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Morning Brief

Lockdown loosens, new judge for Beirut blast probe, Bassil slams Hariri: Everything you need to know this Monday

Here’s what happened over the weekend and what to expect today, Monday, February 22, and this week

Lockdown loosens, new judge for Beirut blast probe, Bassil slams Hariri: Everything you need to know this Monday

Lebanon received its second batch of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines on Saturday, when 31,500 doses arrived in Beirut. (Credit: Marc Fayad)

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Lebanon today enters the second phase of a gradual reopening from its 39-day old COVID-19 lockdown. The round-the-clock curfew will remain in place for at least the next two weeks, with citizens required to seek exemptions through the state’s travel permission app. Dry cleaners, florists, travel agencies, car repair shops and dealerships, and construction sites will now be allowed to resume work, joining banks and supermarkets which were given the green light in the first phase. Ninety-three people died from the virus over the weekend, while hospital ICUs were at 87.26 percent capacity — as of the latest figures from Friday — with intensive care hospitalizations ticking up in the last two days. Meanwhile, Lebanon received its second batch of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines on Saturday, when 31,500 doses arrived in Beirut.

A new judge has taken on the mantle of the probe into the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion after his predecessor was controversially removed as lead investigator. Judge Tarek Bitar, the 46-year-old head of a Beirut criminal court, began reviewing the case Saturday morning after his appointment the night before. Legal Agenda executive director Nizar Saghieh expressed skepticism that Bitar, while a qualified judge, would be able to pursue his investigation without political interference. Fadi Sawwan was removed as lead investigator on Thursday, sparking protests outside the Justice Palace in Beirut by relatives of victims of the devastating explosion. Activists have called for renewed demonstrations today at 11 a.m. outside the judiciary before moving to the nearby Military Tribunal at 12:30 p.m. to protest the continued detention of protesters arrested last month in Tripoli.

Gebran Bassil renewed his feud with Saad Hariri, blaming the premier-designate for the lack of progress in the government formation. The Free Patriotic Movement leader denied in a speech yesterday that his party, along with the president, is seeking a “blocking third” — or effective veto power — in the government. Bassil claimed that the names they have proposed are independent candidates who do not owe allegiance to the FPM. He accused Hariri of failing to implement a “set of unified conditions” by purportedly naming Sunni ministers and allowing Hezbollah, Amal and the Progressive Socialist Party to propose cabinet members. Hariri’s Future Movement fired back Sunday, accusing Bassil of “living in Lala Land” and being in “denial of the changes that arose” from the Oct. 17, 2019 popular protests against the ruling elite.

Lebanon’s local currency was trading at LL9,400 to the dollar as of Sunday evening, following a sharp depreciation days earlier. For the first time since July, the exchange rate at shops selling dollars breached the LL9,000 level on Wednesday, before falling as low as LL9,550 the following day. The head of money exchangers syndicate told L’Orient Today that the central bank had stopped injecting dollars into the market in mid-January, following the start of the COVID-19 lockdown. Banque du Liban had provided hard cash to exchangers since June with the aim of stabilizing the exchange rate.

Parliamentary committees discussing the proposed World Bank social safety net program will meet again on Tuesday. The legislature’s committees for finance and social affairs will convene at 10 a.m., after failing to reach an agreement on a draft law last week. The World Bank on Jan. 12 approved a $246 million project with a centerpiece program of direct cash assistance to approximately 147,000 vulnerable families. The loan still requires Parliament’s approval, with MPs last week raising questions over the constitutionality of the draft legislation and the program’s implementation. The draft includes the controversial provision to hand out cash at a below-market rate of LL6,240 to the US dollar.


Want to get the Morning Brief by email? Click here to sign up. Lebanon today enters the second phase of a gradual reopening from its 39-day old COVID-19 lockdown. The round-the-clock curfew will remain in place for at least the next two weeks, with citizens required to seek exemptions through the state’s travel permission app. Dry cleaners, florists, travel agencies, car repair shops and...