Lebanon’s Berri takes sides with Hezbollah

The powerful parliament speaker took aim May 22 at the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of President Michel Aoun.
Saturday 23/05/2020
A 2018 file picture of Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. (AFP)
A 2018 file picture of Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. (AFP)

BEIRUT--Lebanon’s powerful parliament speaker took aim May 22 at the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of President Michel Aoun, in an indication of his support to Iran-backed Hezbollah movement in a dispute between former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who heads for the FPM, and Hezbollah’s leadership.

Berri, who seldom gives public addresses, was speaking to mark the anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon and al-Quds Day, a commemoration initiated by Iran in 1979 that falls on the last Friday of Ramadan.

Berri, also head of the Shia Amal Movement, warned against calling for federalism to resolve the crises, affirming that “neither hunger nor any other misfortune will lead us to give in to any Zionist scheme.”

He urged Lebanese political parties to end their rivalries, which only lead to disturbing public order.

“We ought to stop throwing accusations left and right, and start shouldering our responsibilities, for the sake of liberating Lebanon, both from its judicial and its political shackles.”

Though Berri did not name Bassil, he was obviously responding to statements by the FPM’s president, also son-in-law of president Aoun, in which Bassil stressed the necessity of to “financial decentralisation” in Lebanon by separating areas with a Christian majority and those with a Muslim majority.

Made during a speech last week, Bassil’s statements were an attempt to win over members of the Christian community in Lebanon, who have long complained about the practices of Hezbollah, including the smuggling goods into Lebanon to avoid paying customs duties.

Berri has previously clashed with Bassil on several occasions, with the FPM’s president once calling him a “thug”  in a leaked video that was broadcast by “Al Jadeed” local TV station two years ago.

In his May 22 speech, Berri also criticised the cabinet’s performance, calling on the government to take action to help citizens grappling with an economic crisis.

“The government is asked to stop biding its time, waiting for what the negotiations with the IMF and donor countries may lead to, and start taking action on the ground, rather than merely drawing plans. Actions speak louder than words,” Berri said.

The country’s currency has lost more than half its value since October amid a liquidity shortage that has largely frozen savers out of their deposits. Inflation and unemployment are soaring.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab has said there is the risk of a major food crisis and many Lebanese may soon find it hard to afford bread.

The government is negotiating with the IMF, aiming to unlock aid based on a recovery plan that details vast losses in the financial system. Lebanon defaulted on its sovereign debt in March for the first time.

Diab took office in January with support from Berri, the Iran-backed Shia group Hezbollah, and President Michel Aoun, the Maronite Christian head of state. Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Aoun’s Maronite rival Samir Geagea stayed out of his cabinet.

The central bank has said it will start providing dollars for food imports as part of “necessary measures” to defend the currency.