As Sri Lanka’s justice minister, Ali Sabry had to defend his government’s decision not to allow the burial of Muslims who died of Covid. There was heavy criticism from the community, even his family, but he put aside his own religious beliefs to do so.

Today, Sabry, 51, a lawyer, is his country’s new finance minister, tasked with the Herculean task of putting a the derailed economy back on track.

He replaced Basil Rajapaksa who resigned earlier this month along with the rest of the cabinet – it was a decision by Basil’s brothers, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, to appoint new faces in hopes to appease the angry people in the streets demanding that the first ruling family “go home”.

Hours after his surprise nomination, Sabry sent in his resignation, but the president did not accept it.

In an interview with The Sunday Express in his law office in a quiet lane of Kollupitiya in Colombo, Sabry said that despite his own reservations, he had decided to pursue his new assignment as a national duty.

“I thought I was not an economist, I don’t know this field. So I figured someone more fit would be ideal to do the job. That’s why I quit. I waited three to four to five days, and during this crucial period, anyone was called upon (to become Minister of Finance). But no one came forward. And then I thought that at this precise moment, so many things are at stake, we have to protect the institutions and we need someone to govern. And talk to the IMF, talk to the Indian government, you need someone to represent your country and your nation. So, reluctantly, I thought I would withdraw my resignation and do my best,” he said.

He resigned because “there was a lot of pressure” from his family members not to accept the appointment. “Also, a lot of people wondered if I was the right person for this job. At first I thought it best to offer the position to someone else who is better.

But no one came forward. “Now is not the time to shirk responsibility. You put your image, your personal glory and your personal comfort aside and do the work for the nation. This is the call of the nation,” a- he declared.

The task is unenviable. Sri Lanka suffers from a crippling shortage of dollars and cannot import many of the essential goods it needs for the daily needs of the people, including milk, fuel, rice and medicine. As of April 12, the country had temporarily suspended repayment of all external debts, totaling around $51 billion. And he called on Sri Lankans living abroad to send funds home to help the country overcome the crisis.

“It is a difficult task, all the more difficult because Sri Lanka has never experienced this kind of economic crisis since independence. I understand that the important thing is to prevent it from deteriorating further, at least to stop it until appropriate decisions are made. So we need to retaliate immediately, protect the vulnerable here, and then find a way to resolve the balance of payments crisis until normalcy returns,” said Sabry, a friend of President Rajapaksa and until recently head of his personal legal team.

“It’s not about me, it’s about the country,” he said. “We have to protect the institutions, the central bank, the banking system, its credibility, its association with payment gateways, friendly relations with international multilateral organizations, foreign countries. These need to be protected and recovered, at least for now.

As a lawyer, he said, what helped him was his “ability to analyze and present a case and also to listen”.

Sabry, whose religious identity is uncomfortable with some of this government’s actions, had previously resigned as justice minister following the appointment of a controversial Buddhist monk, affiliated with the extremist Buddhist group Bodhu Bala. Sena, at the head of a presidential working group set up to study a “one country, one law” proposal. This appointment has raised concerns among minorities in Sri Lanka. The monk, Galagodaatte Gnanasara, had been arrested for anti-Muslim violence for a week and released on bail. He was later found in contempt of court, but received a presidential pardon.

Rajapaksa refused to accept his resignation even then, and Sabry continued, after telling the media that the matter was “in limbo”.

Asked how he views his government’s position on minorities, he said: ‘I am working hard to restore order, restore stability, restore supply lines and protect the rest of the economy, and if we divide in terms of race, religion or anything like that, it will be even more difficult. I hate any form of division, wherever it comes from. This is not the time for divisions, this is the time for unity, this is the time to make a strong and united effort to protect our country.

Around the world, and even in the most liberal Western democracies, he said, “some people will try to stir up racial and religious differences for their political survival. This has been around since time immemorial, but the majority should understand that these are short-term divisive tactics that won’t work. No country can progress unless you think as a country. There is no separate solution for each of us. People should understand that.

He said Sri Lanka needed bridge financing of $3-4 billion over the next 6-9 months to pay its import bills. He said it was “too premature” to say whether India would give another $2 billion, but “the indications are positive” and “Indians have made it clear that they will support Sri Lanka until ’til he would rise again and normal life could begin… India had been a true friend in need”.

The next steps, Sabry said, in the medium-term priority, were to focus on the balance of payments crisis, and then pursue a development agenda that will get the economy back on track.

“We have to be realistic, this happened over a period of time, we lived beyond our means,” he said, pointing to the many tax cuts implemented by President Rajapaksa. He said possible areas for fiscal consolidation were taxes and realistic commodity prices.

“Every day the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation suffers a loss of about a million. Some of the public companies continue to register massive losses. Ultimately, this must also be financed with public funds. So I think it’s time for us to think about what’s right and what’s good for the country in the long run, and not just make popular decisions,” he said.

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