Lebanon’s Berri threatens quit Diab’s cabinet over coronavirus expat policy

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Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri threatened on Saturday to suspend his support for Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government if it did not act to bring home expatriates stranded abroad during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti said on Thursday that Lebanese citizens abroad must undergo a test to make sure they are not carrying coronavirus before boarding a flight home. 

“If the government keeps its position on the issue of the expatriates beyond this coming Tuesday we will suspend our representation in the government,” Berri, head of the Shi’ite Amal Movement, said in a statement from his office. 

Berri is one of Lebanon’s most powerful figures and named the finance minister and others in the government which is grappling with a financial crisis and would be paralysed were he to withdraw his backing. 

Like all of Lebanon’s main politicians, Berri has a significant support base in the country’s large diaspora.

Some Lebanese stuck abroad are struggling to get by, their situation complicated by tight restrictions imposed by Lebanese banks on transfers abroad and cash withdrawals from ATMs overseas. Lebanon has been struggling with a crippling financial crisis since October.

Hitti said this week the ceilings for bank transfers to students stuck abroad would be increased. 

“We hope to bring home Lebanese today, before tomorrow, and understand the feelings of families and their children but the PCR tests must be secured because there is great danger in a person infected with corona boarding a plane with those who are not infected,” he wrote on Twitter. 

The government would arrange flights to bring home those stuck abroad, he said, urging Lebanese abroad to register with embassies to provide them with help. 

Hezbollah backs Berri’s demand

Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah said during a speech on Saturday that all the Lebanese locked in corona-hit countries have the right to return to their country, adding that the Lebanese authorities’ duty to return them must be also indisputable.

“Whatever the threats are, the Lebanese authorities must respond to the pleas of the expatriates,” he said, “Preventive measures can be taken to guarantee a safe return to the expatriates.”