Beirut, Weekly Report # 13, April 17th, 2020

Cronache dal Libano

by Yves

Beirut, 17 April.

While the country is focused on issues about the pandemic, political tensions have appeared in the country as well as tensions with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on the borders.

On Friday 17 April, the country’s Health Minister has reported a total of 663 cases touched by the pandemic. This comprises 27 new cases from people recently repatriated to Lebanon, 21 deaths and 84 cured, so 530 current. Additional flights have taken place this past week from France, the UK, the UAE, Spain, Gabon, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Italy and Koweit bringing back a total of 1700 Lebanese expatriates home without any major problem. In the country, following an outburst of 56 cases in the last 48 hours, the city of Becharre in the North has now been entirely quarantined and 800 tests are being made by the authorities to check if some inhabitants are carrying the virus or not.  An interdiction of road traffic has been decided by the government last Sunday and has been followed quite well so far. Rumors of an extension of the status of general quarantine to after the 26 April have begun surfacing after Thursday’s last council of minister. 

On the political side, it now seems that in spite of the political “truce” decided because of the pandemic, an increase of political tensions can be observed with members of the opposition parties beginning to criticize the plan of the government to improve the financial situation. Saad Hariri and Walid Joumblatt have also accused the government to steal the money of the small depositors and the country resources. Samir Geagea has also added that the government should actually fight against appropriation of state funds and corruption, suggesting that it should fire some civil servants nominated only because of political acquaintances. These statements were made following rumors concerning the plan that the government is preparing a haircut of 50% of the bank depot. To that the finance minister Ghazi Wazni, has replied, that it aims at safeguard 90% of the des bank depots threatened by the crash of a couple banks. In spite of the reassuring statement of the government which announced it wanted to set a parity of 2600 Lebanese Lira (LL) to the dollar, the LL has gone down dramatically with 3100 LL/USD to buy and 3250 LL/USD to sell.

At this particular stage of the crisis, which is financial, sanitary and political, the tensions are now palpable in the country. A significant number of political analysts think that the first part of the presidential mandate of Michel Aoun is a failure. One of the reasons which is provided for this failure is first the systematic opposition of some ministers against their own government while headed by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as well as the systematic opposition of Samir Geagea (Head of Forces Libanaises), Walid Joumblatt (Head of the Parti Socialiste Progressiste) and Nabih Berry (head of the parliament and of Amal). This failure could also be a consequence of the strong opposition between Gebran Bassil (head of Courant Patriotique Libre) and Sleiman Frangié (head of Marada current, close to Nabih Berri and Hassan Nasrallah) who as both Christians might be contenders for the next presidency. In addition, Nabih Berry has been putting strong pressure on the parliament to have his own candidates nominated at the Banque du Liban (BDL) following the usual system of confessional balance, while Prime minister Hassan Diab would rather nominate people with the right curriculum and not along political lines. Meanwhile, Saad Hariri has warned the government not to fire Riad Salamé, director of BDL, General Uimad Osmane, chief of FSI (Force de sécurité de l’Intérieur: gendarmes), and the president of the Middle East Airlines. 

Maronite patriarch Béchara Raï has taken the opportunity at Easter to address the state and demand that it takes its responsibilities while the country is living its worse crisis in 30 years and is facing the coronavirus pandemic emphasizing that the government should focus on social justice first. 

On Thursday 16 April, after some irregularities were discovered on the list of people needing help, the armed forces have begun distributing food and money to the population beginning with the city of Tripoli. It should cover 11 site over the whole territory. 

Tension has also been recently felt following regular flights of Israël Defence Forces (IDF) drones over Lebanon and Beirut and incidents on the borders with Syria. On Wednesday, a drone attack against a Hezbollah vehicle was carried out in Syria near the border while on the same day, soldiers from the Lebanese Armed Forces confronted IDF soldiers who had crossed the blue Line near Metulla to reinforce the protection wall built on Lebanese territory. An interposition was carried out by a UNIFIL unit and things calmed down.According to recent reports, some of them dating back from 2016, the governor of the Banque du Liban’s own fortune would amount to a total of two billion dollars spread into different bank accounts in various fiscal paradises, like Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Panama and the Virgin Islands. These accounts are also in his brother’s name Raja Salamé, member of the board of Solidere and in his chef de cabinet’s name Marianne Hoayek also his main advisor in a society founded in 2011, Rise Invest. Other transfers of money have also been pointed out of 90 millions dollars in 2012 from the holding of Rami Makhlouf, disgraced cousin of Bachar al-Assad, on a bank account of Riad et Raja Salamé at the Swiss bank of Zurich.