News from Beirut September 2 1997 ...Search

President Hrawi commences official visit to Brazil

En route to Brazil, President Elias Hrawi, first lady Mona and the accompanying official delegation paid a brief visit to Ivory Coast where he received a warm welcome at Abidjan from his counterpart Henri Konan Bidier and his spouse. He was also decorated with Ivory Coast's Order of Honor. The two Presidents held a short meeting after receiving a large number of Lebanese-community members and Arab ambassadors. Hrawi told the people in Abidjan that this was his second visit following his participation in the funeral of late president Boigny. He called the 40,000-member Lebanese community to consider the Ivory coast as their second country, and to act as natives. He said, "your are citizens of the Ivory Coast before being Lebanese, and you have to defend the Ivory Coast the same way you defend your own homeland". He reiterated his invitation to Bidier to visit Lebanon and decorated him with the Lebanese order of merit. In turn, Bidier praised Hrawi's achievements in restoring civil peace and rebuilding Lebanon from the ruins of the 15-year civil strife

Prior to President Hrawi's arrival to Brazil, the head of the M.E. section at Brazil's Foreign Ministry said the visit is of a diplomatic nature, and as such no agreements will be signed, though there will negotiations on several agreements in the judicial field. He also said the visit would have positive electoral effects for both Governments, and will provide President Hrawi with the chance of improving his image within the Christian community.

Fresh press reports from Brasilia said President Hrawi began his official talks with his Brazilian counterpart. A dinner party in his honor will be held this evening at the presidential palace. Hrawi today said, "Lebanon's political system is not of the presidential type where by Lebanese embassies abroad could open to the immigrants to elect their president. It is, however, a parliamentarian system in which the president is elected by the parliament". The law allowing Lebanese immigrants to regain their nationality will be referred to the parliament since the President's prerogative is limited to issuing the law", he added. "The house speaker, who visited Brazil a year ago, had promised the same thing I promised on nationality".

Hariri's developmental proposal debated

Lebanon's opposition blasted Prime Minister Hariri's proposal to borrow $1bn and increase taxes. On the other hand, Prime Minister Hariri is expected to address the public to explain his controversial proposal.

Meanwhile, Lebanon's Cabinet is due to hold a meeting tomorrow under Prime Minister Hariri in absence of President Hrawi. But the proposal is unlikely to be discussed during this session. In the same context, it was also reported that House Speaker Nabih Berri has publicly attacked the plan at a rally held in Baalbek on Sunday.

Seniora defends Hariri's proposal

Commenting on the matter, State Minister for Financial Affair Fouad Seniora said upon arrival from a trip abroad that he is in favor of the LBP 5,000 gasoline-price increase, and maintained that other options are not helpful for the treasury.

Of these, he singled out a proposal by Public Health Minister Suleiman Franjieh who suggested increasing taxes on cement and cigarettes instead. In this regard, Seniora said most of the cement production is consumed by the public sector, that is the State. He also said that such a move would impel the Government to renegotiate prices with the contractors now working on public projects. This additional burden, he added, will be shouldered by the Government, and as such a large part of the returns would be lost in the process.

As to the tax on cigarettes, Seniora said the move had been tried and failed. He said 60 percent of Lebanon's cigarette-imports are re-exported, so "if we raise the prices without an appropriate study, the treasury might end loosing funds instead". The main purpose of the Prime Minister Hariri's proposal, he said, is to raise the funds necessary for reducing the budget deficit and coping with the reconstruction process. At any rate, Seniora added, the proposal is still subject to discussions, though the LBP 5000 increase on gasoline prices is necessary to confront the challenges.

On another note, Seniora said the suggestion made by Tyre MP Mohammed Beydoun with regard to encouraging local banks to finance the return of the displaced would definitely be rejected. "The Lebanese banks does not have the capability to lend money for 25 years, and most bank deposits are geared for short-term investments", he said.

He also rejected a proposal by House Speaker Nabih Berri with regard to merging the $1bn loan with the 1998 fiscal budget on the grounds that "the relative funds will not originate from local borrowing". As to the public-sector pay-rise, Seniora ruled out the current possibility of adopting a 20 percent increase "because this would cost the treasury between LBP 350 billion and LBP 400 billion".

Opposition group denounces the plan

The Parliamentary National Gathering Opposition Bloc, after a meeting, denounced the proposed gasoline-price increase and the 5 per cent sales tax on nonessential goods. The bloc said the proposal is a program for borrowing and spending $1billion under great sensational headings. The Gathering denounced the Government's attempt to have the people pay for its erroneous policies and its failure to solve the socio-economic crisis in which the country is sinking. It also rejected levying any new taxes before the current tax system is improved, indiscriminate spending is stopped, and a new mechanism for expenditures is set up.

MP says plan would lead to social explosion

Zghorta MP Estephan Dueihi yesterday said the LBP 5000 increase on gasoline prices would lead to a huge social explosion, the scope and range of which would be difficult to predict.

In the same context, Hizbullah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said the policy of imposing taxes is wrong, and, if it is necessary to levy additional taxes, prosecuting big-time brokers and thieves and cutting the hands of burglars in the Government should be done first. He also called for a reviewing the nonessential projects, cutting down governmental trips and travels abroad, reducing expenditures and applying a policy of austerity.

On his part, Sheikh Subhi Tufeili reiterated his campaign against the Government. He said the deadline given on 13th September is nearing and nothing has been implemented. He accused the authorities of continuing to lie and exercise malpractice and crime, and said the Prime Minister is an expert in lies, robbery and that he is a great looter.

Other hot issues

- Added to the socio-economic crisis which is posing a major threat to social stability, the issue of granting nationality to Lebanese immigrants is causing a heated debate in Lebanon on the grounds that the issue could be a naturalization package for people other than the immigrants. Naturalization two years ago had stirred public row and implications.

- Another local issue is the municipalities' election law. In this regard, Interior Minister Michel Murr said the draft law would be reviewed again at a cabinet meeting upon the return of President Hrawi from Brazil. Points needing consensus include having a certain educational level by candidates, the requirements of national reconciliation, the representation of all communities in the municipal and mayoral councils, and the right to combine between being a member of the parliament and a head of a municipality. The Constitutional Council is to examine today the challenge submitted by 14 MP's against the government decision to extend the municipal councils and mayors mandate until 1999. The council is to give its final verdict before the 16th of September.

Reviving the logic of peace

Foreign Minister Fares Boueiz received yesterday a joint U.S-French letter on the verge of the visit the U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is paying to the region under the motto of "reviving the logic of peace", and the call to support the April understanding ceasefire monitoring group.

The joint letter came prior to the visit Albright is paying to the region on September 9. Lebanese diplomatic sources hinted that Mrs. Albright might meet some Lebanese officials during her tour. A meeting in Shtaura between Albright, President Hrawi, Prime Minister Hariri and Foreign Minister Fares Boueiz is a possibility.

The sources said Mrs. Albright is not only carrying proposals to revive the Palestinian-Israeli track, but also a comprehensive plan aiming to push the peace process on all the other tracks, Syria and Lebanon included. Albright is also expected announce U.S. opposition to a dam on Yarmouk, which, according to Israeli design, is to be set on an occupied land, signaling that the U.S. is keen on considering that the Golan heights is subject to negotiations.

Israeli official refuses unilateral withdrawal

Coordinator of Israel's activities in Lebanon Uri Lubrani said Hizbullah will not give up its resolve to destroy Israel even if a peace agreement with Syria is signed.

Lubrani said he is against an Israeli unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon. He said Syria had put Israel in an impasse because, if Israel pulls out of Lebanon without reaching a settlement on the Golan heights, the Lebanese resistance will continue to operate against the Israeli forces. Lubrani was affirmative in saying that, militarily, Israel can overcome Hizbullah. Yet, at the same time, it is unable to wipe it out.

Lubrani said no one in Israel would want to move on to the borders of Lebanon, because the cost will be far higher than it used to be. The solution, he said, is political because a military solution is not possible, and that poses a crucial problem for Israel, obliging it to remain in Lebanon in order to ensure the security of its northern borders.

Lubrani also said the economy of northern Israel depends on Tourism, and tourism requires stability, and for that reason, Israel is facing a real national problem. He said the Israeli government wants that region to have a normal life, and for that there is a painful bloodshed of its soldiers in Lebanon, until the time Israel can reach an arrangement with a partner capable of meeting his commitments.

Lubrani said Hizbullah is an Iranian offshoot and will continue to seek to destroy Israel in case a peace agreement with Syria is signed. He said Hizbullah receives a $120-million-aid from Iran, and uses part of the money in the social field in order to boost its position in the Muslim Shiite community. He said Hizbullah and Iran think that, one day, the shiite community will be the largest community in Lebanon.

Amal Movement pledges to continue the fight

Over 2,000 mourners attended the funeral service of the four Amal fighters who died Thursday during a clash with the Israeli forces in south Lebanon. The funeral, at Burj Chemali 3 Kms from Tyre, was attended by House Speaker Nabih Berri and the head of the Muslim Shiite Higher Council Sheikh Mohammed Mahdi Shamseddine, who said Lebanon will never stop from trying to liberate itself. Amal, on the other hand, pledged to continue the fight.

SLA element wounded

A roadside bomb exploded yesterday in South Lebanon wounding one SLA element, and shattering a weekend lull that had engulfed the border area since Amal's attack last week. A Fifth Israeli soldier died yesterday from wounds he suffered in a bush fire ignited by the Israeli shelling last Thursday. Hizbullah said it fired mortar rounds at the SLA position. Elsewhere, Iran's new president Mohamad Khatami yesterday lambasted what he called the state terrorism of Israel and voiced support for Lebanon's struggle to end Israeli occupation.

Princess Diana's Tragic Death

The tragic death of Princess Diana is still occupying front-page editorials in Lebanon. Local dailies highlighted that Diana's driver hit 196 kph and the blood alcohol level of 1.75 grams per liter. Meanwhile, preparations were underway for Saturday's funeral, on parallel lines with the investigations.

News Briefs

- Information minister Bassem Sabbaa, in a rare outburst, said Tele-Liban and his Information Ministry have become a heavy financial burden on the treasury, and if radical changes were not introduced he may propose they both be abolished.

- Palestinian refugees in most of Lebanon's 12 camps yesterday staged a one-day strike against the new financial cuts of UNRWA, the sole provider of health and educational services to the 360,000 Palestinian refugees. The strike came a week after UNRWA announced a $7 million cut of the budget for Lebanon.

- Local reports said that granting the Lebanese nationality to Lebanese immigrants might be used by some government sources as a pretext to naturalize the Palestinians in order to maintain the balance. The report said many western countries said they would exempt Lebanon of its external debts in case it accepted the naturalization process.

- Australia's Prime Minister is due to arrive in Beirut on Sunday on a five-day official visit, accompanied by 24 businessman.

- Head of the U.S. National Council of Churches Reverend John Brown Campbell said her first visit to south Lebanon had been eye-opening. She said, "during the visit to the house speaker we heard the sound of  bombs. She promised to exert efforts with her government, the churches and the American people to make them understand south Lebanon's difficulties.

- Damour's displaced citizens received compensations from the displaced central fund. The fund said 750 people have already received compensations, and there is no more reason for them not to return back to their hometown.

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