Lebanon like a ‘sinking ship’, says parliament speaker

Nabih Berri calls for steps to save the economy as outgoing PM Hariri and President Aoun indulge in blame game.

Protesters react at a demonstration during ongoing anti-government protests in Beirut
Protests across Lebanon enter their second month after people first took to the streets on October 17 in what quickly became a nationwide protest movement against the ruling class [Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters]

Lebanon is like a sinking ship that will go under unless action is taken, Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament has been quoted as saying, referring to the Mediterranean country’s deep economic and political crisis.

The statement on Monday coincided with protests across Lebanon entering their second month after people first took to the streets on October 17 in what quickly became a nationwide protest movement against a ruling class seen as corrupt and incapable of running the country.

“The country is like a ship that is sinking little by little,” he said, according to Al Joumhouria newspaper. “If we don’t take the necessary steps, it will sink entirely.”

An-Nahar newspaper quoted him as likening the situation of the Lebanese people to that of passengers on the Titanic, the cruise ship that sank in 1912 after hitting an iceberg.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken part in the protest movement, demanding an end to Lebanon’s political system where power is apportioned among ethnic and religious groups.

Protesters have also been calling for an independent technocratic government to tackle the country’s spiralling financial crisis and improve access to basic services, such as electricity and water.

Hariri and Aoun trade blame

On Sunday, Lebanon’s outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who quit on October 29, criticised the country’s president after the withdrawal of a top candidate to replace him plunged the country into further turmoil.

Lebanon’s former finance minister and business tycoon Mohammed Safadi withdrew his candidacy to be the next prime minister on Sunday, amid pressure from demonstrators.

In a statement released by his office on Saturday, Safadi, 75, said it would be difficult to form a “harmonious” cabinet supported by all the parties. Safadi added that he hoped Hariri would be designated again for the post.

Reflecting the brittle political climate, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) accused Hariri of undermining Safadi’s bid in order to keep the job for himself.

“Saad (Hariri) is delaying things with the goal of burning all the names and emerging as the saviour,” said a source familiar with the FPM’s view.

A statement by Hariri’s office rejected the FPM assertion as an irresponsible attempt to “score points” despite Lebanon’s “major national crisis”.

“Since Safadi was asked to withdraw his name as a candidate to form a new government, the FPM – through its MPs, officials and media leaks – has been blaming the decision on Hariri, under the pretext that Hariri retreated from promises that he made to Safadi,” the statement read.

“Accusations have been levelled that this nomination was a manoeuvre, in order to bring back Hariri to form a new government,” it said.

On Thursday night, thousands of Lebanese protesters took to the streets of Beirut, shouting “Thief”, shortly after local media reported Safadi had been nominated as the country’s next prime minister.

Protesters say Safadi comes from the country’s oligarchic power elite against whom the current protests have railed in the past one month.

Ongoing unrest

Meanwhile, staff working in Lebanon’s banks said they would continue a nationwide strike on Monday that has kept banks shut. The strike is over safety fears as depositors demand access to their money. Union members are set to meet to discuss a security plan to keep branches safe.

Faced by the worst financial strains since a 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanon has pledged urgent reforms it hopes will convince donors to disburse some $11bn pledged last year.

The unrest has kept banks shut for most of the past month. They have imposed controls on transfers abroad and US dollar withdrawals, and the pegged Lebanese pound is under pressure on an informal market.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies