Lebanon's Dysfunctional Parliament Endorses Bills Crucial to Economy and Healthcare

Published September 27th, 2018 - 06:28 GMT
Monday’s sessions were characterized by disorganization, and saw the endorsement of just five draft laws amid cacophonous debate. (AFP)
Monday’s sessions were characterized by disorganization, and saw the endorsement of just five draft laws amid cacophonous debate. (AFP)

Speaker Nabih Berri pulled no punches Tuesday as he commanded Parliament through two sessions that saw the endorsement of just under a dozen bills, including some that were crucial for the economy, infrastructure and the health sector.

From the outset of the morning session, which was initially attended by over a dozen ministers and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, Berri was stern, telling MPs, “If this goes the way it went yesterday, we’re going to have problems.”

Monday’s sessions were characterized by disorganization, and saw the endorsement of just five draft laws amid cacophonous debate.

Among the provisions included in the bills endorsed Tuesday were about $400 million in loans for the road network, wastewater treatment and a comprehensive health care plan.

MPs also endorsed allocating LL100 billion ($66 million) in subsidized housing loans as a temporarily solution to the housing loans crisis.

Unfortunately for lawmakers, their work was overshadowed by the untimely ending of the evening session, following the withdrawal of Lebanese Forces MPs and most Future Movement MPs.

The LF had asked that a provision to secure funding for cancer drugs be added to the agenda, and Future MPs had asked that two provisions related to Tripoli’s port be added. But the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah MPs opposed the measures, and Berri said the provisions would not be added.

The situation escalated quickly.

LF and Future MPs began to leave the chamber, and Berri ended the session before a quorum could be lost, multiple sources said.

The strange manner of the session’s ending, less than an hour after it had begun, prompted some lawmakers to claim that there had been a conspiracy to end it after legislation of necessity had been endorsed.

The allegation seemed to be based on Hariri’s wish that only bills deemed “necessary,” those related to the CEDRE donor conference and housing loans, be endorsed.

Those were not the first MPs to withdraw. Shortly after the morning session began, Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar exited dramatically to oppose a vote being held on the ratification of the international Arms Trade Treaty.

“In the name of martyrs and the children of the martyrs, and the tears of the mothers of the martyrs ... I announce my withdrawal from this session,” Ammar said, going on to claim that the law would jeopardize Hezbollah’s arms.

“This is not the right way to do this,” Berri said as Ammar exited the chamber.

The treaty, which aims to regulate the international arms market and prevent the illicit trade of weapons, drew suspicion from Hezbollah MPs, who together voted no.

Amal Movement MPs abstained from voting, while most Free Patriotic Movement MPs voted for the bill, as did the LF and Future blocs.

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“Israel saw this [treaty] as one of its biggest achievements for securing Israeli national security and for ‘fighting terrorism,’” Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad said.

Hariri defended the push to ratify the treaty, saying it was “in the interest of Lebanon ... and our presence in the international community. ... This does not touch on the issues we have in the country, such as the resistance.”

Following a vote on whether to send the bill back to the committees, one MP asked to know the number of yes votes and no votes. Berri simply replied, “No.”

Commotion ensued among members of the media and lawmakers, as whether the bill had passed or not was unclear. Another lawmaker then asked, “Can we know what happened?” before Berri said it had indeed been endorsed.

Soon afterward, Parliament witnessed heated debate over $120 million in loans for a comprehensive health care plan. MPs noted that the law had not yet been through the Finance and Budget Committee.

Some MPs, including Elias Bou Saab of the FPM, questioned whether money from the loans would be used to treat Syrian refugees.

Berri called a vote on whether to send it back to the committees for study. The motion was voted down by a long shot, but then Berri announced that he was referring it back to the committees of his own volition, based on his prerogatives as speaker. This caused a string of impassioned pleas by weighty officials in Parliament to return it to the agenda to be voted on, including from Hariri himself.

“It’s true some refugees will benefit from it, so let them benefit. Do we want them to die here?” Hariri said in response to Bou Saab’s comments.

“Any infrastructure project we undertake in the country will benefit Syrian refugees, so then I think we should stop the whole country,” the premier-designate added sarcastically.

This caused a brief spat between MP Jamil al-Sayyed and Hariri, as Sayyed accused the premier-designate of failing to recognize the gravity of the country’s problems, calling his statement “blackmail.”

“This is not blackmail, this is the truth,” Hariri replied.

“There is a [national economic] disease that must be recognized as a disease, not hidden as Hariri tries to do,” Sayyed said.

“Let every patient talk about his own illness,” Hariri gibed.

Berri masterfully quipped to diffuse the tensions building between Hariri and Sayyed, who was speaking angrily about the economic situation in Lebanon and accusing Hariri of trying to cover it up.

“In this country, we are paying to eat, we are paying to go to the bathroom, we are paying to ”

Berri interrupted him: “Then don’t go to the bathroom.”

With Berri still not allowing the comprehensive health care plan to go up for a vote, Hariri threatened to leave the chamber. “We agreed to this session because the [bills] are necessary and tied to CEDRE. If we’re not working on important bills tied to CEDRE, then I’m not going to be in this session,” he said.

Cross-party support was then voiced. The head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc MP Mohammad Raad said, “If we don’t endorse it then it’s as if we didn’t do anything in the session. Either we pass these loans, or we leave.”

Deputy Speaker Elie Ferzli then delivered a theatrical speech in support of voting on the bill, gaining applause from Future MPs when he said he agreed with Hariri’s words.

The speaker finally held a vote on it, and the bill, back from the brink, was endorsed.

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