July 7, 2020 / 6:14 PM / in a month

Under 'financial siege', Lebanon must stave off strife, says Bassil

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon is facing a “financial siege” imposed by international powers and its priority is staving off strife caused by the country’s economic meltdown, leading politician Gebran Bassil said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil gestures as he speaks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon December 12, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Bassil, an ally of the Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah, said he supported talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), hoping they would pressure the state into reforms, but that Lebanon was running out of time and any foreign aid could not come at the price of sovereignty.

Talks with the IMF were put on hold last week after becoming bogged down by a dispute on the Lebanese side over the scale of losses in the financial system and pending the start of reforms to address the root causes of the crisis, seen as the biggest threat to Lebanon’s stability since the 1975-90 civil war.

The government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, which is backed by Bassil and Hezbollah, has yet to embark on serious reforms sought by donors including the United States and France, which say Beirut must fix state waste and corruption before any aid is released.

“What we are subjected to is an economic, financial and political siege ... This doesn’t pardon the state and the Lebanese from their mistakes ... at the forefront of them — corruption,” Bassil said in an interview.

“When there is a desire to help Lebanon, tomorrow the gates will be opened. And when there are great powers blocking the gates, Lebanon does not have capacity to open them.”

“The absolute priority ... is how to keep Lebanon away from anarchy and strife.”

Lebanese must also be protected from extreme poverty, said Bassil, a son-in-law of President Michel Aoun.

Hezbollah is classified as a terrorist group by the United States. The group’s influence in state affairs has grown since it won a parliamentary majority with its allies in 2018.

Opponents say the alliance forged by Aoun and Bassil with the heavily-armed Hezbollah has provided political cover for its arsenal.

Though critics say he exercises wide influence over the government, Bassil said no ministers were members of the Free Patriotic Movement he leads, and the cabinet must accelerate reforms.

“We don’t accept this model of low productivity,” he said of the government, which he said could not continue if it failed to do more.

Asked if he saw a risk to peace, Bassil said: “Of course this fear exists.”

The response, he said, was “in national unity” and dialogue.

He warned of the risk of “an international game” unfolding to weaken Lebanon or “a party in Lebanon such as Hezbollah”.

“Syria must be a lesson for all. It would be a shame to take Lebanon on the path to destruction once again,” he said.

Editing by Timothy Heritage

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