Lebanon government in quandary after Phalange ministers resign

by Joseph A. Kechichian, Senior Writer Gulf News

Beirut: Phalange Party leader Sami Gemayel pulled two ministers out of Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s cabinet, as Sejaan Qazzi (Labour) and Alain Hakim (Economy) joined Ashraf Rifi (Justice), who quit on February 21 to protest cabinet procrastination in referring the case of former Minister of Information Michel Samaha to the Judicial Council.

“The Phalange Party has decided to resign from the government because Lebanon needs a ‘positive shock’,” Gemayel affirmed at a carefully staged press conference, and rejected what he termed “cabinet mechanisms” that stifled objections, which apparently prevented classic deal-makings.

Flanked by Qazzi and Hakim, Gemayel attacked ministers who, he claimed, were not concerned with the protection of the banking sector against regular verbal attacks — presumably by Hezbollah officials against Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh — and showed little interest in the plan submitted by the Minister of Economy to revitalise the sector. Gemayel did not mince his words when he declared that ministers “are only concerned with passing suspicious deals,” which may have been in reference to the waste disposal solution that was agreed to after an eight-month-long ordeal that left Beirut and Mount Lebanon reeking in garbage.

According to Al Jadid television station (New TV), Phalange Party officials held a stormy meeting on Tuesday when the two resignations were finalised while leaving Minister of Information Ramzi Jreij free to make his own choice. Jreij told the pro-Hezbollah Al Safir daily that he would stay put because he “is not a member of the Phalange Party,” and opined that the situation in the country cannot withstand the resignations of Qazzi and Hakim.

It was unclear why Gemayel and his politburo reached this decision although party regulars were warned that too many compromises at the cabinet level significantly weakened their position where it mattered — inside the government. For months on end, Gemayel insisted that the Phalange would work within the system that, presumably, was increasingly difficult to do.

The public spin hinted that the Phalange presence in the cabinet ceased to “serve the interest of the Lebanese,” which was revelatory since it implied a lack of productivity on various concerns, ranging from the waste management file to the newest dispute over the controversial Janna dam project in Mount Lebanon. Gemayel objected to dumping garbage inside the Mediterranean Sea — in clear violation of the Barcelona Treaty that called on signatory states, which Lebanon is, to uphold the law — and insisted that approval of the Janna dam would destroy the largest forestland, which the Phalange found unpalatable.

Although the Ministry of the Environment objected to the Janna dam project after two environmental impact studies concluded that “the project is non-beneficial and non-environmental,” while a third apparently warned of potential risks, suspicious deals translated in ongoing work at the site, north of Beirut. According to Gemayel, the contractor hired to build the dam faced corruption charges in Brazil, where the firm was also “accused of bribing politicians to approve the construction of useless dams.” Contentious discussions about the plan and the contractor were discussed by the cabinet in recent weeks without any progress to suspend construction pending a probe into the integrity of the contractor.

Gemayel concluded his press conference with an avowal that the Phalange presence in the government could only be useful if and when its ministers successfully managed to stop corruption but concluded that this was no longer the case.