Taking On The Beast – Combatting Corruption In Lebanon

I used to joke that the Phoenicians, who invented mercantilism in the West, would be amazed that their Lebanese descendants perfected corruption as a business practice and governing tool. Who knew that their descendants would so dramatically enshrine that principle in all aspects of everyday life in Lebanon! Despite the many temporary solutions that have been proposed in the past, today’s abuses clearly transcend a single solution, despite many admirable starting points.

National Budget

Long considered the catch-all for special projects and constituent services, the national budget has two main components for abuse: procurement and contracts as well as hiring and firing. In a recent report, L’Orient Today noted the flaws in the newly passed public procurement law, the key one being oversight of the process. The role of Parliament as the overseer of the public trust is especially questionable. By law, most government bodies, including the Central Bank, should report on a regular basis to the relevant committees in Parliament.

In an annual survey conducted by the Gherbal Initiative, less than 10% of government departments were willing to provide data on how they awarded their contracts. The Central Bank completely refused to even comply with the new law citing transparency as a breach of client confidentiality. Parliament went along with the charade and, as reported, “Among the main highlights, Gherbal Initiative notes that for the fourth consecutive year, ‘the Lebanese Parliament, the primary body responsible for the legislation and implementation of the laws and which itself adopted the law on the right of access to information and other laws concerning the fight against corruption, has not responded to our request’.”

As Mark Daou pointed out in his interview with former Amb. David Hale of the Wilson Center, there is a special committee in Parliament through which all laws get passed and unimplemented laws get sent to their burial – with the same being true of oversight reports. Parliament seldom makes demands, reviews even less frequently, and generally does not interfere in others’ piece of the national pie.

Project Watan, in fact, has made public service and contracting one of its top 8 priorities in fixing Lebanon’s government. The Project has developed public policy recommendations in more than 40 areas with the aim of making the state responsive to the people.

Every World Bank and IMF report for the past three years, some of which going back to the Taif Accord, lament the state of Lebanon’s institutions due to the manipulations of the political class. Governance and accountability are one of the pillars of the Bank’s reform agenda for Lebanon, and although the public procurement law is the only reform that has been passed and is being implemented, it will be more impactful as a case study for how the government avoids rather than implements reforms.

Hiring practices are well-known to furnish “ghost” workers who receive pay, but don’t work or who have been awarded several positions because of their loyalty as a constituent. It is estimated that more than 15,000 public sector employees have been hired under illegal classifications. With the devaluation of their salaries and benefits, these workers have little recourse to finding employment in other sectors of the economy as jobs in general have evaporated.

Rule of Law

While the lack of an independent judiciary and enforcement mechanisms are often cited as the underlying factor in reining in corrupt practices at all levels, it is even more perverse that over time many Lebanese have come to count on corruption as the way to get things done. For example, in a pre-pandemic survey, 65% of ordinary Lebanese believe that people use corruption for various reasons. Most often cited (93%) was to speed up public processes like licensing, property settlements, legal documents, etc. This was followed by securing additional income (92%), avoiding higher payments (92%), receiving proper treatment (91%), receiving preferential treatment (91%), avoiding punishment (86%), and it is the only way to get things done (77%). One can only imagine how these numbers have become worse after the economic implosions, devaluations of the lira, and drying up of health and education services.

Without an accountable and transparent judiciary, free from political pressures, and under the jurisdiction of a single, civil authority, citizens have no recourse to ensure protection for their civil and human rights. In tandem with this are police and magistrates who protect these rights as a core duty. Just as important are prison systems and public defenders who have clearly defined roles and guidelines that enhance, not undermine, justice.

The Agenda Ahead

The new parliament and the incoming government have many challenges in forming a government to respond to the IMF reform package, electing a president, carrying out municipal elections, and setting priorities and investments that respond to the needs of the people. From electricity to salaries for teachers and health workers, to transportation, garbage, and sanitary water services, the list continues. After more than 30 years of neglect and mismanagement, the future requires a whole-of-government response. The energy and inventiveness of the Lebanese people in response to the initial Beirut Port explosions show that the creativity and energy are there. It is time to invest in the people.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Rewinding The Shadows Of Death

This blog could have turned out very badly, possibly as a work of poetry with powerful images of shrouds and palls. But, while researching the headlines again in preparation for this article, I was reminded that we are all too cognizant of the explosions, their aftermath, and the continuing pain for the families, friends, and Lebanese worldwide. Even the Wikipedia coverage, which I recommend for anyone who wants more details, is angry.

Time argues that, ”A culture of impunity has plagued Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war—which left at least 120,000 people dead and pushed some 1 million people, more than one-third of the population at the time, to leave the country. The adoption of an amnesty law in 1991 protected those accused of war crimes and allowed them to remain key players in Lebanon’s fractured political scene. No less than 17,000 people are still missing from the war, affecting thousands of families who are still waiting for answers about their fate.”

So why are we not to be angry when 17,000 people are still missing because of the Civil War? Does the continued impunity of the political leaders surprise anyone?

The families are not passive either. They have filed three lawsuits in June at Lebanon’s Shura council to oppose the government’s April decision to demolish all of the silos, which wound up catching fire anyway and even suffered another explosion this past week.

Rather than dwelling on those facts, let’s consider the culprit here – the collusion between those political actors and the judicial system to thwart a transparent and complete investigation. What began more than a year ago under Judge Tarek Bitar has been brought to a standstill by ‘system’.  The investigation into the blast has stalled and the Lebanese people still have not received a full accounting of, nor justice for, what happened. And they are still suffering the consequences of the deadly blast.

Herein lies the nub of the crisis: a judicial system that cannot function independently and is hamstrung by politicians who control appointments to the courts and the freedom to investigate. Gallup carried out an extensive poll to gauge attitudes toward the government. “Only 16% of Lebanese expressed confidence in their judicial system in 2021. This percentage is an all-time low in Lebanon and was among the lowest in the world in 112 countries where Gallup asked this question last year. [emphasis added]

“When asked if Bitar’s investigation into the 2020 port explosion was being conducted fairly or with bias against certain groups, more Lebanese say the investigation is a fair one (35% versus 23%). Given the political sensitivity of the topic, however, more than four in 10 Lebanese (42%) did not express an opinion. When one looks only at Lebanese who expressed an opinion, 61% say the investigation is fair.”

“Still, by a margin of more than 2 to 1, Lebanese adults say that Bitar should be allowed to continue his investigation. When one looks only at Lebanese who give an opinion, two in three (67%) say that the investigation should continue.”

“There is widespread support for the continuation of the port investigation among most major Lebanese confessional groups, including 84% of Christians who express an opinion and a similar rate among Sunnis (88%). Only within Lebanon’s Shia community — which largely gives its support to Hezbollah and allied political groups — does significant opposition to the Beirut port investigation exist. Slightly fewer than one in four Lebanese Shia who express an opinion believe that the investigation should continue.”

So will the real Lebanese, please stand up – those who care for transparency, fairness, justice, and dignity? As the article continues, “The continuation of the Bitar investigation represents a rare democratic challenge from within the Lebanese government to the country’s powerful political establishment, most of whom have strong reasons not to have their own culpability examined in the port explosion case.”

The Gallup analysis goes on to say, “As a fragile state, Lebanon and its national institutions continue to require international support, if only to ensure that the country’s ills do not spread beyond its borders. An independent judiciary in Lebanon capable of addressing rampant corruption and pushing back against nondemocratic tendencies represents one of the surest ways to strengthen the government’s sovereignty and the nation’s wellbeing.”

This is our position and our campaign: giving voice to the voiceless, letting an independent judiciary do its work to protect the sovereignty and well-being of the Lebanese. Let those who would rather dissolve the State go elsewhere where they will seek the end of their rainbow. For us, the survival of the State begins with acknowledging the responsibility to protect the people and not take actions that disrupt or discourage a full partnership between the government and its citizens. The US should continue to help Lebanon move forward. It is time for justice. It is time to resolve the port explosion investigation.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

Lebanon Needs International Support for Judicial Reform

Lebanon’s judicial system is subjected to endless assaults from government officials and political parties that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of impunity over the rule of law. Due to ill-defined exceptions in the legal code, judges are limited in their abilities to call ministers for questioning. Manipulations of this exclusion principle  is one of many examples of  corruption in the judicial process. A perfect case of the disregard for the law is when a Lebanese judge ordered Central Bank governor Riad Salameh to attend a court hearing for questions on his alleged misconduct, The subpoena was issued by Judge Ghada Aoun on February 1 and Lebanese security were not able to locate him at his home or office. Salameh denied any wrongdoing, declaring his innocence and has refused to hand himself over to the courts.

On March 18, authorities arrested his younger brother, Raja Salameh, who is accused along with Riad of embezzling public and private funds, money laundering to illegally enrich themselves at the outset of the 2019 financial crisis. Sources reported Raja is currently being detained in the Baabda area, east of Beirut. This would require Judge Aoun to transfer her investigation to Judge Nicolas Mansour who oversees the district of Mount Lebanon. But the chase for answers from Salameh is not the only problem the judicial system is facing in Lebanon.

Unfortunately, instead of defending the judiciary, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Friday that the course of action by some judges was increasing tensions in Lebanon. His statement, regardless of intent, undermines the legitimacy of the court’s actions and risks enabling corruption. 

Mikati did, however, conclude a meeting with Lebanon’s justice minister Henry Khoury, agreeing to request the Mount Lebanon public prosecutor to take appropriate measures on the matter. There was also talk of restoring the rights of depositors in the commercial banks which the Central Bank regulates.. 

It has been almost two years since the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port that had taken the lives of more than 200 people and 6,500 wounded. Billions of dollars’ in property damage was also inflicted on the society. This exacerbated the existing economic declines, and depositors faced even more severe monetary erosion  as a result of the widening  financial meltdown, making it nearly impossible to rebuild some semblance of normalcy. People wanted to know why this could happen and what is being done to unearth the answers.

The Lebanese courts are fighting to give the people the truth on who is responsible for storing 2,750 tons of Ammonium Nitrate (AN), the cause of the blast. Judge Tarek Bitar, a dedicated legal servant, is giving the Lebanese hope in the domestic judiciary as Aya Majzoub, a Human Rights Watch researcher,  told Al Jazeera. Indeed, his willingness to call on witnesses from the elite such as former Ministers Hasan Khalil, Ghazi Zeiter, and Nohad al-Mashnouk has rattled the fragile cages of the once perceived immunity these influential political figures possess. He is setting a precedent that a majority of Lebanese are not used to seeing, that of politicians being treated as if they are under the law and not above it.

Both are senior members of the Shia political party called Amal, an ally of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, party which is designated by the United States government as a terrorist organization. When they refused to follow the summons for questioning on the charges of criminal negligence, the rest of Lebanon had to pay a price.

In October of 2021, both Amal and Hezbollah organized rallies in anger to protest Bitar’s continued appointment as head of the Beirut blast investigation. Thousands of their supporters marched on the Palace of Justice in Tayouneh,  a Christian neighborhood in Beirut. Reports consumed the airwaves saying supporters of Lebanon’s Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party fired upon the Hezbollah-Amal demonstrators with sniper rifles. It triggered a firefight with heavy weapons leaving 7 lives lost and a nation once again in dread and mourning. People were outraged and in a state of fear. Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah blamed the deaths on Samir Geagea, the leader of the LF. Geagea denied giving orders to fire on the demonstrators and blamed Hezbollah’s incitement against Judge Bitar. Geagea was summoned by instructions of army intelligence to make a statement based on information provided by LF members who were arrested following the killings. He responded in a television interview that he would happily give a statement to the military court if they “listen to Nasrallah” first.. 

One should remind him this is not how the law works. Understandably, many Lebanese are frustrated with Hezbollah and its allies’ ability to ignore the authority of Lebanon’s legal and political institutions.

The probe into the blast has rekindled memories of Lebanon’s vicious 15-year civil war (1975-1990).  Nevertheless, it was not just the blast that killed these Lebanese, but the cowardice of some politicians who refused to hold themselves accountable before the law and courts. 

Mr. Nasrallah made allegations against the judge saying he was “playing politics” and that he was using “the blood of the victims to serve political interests.” There were reports from local Arabic news that Bitar received threats from Hezbollah’s Liaison and Coordination unit, Wafiq Safa. Through intermediaries, Safa made a stark warning to Bitar and made it clear his organization was displeased with how he was carrying out the case. 

The message to Judge Bitar was straightforward, “We have had enough of you. We will go to the end of the legal path, and if that does not work, we will remove you by force.”  Bitar confirmed these threats in a letter to Lebanon’s public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidate. So far, his work has not been deterred. This, however, may not last. 

The United States is a traditional ally of Lebanon and should continue to more forcefully prioritize independence of the judiciary as a key anti-corruption reform upon which additional aid can be unlocked. Recently the Biden Administration and Congress increased aid to Lebanon’s ailing economy and security forces to help their families survive the pandemic. All of this is welcome and can help bring more stability to Lebanon in preparation for the May election. However,  future aid should be predicated on guaranteeing the safety and freedom of judges to conduct their work without intimidation. Lebanon’s failing democracy can be rescued, not simply by the power of voters, but by the confidence of its judiciary’s independence. 


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans. Image by Katy Kildee https://www.katykildee.com