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Security forces to ensure protection for Parliament session.

Summary: Military and security forces are poised to go on full alert in Downtown Beirut next week to ensure protection for a Parliament session that anti-government protesters have vowed to scuttle by blocking roads leading to Njimeh Square, political sources said Friday.

BEIRUT: Military and security forces are poised to go on full alert in Downtown Beirut next week to ensure protection for a Parliament session that anti-government protesters have vowed to scuttle by blocking roads leading to Njimeh Square, political sources said Friday.

President Michel Aoun Friday chaired a meeting of the Higher Defense Council at Baabda Palace that called on security agencies to improve coordination to maintain stability in a country that has been shaken by an unprecedented popular uprising since Oct. 17 against the entrenched political class.

"The Higher Defense Council's meeting focused on necessary measures that should be taken to consolidate the security situation in the country, particularly ahead of next week's Parliament session devoted to debating the government's policy statement and later holding a vote of confidence on the new Cabinet," a political source told The Daily Star.

Shortly after the government's policy statement was unanimously endorsed by the Cabinet during a meeting chaired by Aoun at Baabda Palace Thursday, Speaker Nabih Berri called for parliamentary sessions to be held on Feb. 11 and 12 to discuss the policy statement and hold a vote of confidence on the government.

The source said the 20-member Cabinet, made up of specialists nominated by Hezbollah, the Free Patriotic Movement and their allies, was assured of winning a confidence vote from the 128-member legislature because Hezbollah and its allies hold a parliamentary majority.

"But there are fears that a quorum for the session that requires the presence of half of the 128 lawmakers plus one, 65, might not be secured if protesters succeed in blocking roads to prevent MPs from reaching the Parliament building," the source said.

Ahead of the Parliament sessions for the confidence vote, groups of anti-government protesters have threatened to escalate their movement by blocking roads leading to Njimeh Square, where Parliament is located, in a bid to prevent lawmakers from reaching the building.

Protesters thwarted a Parliament legislative session in November by cutting off all roads leading to Njimeh Square. The protesters have been demonstrating in the past few weeks in Beirut and other areas to voice their rejection of Diab's Cabinet, coined "one-sided," because it was made up of Hezbollah and its allies.

Last week, protesters marched through the streets of Beirut and Tripoli in the north, carrying banners against corruption and declaring "no confidence" in the new government.

"The revolutionaries, undeterred by the authorities' repressive measures, are proceeding with their meetings to put the final touches to a confrontation road map to prevent the MPs from granting the government a vote of confidence," the Central News Agency reported.

Hundreds of protesters failed last month to thwart a Parliament session that approved the 2020 state budget amid a heightened security cordon around the Njimeh Square. Security forces and anti-riot police clashed with protesters who attempted to break through security barriers erected on streets leading to Parliament.

Referring to recent incidents that threatened to stoke sectarian tensions, Aoun, speaking during the Defense Council's meeting, stressed the "importance of controlling the security situation to maintain stability and civil peace on the one hand, and not to be lenient with any attempt to undermine the state's prestige, institutions and official headquarters, on the other," according to a statement released by the president's media office.

The council's meeting was also attended by Prime Minister Hassan Diab as well as the defense, foreign affairs, interior, justice, finance and economy ministers, in addition to Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun and heads of security agencies.

In what appeared to be a reference to the protesters' threats to torpedo the Parliament sessions, Diab called on "various military and security agencies to intensify coordination efforts in order to ensure stability in the country and preempt subversive incidents to avoid any developments."

As usual, the Higher Defense Council's decisions were shrouded in secrecy in conformity with the law, the statement said.

Meanwhile, the four main political parties -- the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces, the Progressive Socialist Party and the Kataeb Party -- that have stayed out of the government, have said they would attend the Parliament session but they would not grant a confidence vote to the Cabinet.

The Future parliamentary bloc will not grant confidence to the government, a member of the party's politburo told The Daily Star Friday.

"The MPs will attend the sessions but will not give confidence," former Future MP Mustafa Alloush said. The decision was made for a number of reasons, Alloush explained, including the MPs' feeling that the government's policy statement did not adequately address the country's pressing needs.

Al-Mustaqbal.Web said the Future bloc was leaning to "withhold confidence from the government for several reasons, the most important of which was that the policy statement fell short of meeting the demands of the current stage and the post-Oct. 17 developments."

The government's policy statement drew fire from LF leader Samir Geagea and PSP chief Walid Joumblatt.

While reiterating that the LF bloc's 15 MPs would not grant the government a vote of confidence, Geagea dismissed the policy statement as "a total failure."

"The policy statement is out of time and out of place and represents a total failure," Geagea said in an interview with the Central News Agency.

"It is indeed the second surprise for Prime Minister Hassan Diab's government after having adopted the [2020] budget about which it knows nothing to confront an extremely delicate extraordinary stage in which the country's fate is at stake," he said.

Geagea said the LF had wanted to give the government a chance to rescue the country 'because the situation is dangerous and cannot endure bickering."

"But the government's policy statement dashed any hope for salvation," Geagea said.

The LF chief also criticized the government for adopting an electricity plan that was endorsed by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Cabinet in 2019 which "left the electricity problem without a solution for over 10 years, while it continues to drain the state finances between $1.5 to 2 billion annually."

Joumblatt implicitly slammed FPM leader and former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, whose party has held the Energy Ministry for years, even before Aoun was elected president in 2016.

"The first dominant man in the electricity sector and partners and several companies behind him in the shadow have succeeded in imposing the policy statement as it is despite a timid objection attempt by some ministers to try to bring the required reform," Joumblatt said in a tweet, clearly referring to Bassil.'

He warned that if the electricity sector remained under the FPM control, it would expose the country to "collapse and bankruptcy."

The Cabinet's policy statement outlined broad action plans, including reducing interest rates, recapitalizing banks, restructuring the bloated public sector and seeking support from international donors.

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Author:Hussein Dakroub
Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Feb 7, 2020
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