Written by By Jonathan Swan, CNN Washington
A group of US congressmen are in Lebanon for a “private visit” that’s kept closely under wraps, although the nature of their tour — mostly by plane — suggests that the team is there to help reduce Lebanon’s crippling economic crisis.
Unlike previous members of Congress, who usually stayed a few days here and there as a way to advance US interests with allies, the trip, organized by Foreign Policy magazine, comes just as Lebanese economy enters a critical crisis.
The United States, which is a major aid donor to Lebanon, has ramped up lending to the country and proposed a framework for aid worth $700 million, but the central bank — the country’s only financial institution, the only institution able to handle its foreign currency reserves — is now refusing to have any dealings with anyone who owes money to Lebanon.
Foreign banks, hospitals, even the country’s most renowned art museum have not been able to access Lebanon’s currency, the dinar, which the central bank insists must go only to countries that must still repay debts.
International money lenders, including the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, are loathe to lend to Lebanon at this stage because they fear that the country’s weakened security situation and a history of violent incidents, from banking robberies to car bombs, makes it too dangerous to base the process in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s central bank governor, Riad Salameh, said last month that the country would need to do some “surgical operations” and “innovative things” to solve its financial and economic problems, including a possible currency devaluation.
Congressmen meeting with economic experts in Beirut
More than a dozen Lebanese officials are now in Washington, with figures including prime minister Saad Hariri, former prime minister and parliamentary speaker Saad Hariri, outgoing central bank governor Riad Salameh, and the country’s newest foreign minister, former Lebanese prime minister-designate Gebran Bassil.
Some Washington officials have warned that Lebanon’s rapidly approaching debt crisis could lead to unrest, although so far there has been no known violence.
The lawmakers on the trip — nine of whom visited Beirut, Beirut International Airport, and at least one UNESCO World Heritage site — have since returned to Washington.
Three of them provided their own statements to Foreign Policy, all echoing the same key points: that a devaluation could jeopardize Lebanon’s many valuable cultural sites; that Lebanon and its government are continuing to be trapped by its protracted political standoff; and that it is in everyone’s interest to solve Lebanon’s long-term issues.
What’s in store for Lebanon?
What happens next, however, remains unclear. In what has been described as an “unprecedented” move, Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said on October 16 that he is no longer willing to form a new government because his proposals to revamp a precarious security arrangement have not been approved by hardline Hezbollah members.
The fact that Hariri, who was re-elected president on October 20, agreed to stand down as leader of the Future Movement — the country’s largest faction — has allowed him to avoid openly criticizing Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. But that hasn’t stopped his critics and Hezbollah allies in government from calling on him to resign.
“It is obvious there will be no government formation for a couple of months,” Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah told thousands of the group’s members and supporters on Saturday in a speech reportedly broadcast on Iranian state television. “Instead of a government formation, we have to continue in a situation of crises, tenseness, malaise, without any government.”
On Sunday, representatives of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee said they will hold a hearing on Lebanon next week, including a panel discussion that will include Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Mustafa Alloush, the chairman of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, and Hariri, among others.