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French Version

Azour answers Nasrallah's criticism of telecom sell-off

Privatization 'will bring 50,000 jobs'

Finance Minister Jihad Azour on Thursday again defended the government's economic and fiscal policies following sharp criticism by Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah of the Cabinet's plan to privatize the telecom sector. In a statement to the press, the minister said that the government had succeeded in implementing many reforms, despite the delicate political situation.

Nasrallah had said during a televised interview on Wednesday that the opposition will block any attempt to privatize the telecom sector. Plans to privatize the sector are part of a reform program that was approved by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Nasrallah added that the telecom sector generates huge revenues to the treasury each year and it would be wrong to sell it to the private sector.

The Hizbullah chief also said that the government had tried to pass laws involving the electricity sector without the knowledge of then-Energy and Water Minister Mohammad Fneish before his resignation more than a year ago.

But Azour said that all the economic programs had received the approval of Amal and Hizbullah ministers before they submitted their resignation.

"Amal and Hizbullah ministers participated in the ministerial statement which outlined the government's economic and fiscal policies," Azour said in a statement. He added the government is implementing the energy plan which was originally submitted by Fneish himself when he was a minister.

The government had scheduled the auction of the country's two mobile networks for February 2008. But Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh said on Thursday that no privatization will take place before the election of a new president of the republic.

Opposition leaders have warned that any privatization of the telecom sector must first receive the approval of the Parliament, which has not convened for a regular session since the crisis started more than a year ago.

Azour said that any call to oust the government under these delicate conditions would only worsen the economy.

He added that a political vacuum has dire effects on the country and the economy.

The minister also indirectly criticized Speaker Nabih Berri's refusal to convene a Parliament session. "There are dozens of projects and bills that were put on the backburner due to the closure of the Parliament. All these projects were vital for the economy," Azour said.

The minister said that the attacks on the economic policies of the government are politically motivated. "It seems that there is an organized effort to prevent Lebanon from reaping benefits from the oil boom in the region," Azour said.

He added Syria, Jordan and Egypt, for example, are attracting billions of dollars in investment from the oil-rich countries, while Lebanon is being deprived of such wealth.

Azour said that the government had managed to reduce the budget deficit by 10 percent in 2007, achieve a primary surplus and increase tax revenues.

"The privatization of the telecom sector will create more than 50,000 jobs in Lebanon, as more companies will be more inclined to invest in this country once this sector is fully liberalized," he said.

Beirut 04-01-2008
The Daily Star

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