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French Version

Siniora warns of debt's 'great risks' to stability (Daily Star)

Finance Minister Fouad Siniora said unspecified "political squabbles" have been the chief cause behind the stalemate in pushing through the state's critical plan to reduce the spiraling $33 billion public debt.

Speaking to Beirut's Cosmopolitan Rotary club on Tuesday, Siniora warned that if left unchecked, the debt, which is nearing 190 percent of GDP (one of the highest in the world), could present "great risks" to the country's "economic, social and political stability."

But despite a long and compelling explanation detailing the need for the government's reconstruction program, (including a World Bank figure that he said put war-time losses at $100 billion), Siniora chose not to elaborate on the delay behind today's reform agenda - which many analysts attribute to an economic struggle between the president and prime minister.

"Clearly, no further major reforms on a national level are likely to be adopted this year. Perhaps societies can only digest so much reform at one time," he said."It is my sincere hope that all the concerned parties can put aside their political infighting and agree on the resumption of reforms before it becomes too late," he added.

As expected, Siniora left some space for mixed optimism: "With more difficulty and higher costs to the treasury - as well as to the public - we would still be able to catch up, if ... we resume the implementation of the reform agenda next year."

Later, during a Q. and A. session in the cigar smoke filled ballroom, Siniora offered what appeared to be a clarification: "I think with the election of the new president, whoever it is, then will be the time to really put the country back on the right course toward the adoption of the right policies."

One Rotarian asked if the expected increase in "painful reforms" could perhaps be borne by the military, which absorbs a relatively high amount of state revenues for its size."Is that the easiest question?" the finance minister asked, to an outbreak of laughter.

"Our pension system, as you correctly mentioned, is unfair to the working class because we have a system that gratifies those who have been in the military ... from the army to internal security forces," he said.

Other examples? "Which country in the world has a public sector that works 32 hours per week, can you tell me?"

Still, encouraging signs prevail, he added, making reference to exports that he claimed were up by 30 percent - not to mention the restoration of critical utilities, which had been scarce only a decade ago. "The Arab world is rediscovering Lebanon, we have great chances, let's not waste our time," he said.

Beirut 04-05-2004
Habib Battah
The Daily Star

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