at last to the final step and someone came and said ‘it doesn’t work’,” he said.

READ: Families flee as 104 fires engulf Lebanon

Presenting the difficulties of implementing reform more widely, Hariri said every committee required a minimum of nine ministers to keep everyone happy.

“A national unity government? OK, we understand that. But committees of national unity? The result is that nothing works.”

Underscoring the pressure from abroad, Pierre Duquesne, a French ambassador handling so-called CEDRE funding, is traveling to Lebanon next week to press the government on the use of offshore power barges, a banker familiar with the plan said.

Duquesne wants the barges included in the electricity overhaul plan, the person said, requesting anonymity.

Duquesne could not immediately be reached for comment.

The contents of the 2020 budget will be key to helping unlock some $11 billion conditionally pledged by international donors under last year’s CEDRE conference. But a cabinet meeting on the budget set for Friday was cancelled amid the protests.

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