BEIRUT — Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri ended Tuesday’s Parliament session at around 8:30 p.m. after tensions among the assembled MPs mounted following voting on expedited status for two laws that would protect the Beirut port silos from demolition.
After Berri asserted that the majority of MPs had voted against giving the laws expedited status, which would allow the full Parliament to vote on the proposals without having to go through committee approval first, MP Paula Yacoubian (Forces of Change/Beirut I) demanded that the vote be counted again and claimed that most of the MPs voted for giving expedited status to the proposal to protect the port silos. She described the process as “fake” when Berri rejected her claim, while MP Ali Hassan Khalil made his opposition to Yacoubian’s allegations by shouting.
After electing the Supreme Council in the first half of Parliament’s first legislative session since the May 15 parliamentary elections, in the second half MP Faysal al-Sayegh withdrew from the council.
Members of Parliament on Tuesday morning elected seven MPs to the Supreme Council: Jamil al-Sayyed (pro-March 8/Baalbeck-Hermel), Abdul Karim Kabbara (related to Future/Tripoli), Faysal al-Sayegh (Progressive Socialist Party/Beirut II), Hagop Pakradounian (Tashnag/Metn), George Atallah (Free Patriotic Movement/Koura), Imad el-Hout (Independent/Beirut II) and Tony Frangieh (Marada Movement/Zgharta).
The council, which is authorized to prosecute MPs and ministers, is made up of 15 members: seven MPs and eight judges. The elections of MPs to the Supreme Council are of particular interest to those concerned with the Aug. 4, 2020, port blast file and its investigation.
MP Sami Gemayel, who is the Kateab party head, said that the Supreme Council nowadays is “useless” because matters should be referred to the judiciary. The MPs were elected by acclamation yet the Lebanese Forces’ parliamentary bloc, the Strong Republic, the Kataeb MPs, and the Forces of Change MPs did not nominate any candidates to the posts.
Family members of the port blast victims gathered outside of the Parliament session to protest the formation of the Supreme Council, which they characterized as a maneuver by officials targeted by the port blast investigation to evade accountability via the judiciary.
In the second half of the session, which began at 6:15 p.m. following a late afternoon recess, Parliament approved a law that allows technical coordination between the governments of Japan and Lebanon.
A law that amends the fees and charges levied by the Lebanese government on airline operators was also approved by Parliament in its second half of its session. The current fee structure is still based on the official peg of LL1,507.5 to the US dollar. For example, flight operators are charging passengers $33 in fresh dollars while paying the government LL50,000 — less than $2 at the parallel market rate — leading to a loss of revenue. The change in fee pricing would allow the government to generate hundreds of millions of fresh dollars.
Earlier Tuesday, Parliament also approved amendments to the bank secrecy law, a requirement towards unlocking a potential $3 billion financial assistance package from the International Monetary Fund.
The government tried to squeeze in the Banking Control Commission of Lebanon and the National Deposits Guarantee Institution within the list of bodies that can oblige banks to lift banking secrecy, but the assembled MPs voted against the measure. Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati and Deputy Prime Minister Saade Chami explained during the Tuesday session that the measure was needed to implement the banking restructuring resolution.
MP Ibrahim Kanaan (Free Patriotic Movement/Metn) said following the adoption of banking secrecy law reforms that the step should be “evaluated positively by the international community, and we are waiting for the government to restructure the banks.”
Earlier in the same session, MPs approved a $150 million World Bank loan to fund wheat imports for six to nine months.The approval came amid doubts from different MPs, including Kanaan, who questioned the authority granted to the Economy Ministry’s General Directorate of Cereals and Sugar Beets to open a line of credit for wheat imports, which he said is the responsibility of the Finance Ministry. Kanaan also questioned the authority of the directorate to distribute the wheat. Other MPs said that the loan will be disbursed mostly to “foreigners,” likely referring to refugees residing in Lebanon.
Caretaker Economy Minister Amin Salam said during the session that, under the agreement with the World Bank, the wheat subsidies will be set at LL8,000 instead of LL1,500 to the dollar, which would hike the price per bread bundle from LL15,000 to LL27,000.
Mikati said during the legislative session that a recommendation from the Parliament should be issued in the event that “there is a request to lift subsidies” by the government.
When asked by several MPs how much a bread bundle would cost should the wheat subsidies be completely lifted, Salam said “LL35,000.”
Mikati added that “most of the bread bundles being produced are going toward non-Lebanese and everyone knows that.” He did not specify a source for this information.
Mikati also said that he had issued a decision to form a committee in the Interior Ministry tasked with establishing a specific mechanism for the equitable distribution of wheat and flour to all mills and bakeries. Mikati indicated that cameras had been installed in mills to monitor the bread production. Caretaker Economy Minister Amin Salam announced Friday the formation of this committee, which includes judicial, security and managerial personnel.
During the session, an argument broke out between MP Halimé El Kaakour, a member of the Forces of Change parliamentary bloc from the Chouf, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri over the practiced voting method, which is characterized by raising hands. Kaakour as well as Nadim Gemayel (Kataeb/Beirut I) demanded that the vote should take place by a ballot count instead.
Following the May election, the new Parliament re-elected Nabih Berri as speaker of Parliament on May 31 with 65 votes, the minimum votes required, and Elias Bou Saab as deputy Parliament speaker, also with 65 votes, in the second round of voting for the role. Then, MPs elected members of the 16 parliamentary committees on June 7 and June 10. However, today’s session was the first in which the full Parliament considered proposed legislation.
There were 40 items on the agenda today in addition to the election of seven MPs to the Supreme Council. As Berri announced the end of the session, the legislature had only made its way through 25 of those.
CLARIFICATION: This post has been updated to clarify that the vote taken regarding the port silo proposals was to give the proposals expedited status, allowing them to bypass committee approval, not on the substance of the proposed laws.