Lebanon's Council of Ministers, in a 4-hour session held at the Baabda Presidential Palace at 11:00 a.m.this morning, rejected Prime Minister Hariri's $800m development plan, and refused a proposed LP5,000 increase on gasoline prices.
Held under President Elias Hrawi, the Cabinet, in a rare move, opposed the plan with 13 votes against, and 11 votes for.
Political observers said the question now is what will be the stance of Prime Minister Hariri with regard to rejecting a plan on which he was relying a lot. In this context, State Minister for Financial Affairs Fouad Siniora reportedly pointed out that the non-approval of the plan might have an effect on the government. Many possibilities are now under consideration, including amending the plan, or reshuffling the government.
Information Minister Bassem Sabaa, asked whether this voting will lead to the resignation of the government, said, "we are now facing a new situation". Also commenting on the matter, Hariri's sources said, "Let's wait and see".
Opposing ministers said the plan was neither clear, nor well studied, and aimed at postponing the political and economic problem for a few months. A first reaction was one by the Minister of Displaced Walid Jumblat who said the non-approval of the plan would adversely effect the return of the war-displaced citizens. On the other hand, Housing and Cooperatives Minister Mahmoud Abou Hamdan, a member of Speaker Berri's Amal movement, reiterated Berri's opposing stance to increasing any tax, "especially if the purpose is to cover the budget deficit".
Earlier on, House Speaker Nabih Berri reportedly asked the ministers representing him in the government to vote against Hariri's development plan, emphasizing his rejection to increasing taxes on consumer products, particularly gasoline.
Prime Minister Hariri, in a televised interview this evening, said the opposition registered by some ministers during today's session, was not based on economic reasons, but on political considerations, especially since those who opposed the move are not economic experts.
He said proposing the plan now was due to the pressure of time, since studying and approving the draft budget was about to begin soon, and adding the amounts due on revenue to the 1998 budget, would increase the budget deficit.
Consequently, Hariri added, "I found it necessary to have the amounts come from outside the budget to avoid increasing the deficit". He said, "as long as there is a deficit in the budget, debt would increase, and the solution would either be in expanding the economy, which needs a number of measures, or compressing the deficit through saving on expenses, increasing revenues, and levying some taxes, including a price increase on gasoline.
As to what effect this will have on the issue of the displaced , Hariri said, "I am open to any practical solution that could solve this issue".
Lebanese Security Forces faced no problem in silencing the audio-visual media that were instructed Monday by the Public Security Department to close down.
After closing the "Voice of Beirut", which belongs to the "Popular Conference" headed by the self-exiled Muslim leader Kamal Shatila, the "Zahle Television" also abided by the instructions and stopped broadcasting. Catholic Bishop of Zahle Andre Haddad, under whose auspices the television was operating, expressed hope that "Law will be applied to all with no exception". He also viewed that the licenses recently given to a number of television and radio stations were "political, discriminatory and illegal".
Television "Al Basaer", originally known as "Elisar", also abided by the instructions of the security forces and stopped its experimental broadcasting. But Lebanon's "National News Agency" quoted an informed source as saying that the status of the television, which is administratively under the Muslim Shiite Higher Council, was officially settled, and consequently, there was no objection to resuming its broadcasting. It was also understood that the government has no objection to giving permits to stations run by the Muslim Shiite Higher Council and Dar Al Fatwa, provided they submit a complete legal files.
Four other stations were also closed yesterday, "Lubnan Al Ghad", "Ghost", "Al Salam", and "Tyre". On the other hand, a radio station by the name "Sawt Al Farah" (Voice of Joy) went on broadcasting under the license of the Lebanon Star Company, a press report said.
Meanwhile in Tripoli, life returned to normal following the tension the city witnessed during the past three days. But reactions to the incident continued from various political, social, religious and popular circles.
Of these, the "Lebanese Islamic Salvation Association", in a statement, demanded releasing all the detainees, opening an investigation, amending the information law, and giving permits to regional media. The President of the prohibited "Islamic Guidance and Charity Association" Sheikh Daei Al Islam Al Shahal, in a press conference yesterday, lashed against Prime Minister Hariri and held him responsible for the incident, and for silencing the radio and television stations of the Islamic Unification Movement. He said security forces were "still carrying raids and arrests, especially at night".
As to those detained following the incident in Tripoli, Beirut military court magistrate Khalid Hammoud kept 48 in detention, including the two sons of Sheikh Saeed Shaban, leader of the "Islamic Unification Movement". If convicted, the detainees could face a prison term ranging between one month and three years.
Israel's Defense Minister Yitzhac Mordakhai yesterday visited the SLA's headquarters in Merjayoun and reiterated his threats to the Lebanese Army, warning that Israel "will not for one moment hesitate to destroy the targets shooting at any of our sea, land or air forces".
Meanwhile, Lebanese Army units in Tyre fired at an Israeli gunboat approaching the coastal line, while five Israeli outposts were attacked by the resistance.
Later the same day, Israeli forces, using fragmenting and incinerating shells, caused fires in the Nabatieh area. Following suit, Israeli warplanes launched mock raids over the areas of Nabatieh and Iqlim Attufah. Israeli Helicopters, after 8:00 p.m. were also seen hovering over the southern areas of Zahrani, Iqlim, and the eastern suburbs of Sidon. Israeli gunboats were also spotted off Sidon's coast.
Press reports meanwhile said the Lebanese Army intensified its activities against the Israeli airforce and navy. Lebanese Army soldiers from five positions south of Biqaa, were said to have used anti aircraft artillery against Israeli helicopters combing a forested area adjacent to the eastern sector. Two other army positions near Tyre also fired anti aircraft artillery at an Israeli warplane hovering over the Port of Tyre at low altitude.
-Prime Minister Hariri's circles denied speculations saying he will resign from office. Instead, they affirmed that he would go on with his mission of solving Lebanon's economic problems.
-House Speaker Nabih Berri reiterated his rejection of increasing gasoline prices or levying any direct taxes. Instead, he proposed a two-year plan aiming at reducing the budget deficit. The first year, he said, would be devoted to reducing public expenditures, while the second would be geared to looking for more tangible resources.
-Lebanese cinema director Mohammad Salman died at the age of 77 after a long period of illness. Salman, born in Kfardounine in south Lebanon, was a pioneer of Lebanese cinema, and a director of dozens of films.
-Foreign Minister Fares Boueiz, speaking to Lebanon's Reporters Association, said the visit to Lebanon by the US Secretary of State Madeleine was exploratory and indecisive.
-Foreign Minister Fares Boueiz received UNRWA's director in Lebanon Leonel Brisson who is to assume a new post in Gaza after his four years of service in Lebanon. Brisson said UNRWA was able to get some additional revenues during the Amman conference, but that was not sufficient.
-A British House of Commons delegation headed by the Emile Ross, the head of the House's Foreign Affairs Committee, yesterday visited Prime Minister Hariri and discussed with him bilateral relations and the Middle East peace process. The delegation is visiting Beirut as part of a M.E. exploratory tour.
-One person was arrested in Sidon on the charge of blowing up last year a place where Lebanese singer Wael Kfoury was going to perform. The man, a Palestinian loyal to Abu Mehjen, the renowned leader of Isbat Al Ansar (partisan group), was among 8 other Palestinians who blew alcoholic shops in Sidon.
-Beirut's prosecutor general today ordered the closure of 14 illegal telephone centers. Prime Minister Hariri in his capacity as Telecommunication Minister, informed the prosecutor that these telephone centers were operating in areas where the telephone network is working normally.
-The World Bank is reportedly planning to change the executives it assigned to deal with the Lebanese file. The bank, concerned with Lebanon's economical and financial situation, is careful not to have the experience it had in Mexico repeated elsewhere.
-Prime minister Rafik Hariri inaugurated the Charles Helou transport station in Beirut and said public transport should be generaslized.
-Average success in the second round of the Lebanese baccalaureate philosophy examinations was 18.4 percent.
-Lebanon Football Federation decided to participate in the West Asia States first tournament in Iran. The federation also decided to make the lottery of the Pepsi-32nd tournament today.
-Ansar football team is to play with the Wehda-Yemen team tomorrow.
-Organizing committee of the Cedra's 7th 450-km rally, which will take place on the 11th and 12th October, is to hold a press conference today to announce the schedule.
-Lebanon's Ping-Pong women and beginners championship started at Mont La Salle. A Chinese team including top players will participate in the Lebanese tournament scheduled in Beirut on 23-26 October. The Chinese players are internationally classified at 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th ranks.
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