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Lebanese use spirit of Christmas to recover from deadly August shock

Dec 23,2020 - Last updated at Dec 23,2020

French President Emmanuel Macron's COVID-cancelled visit to Beirut this week appears to have torpedoed hopes that he would be able to coax Lebanon's squabbling politicians to agree on a formula for a fully-fledged government before the end of the year. Macron has consistently called for an independent government of experts capable of launching reforms put forward in the road map presented by him in September.

President Michel Aoun has retorted by rejecting the notion of an independent Cabinet of experts and calling for the usual government of party appointees and demanding for his Free Patriotic Movement one-third of posts and veto power over any decisions. After mediation by France, Maronite Catholic Archbishop Beschara Al Rai, and Hizbollah Aoun now insists on interior and justice portfolios.

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has rejected this proposition on the ground it is designed to "bypass the French initiative" and would "open the door to the representation of political factions in the government". This is precisely what the French, foreign donors and the International Fund want to avoid.

Hariri resigned following the eruption in October last year of popular protests against the politicians, whose incompetence and corruption have diven Lebanon into an economic crisis. He expected he would be asked to form the very sort of government the people want and he is meant to establish at this time. Instead, the politicians asked Hassan Diab, an academic with no political clout, to put together a new Cabinet. He, also, dreamed he would enlist independent experts but was soon disabused of this idea. The experts he was permitted to appoint were chosen by the very political factions the Lebanese people are determined to oust. Needless to say, the politicians scuppered every attempt Diab made to initiate the reforms demanded by the donors and the IMF. The Lebanese economy continued to slide downwards while resentment has soared against the politicians who refused to budge from their right to decide who would be in the government.

One would have thought the politicians would be prepared to cede to the demand for independent ministers following the August 4th explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored for six years in Beirut port, levelling it and four neighbouring districts, killing 204 people, wounding several thousand and rendering 300,000 homeless. The politicians were accused of causing this disaster through indifference and neglect. It was the largest man-made explosion since US atomic bombs devastated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Diab quite rightly resigned and was replaced by another innocent: Mustafa Adib, Lebanon's ambassador to Germany, who resigned after he was not permitted to form a cabinet of independents. He returned to Berlin, honour in tact. Diab remains in charge of a caretaker government which can do nothing while the politicians do nothing but bicker among themselves.

Meanwhile, a daily average of 1,500 Lebanese are infected with COVID and a dozen die from the virus, imports of key items are shrinking because merchants cannot pay in dollars or euro, food prices are soaring and the value of the Lebanese lira flutters up and down, depending on news from the presidential palace in Baabda. Furious over rising tuition costs at private universities, including the American University of Beirut, demonstrating students have clashed with security forces while labour unions threaten to go on strike if subsidies are lifted on staple foods, fuel and medicines in less than two months time.

Early this month, Lebanese flocked to the streets to demand the authorities provide a safety net for those who cannot afford the necessities of life once subsidies end and purchasing power shrinks. They insist a plan must be put in place to keep up with the cost of living. There is no sign of this happening.

On Monday this week, as a sop to France, potential donors, and the IMF, Lebanon's parliament passed a law that lifts banking secrecy from public accounts for a year with the aim of enabling foreign accountants to carry out a forensic audit of the Central Bank and other financial institutions, a condition for granting the country loans and grants that could rescue the economy. A New York based firm, Alvarez & Marsal resigned from the audit after failing to obtain essential documentation, allegedly because of the banking secrecy law which parliament could have suspended much earlier.

In the meantime, Lebanese citizens are using the spirit of Christmas to help each other to recover from the deadly and destructive August shock.

In the absence of an effective government and in a show of traditional Lebanese resiliance, the non-governmental organisation, "Solidarity" organised a "Christmas village" from December 18-23 behind Mar Mikhael Church in Achrafieh where carols were sung and free food and drinks were served. The celebration was mounted with the support of the individuals, organisations and institutions sponsoring the drive to rebuild 1,000 households destroyed by the August port blast.

As a small sign of recovery, the Sursock Museum shop reopened in mid-December to showcase Lebanese handicrafts and jewelery by Lebanese artisans with proceeds from sales going toward the reconstruction of the Museum, which was devastated in the explosion.

During the Christmas season, RestArt — an international fund launched by friends of Lebanon from five countries under the aegis of Belgium's King Baudouin Foundation — has launched a drive to raise funds to rescue the Sursock Palace.  The Palace, the home of the wealthy Sursock-Cochrane family since 1850, houses priceless paintings, tapestries, and other precious items.

Christmas markets have sprung up across Beirut, inviting families to bring children for events and games. Masking and social distancing are on the menue and the authorities have eased restrictions to give Lebanese a chance to breathe for a few days after semi-lockdown and curfew.

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