Trying to restore confidence in country’s banking system, central bank head says capital controls are not in the cards.
Beirut, Lebanon – Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Monday called on Lebanon‘s judiciary to be “brave” in its pursuit of corrupt officials and urged judges to begin with anyone affiliated to his group.
“If there is a case related to any person in Hezbollah, go ahead. Start with us, start with us,” Nasrallah said during a speech marking the party’s Martyr’s Day occasion.
“Don’t be scared, I assure you of Hezbollah’s respect for your initiative and your work,” he said addressing judges.
Nasrallah was speaking for the fourth time since unprecedented protests broke out across Lebanon on October 17. The Hezbollah leader – who previously called on his supporters to withdraw from the street – said the anti-government movement had created unity on the need to hold corrupt officials accountable.
“I don’t think it is possible to protect corrupt people in Lebanon any more,” he said.
Nasrallah also said he would not comment on the issue of the formation of a new government in order to allow for continued negotiations.
“The meetings are ongoing … We are not obliged to make any statement or take a position. Let us leave the door open so we can get to the best possible result for our country,” he said.
Tuesday will mark two weeks since caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation, citing pressure from massive street protests and the deadlock in negotiating a cabinet reshuffle.
Since then, President Michel Aoun has sought to reach consensus with political parties on the shape of the next government before he sets a date for binding parliamentary consultations to designate a new prime minister.
Demonstrators have demanded an independent government of experts be formed to navigate the country out of a worsening economic and financial crisis and secure basic needs such as electricity and water.
Fighting corruption has also been a major demand of the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets across Lebanon over the past 26 days.
Nasrallah’s close ally, House Speaker Nabih Berri, has been one of the main targets of demonstrators alleging massive corruption by him, his wife Randa, and members of his Amal Movement party.
The warlord-turned-politician has been speaker of Parliament since 1992 and is a symbol of the old-guard.
Hezbollah has said it would not spare allies in its self-proclaimed battle against corruption, which it put at the heart of its electoral campaign for parliamentary elections last year.
But there has been little to show so far – a fact Nasrallah blamed on the judiciary, saying it had failed to act on cases the party submitted.
One initial attempt earlier this year quickly took on a sectarian tone.
Hezbollah MP Hasan Fadlallah in February filed documents with the Financial Prosecutor tied to $11bn in extra-budgetary spending during the term of former prime minister Found Siniora, a Sunni politician, between 2005 and 2009.
Siniora claimed he was being unfairly targeted, and Lebanon’s highest Sunni authority, Grand Mufti Abdel-Latif Derian, said the former prime minister was a “Red Line.”
Nasrallah on Monday said that judiciary should not “bow to any religious or sectarian authority in the country”.
“You have the entire Lebanese people on your side,” he said.
Turning to the economy, Nasrallah said the United States was largely to blame for Lebanon’s increasingly dire situation. Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh at a news conference earlier in the day said Lebanon would see zero growth this year, if not negative growth.
At the same time, a slowdown in inflows of foreign currency from abroad has strained the country’s two-decade-old currency peg to the US dollar.
Nasrallah said increasing sanctions on Lebanese banks alleged to have dealt with Hezbollah, and on individuals and businesses allegedly associated with the party, had a negative effect on the economy but that the party itself was isolated.
“Do all the sanctions you want, our money isn’t in the banks… The sanctions on the financial sector affect Lebanon and the Lebanese people, it doesn’t pressure the Resistance,” he said, using a term Hezbollah describes itself by.
He also said the US would try to prevent Lebanon from benefitting from the reconstruction of neighbouring Syria, which has been ravaged by eight years of war.
“When the doors are opened to participating in the reconstruction of Syria, the economy will grow for tens of years,” Nasrallah said, calling for a normalisation of ties with Syria.
Lebanese politicians have been split on the nature of Beirut’s relationship with Damascus since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, with Hariri and his allies in the Lebanese forces and Progressive Socialist Party opposing normalised relations, while Hezbollah, Amal and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement support such a move.
Nasrallah’s speech came as protests showed no sign of letting up, with a general strike planned for Tuesday.
Education Minister Akram Chehayeb announced schools and universities would be closed, citing the strike and the safety of students.
Many student walkouts were planned for Tuesday after thousands skipped class last week to join the protests, and Chehayeb said his decision came “in respect for their right of democratic expression”.