COLOMBO — When former justice minister Ali Sabry visited Sri Lanka’s president last Monday, it was for talks amid an economic crisis that has brought thousands of protesters on to the street and left the island nation short of fuel, medicine and power.
By the time Sabry left the meeting with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to his surprise he was finance minister, thrust into the center of a financial storm that will not be easy to calm.
“I was not … ready for that when I went there,” Sabry told Reuters in an interview over the weekend, giving the first insider account of a dramatic week of political maneuvering.
“Normally I wear my jacket to go for any official function. I took oath even without my jacket, because I went for a discussion and then, I had to take that (oath).”
The country of 22 million people has been hit by crippling power cuts, sometimes lasting 13 hours, and other shortages. Foreign exchange reserves have plummeted to $1.93 billion and debt payments several times that amount are looming.
Ordinary people have taken to the streets in recent weeks calling for Rajapaksa and his family to quit. The president’s elder brother, Mahinda, is prime minister.
Before Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved his cabinet, Sabry, 51, had been his trusted justice minister.
Even after accepting the new job, Sabry had doubts. Some 24 hours later, amid questions about his suitability and concerns within his family over whether it was the right decision, he said he sent a resignation letter to the president.
“I’m also a human being. My family also matters to me,” Sabry said, seated in front of a wall of books at his law chambers in the commercial capital Colombo.
For four days after his resignation offer, no other candidate stepped forward, he said, and by Friday he had resolved to go ahead, following further discussions with family, the president and officials.
“My conscience was troubling me,” he recalled.
On Friday, when Sabry rose to speak in parliament, a lawmaker pointedly asked what capacity he was talking in.
Sabry confirmed that he was still finance minister.
“As I told … parliament, what you need is not to be an economist. If that is the case, you need to be either a motor mechanic or a driver to run the transport ministry,” Sabry said, breaking into laughter.
‘AS LONG AS IT TAKES’
Before the drama of the last weeks, Sabry, who is a member of Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community, had enjoyed a 25-year career in law that had taken him to the top of the legal system.
He attended school in his hometown in Kalutara and Colombo’s Zahira College. At Sri Lanka Law College, he was general secretary of the law students’ union and later deputy president of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, the country’s largest collective of lawyers.
From a family with deep roots in politics, Sabry has also had a long relationship with the Rajapaksas, particularly the president, whom he has represented in court.
Faced with the challenge of immediately finding $3 billion to pay for essential goods that he describes as “Herculean,” Sabry said he has the full backing of the president, the prime minister and his ruling party leaders.
He must also lead what are expected to be complicated negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a much-needed loan program.
Sabry said he had confidence in a team of key officials, including a new central bank governor and treasury secretary, alongside an advisory committee.
“I’m willing to do this as long as it takes,” Sabry said.
Udeeshan Jonas, Chief Strategist at Colombo-based investment bank CAL Group, said Sabry had shown courage taking on a job that no one else appeared to want.
“He will have to be the person to take unpopular and difficult decisions. The economic reforms that Sri Lanka needs to make will not come easy,” Jonas said.
Some analysts said the finance minister could be hamstrung by the public’s loss of confidence in the Rajapaksa family and what people saw as government inertia.
“Individuals cannot do much. The government has to take the right steps,” said Sirimal Abeyratne, a professor of economics at the University of Colombo. “We can now see the light at the end of the tunnel but nothing more than that.”
(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal and Uditha Jayasinge; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Alex Richardson)