Diplomats to Lebanon: Expect no aid before government formed

Diplomats to Lebanon: Expect no aid before government formed
Diplomats to Lebanon: Expect no aid before government formed

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Mohamed Nass - Cairo - PARIS (AP) — Lebanon cannot expect to receive international aid for its battered economy until a new government undertakes serious reforms, diplomats decided at a closed-door meeting in Paris on Wednesday.

The international group, led by France and the United Nations, met to discuss conditions for helping ease turmoil in Lebanon, which is facing its worst financial crisis in decades and political uncertainty amid an ongoing protest movement. Lebanese businesses and households are growing increasingly desperate as cash supplies there have dwindled.

Representatives from several countries, including the United States, and international financial institutions agreed on a set of principles Lebanon must meet before it can expect to receive foreign cash.

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said attendees agreed to give technical advice to Lebanese institutions but they won’t provide the bailout that caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri requested. Hariri had called on Saudi Arabia, France, Turkey, the United States, China, and Egypt to send funds to help Lebanon finance imports.

“There’s no aid package; there is no bailout,” Schenker told The Associated Press. “Lebanon is not being saved from its financial mess.”

Schenker said the group is considering sending some humanitarian aid to Lebanon to alleviate residents’ suffering, though it was unclear when or how much.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in closing remarks that the group supports protesters who have taken to the streets since Oct. 17 to call for an end to corruption and the overhaul of the Lebanese political system.

“The Lebanese have mobilized for many weeks to demand reforms. They must be heard,” he said.

Le Drian called the “institutional void” that has existed since Hariri resigned as prime minister on Oct. 29 “worrying.”

Hariri stayed on as caretaker prime minister after politicians proved unable to form a new government. Protesters want to see a non-sectarian, technocratic government — and they want all traces of the old regime, including Hariri, out of office.

As the Paris meeting got underway, dozens of protesters in Beirut and Paris rallied to call on assembled leaders not to give financial assistance until a new government comes together.

“This authority … no longer represents the Lebanese,” said a protester in Beirut reading a letter to be delivered to the French ambassador. Calling the current government corrupt, the protester said: “We don’t want (the aid) to go to waste.”

Draped in Lebanese flags, protesters outside of the Foreign Ministry in Paris shouted “Revolution!” and criticized French officials for including members of the old government in Wednesday’s discussions. Several Lebanese representatives, including officials from the foreign and finance ministries and the Central Bank, attended.

Le Drian said the international group supported the creation of a “competent government” but did not take a position on what form a new government should take, nor whether Hariri should have a part in it.

Separately, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that “the responsibility lies with the Lebanese people” to push for a new political order. He said the U.S. is ready to “do the things that the world can do to assist the Lebanese people getting their economy right and getting their government right.”

The U.S. has escalated its sanctions on the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group, which dominates the national unity government that Hariri headed.

Still, Schenker insisted the U.S. is not laying out conditions for which groups can be included in the new government.

“We have stuck until now with focusing on a set of principles, which is not who is the prime minister, not who is the minister of finance, not what party they’re from, not what religion they’re from — but whether they are capable of reform,” he told AP.

More than 50 countries pledged last year to give Lebanon $11 billion in aid, conditioned on Hariri implementing long-stalled reforms. Promised changes never materialized.

Hundreds of Lebanese business owners gathered Wednesday in central Beirut to protest the delay in forming a new government and threatening a collective tax strike. Organizers said most private businesses have already been unable to pay taxes and are still getting slapped with penalties.

“What we are asking for is to cancel the penalties. We can’t afford paying,” said Samir Saliba, a business owner.

In recent weeks, hundreds of people have been laid off or are receiving reduced salaries, while many businesses had to shut down.

Late Wednesday, tension rose in central Beirut when a group of young men tried to attack the epicenter of the anti-government protests, prompting security forces to fire tear gas. Dozens of men threw stones at anti-riot police who deployed to stop the advancing rival protesters.

Police pushed them back firing rounds of tear-gas. The group of mainly young men were chanting “Shiite, Shiite!” as they approached the area of anti-government protesters.

It is not the first time supporters of the two main Shiite groups in Lebanon, Hezbollah and Amal Movement affiliated with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, attacked the protesters’ site. The anti-protesters are angered by calls for their leaders to step down.

Reporting by Claire Parker; Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb and Fadi al-Tawil in Beirut and Matt Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Image: Lebanese protesters gather outside of the French foreign ministry in Paris, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, to denounce a closed-door meeting of diplomats from several countries on aid to Lebanon. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

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