Aoun and Hariri spar, lira falls, record ICU patients: Everything you need to know to start your Tuesday

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L’Orient-Le Jour -As Premier-designate Saad Hariri left a short meeting with President Michel Aoun on Monday, a new cabinet appeared a more distant prospect than ever. (Credit: Nabil Ismail)

Prospects for a new government look slimmer than ever following a war of cabinet proposals between Saad Hariri and Michel Aoun. After a brief meeting in Baabda, the premier-designate accused the president of jerry-rigging a cabinet lineup that would grant him and his political allies veto power, handing journalists at the Presidential Palace a list of ministers he said he had previously given the president. Aoun’s office hit back, publishing a table that proposed a breakdown of ministries by sect but stopped short of suggesting ministers, which the president said he had offered Hariri to guide him in forming the government. Hariri’s office released a final document appearing to back up his claims, which the presidency alleged was outdated. For as long the deadlock persists, Lebanon will remain without a cabinet with a clear mandate to tackle its economic collapse, pushing the country further into crisis.

While the country’s two top leaders bickered, the lira’s value plunged to LL14,000 to the dollar by Monday evening, after trading around LL11,500 earlier in the day. The depreciation crept toward the lira’s record low of LL15,300 against the greenback on March 16, which sparked widespread protests at the time. With the lira again in freefall and the cabinet formation further prolonged, demonstrators briefly blocked roads in Beirut and Tripoli Monday afternoon, burning tires and garbage cans. Others, however, rushed to supermarkets to stock up — an increasingly common sight.

The central bank has set an April 16 deadline for commercial banks and exchange shops to register on its currency exchange platform. The platform’s creation was announced last week after a meeting between Banque du Liban chief Riad Salameh and a presidential financial advisor. However, its launch date remains unclear, as does the rate of exchange it will follow. BDL launched another electronic exchange platform, Sayrafa House, last June in an attempt to rein in the lira’s depreciation, setting an artificial rate of LL3,900 to the dollar. The effort failed: the lira’s value continued deteriorating, and the LL3,900 rate is now used only for withdrawals of dollar deposits at Lebanese banks and certain food subsidies.

Lebanon’s financial intelligence body agreed to lift banking secrecy from the accounts of several officials over allegations they squandered public funds. The NNA reported that the Special Investigation Commission granted the judiciary permission to examine the accounts of Council for Development and Reconstruction head Nabil Jisr and other engineers and contractors who allegedly wasted hundreds of millions of dollars allocated to sewage projects. Investigations into the allegations were launched following a lawsuit filed by journalist Salem Zahran. Those being investigated in the case are set to appear before Beirut Investigative Judge Charbel Bou Samra on March 30.

A record 992 patients were being treated for COVID-19 in intensive care units as of Sunday, according to the Health Ministry’s latest report. Based on the World Health Organization’s most recent figures, this puts COVID-19 ICU occupancy above 84 percent. Meanwhile, restaurants, gyms, daycares and gaming centers reopened their doors with limited capacity as the government continued easing its coronavirus lockdown restrictions. Amid the “chaotic opening of the country” and the lack of compliance with preventative measures, the number of ICU patients with COVID-19 is likely to rise, said Assem Araji, a cardiologist and the head of Parliament’s health committee.

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