Failure of Lebanon’s political class causes surge in corruption

Sunday 28/05/2017
Gridlock. Power cables erected in a chaotic way at a residential area of Sibline village, in the Chouf area, Mount Lebanon.

Beirut - Much of the myth that surrounds Lebanon anchors its past in the resilience of its people and their pio­neering role in finance and bank­ing. Some have even gone so far as to refer to this small republic as the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”
However, this isn’t quite the full picture. Transparency Interna­tional placed Switzerland fifth on its Corruption Perceptions Index; Lebanon is No. 136 out of the 175 countries included.
While corruption is by no means new to the Lebanese political landscape, its recent surge has largely been due to the failure of the political class to agree on key issues, primarily electoral reform, waste management and the ever-elusive electricity crisis. Govern­ments since the end of the civil war in 1990 have failed to resolve the country’s wide-ranging infra­structure challenges, with ration­ing still a reality across the coun­try.
One issue that remains far from simple is the electricity crisis, which exemplifies the absence of common sense and proper plan­ning by all sides. For most of Leba­non’s political actors, the electric­ity sector is a cash cow that gives them unmitigated access to much-needed funds to run their clien­telist system. This sector accounts for half of the Lebanese national debt, which stands at a staggering $64 billion, a number that could increase under recent proposals by the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri to address the issue.
In a short-sighted and perhaps reckless move, Hariri agreed to en­dorse a plan proposed by his new allies, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), that suggests leasing three additional Turkish power-gener­ating ships to replace the two now operating at a ridiculous expense of almost $1.2 billion. Hariri’s zeal for this flawed proposal stems from his recent reconciliation with the FPM, resulting in the election of President Michel Aoun.
Previously bitter enemies, Hariri and the FPM leader Gebran Bassil, dismissed the suggestion of their alliance being drawn from finan­cial necessity. Instead, they chose to frame it as one with progressive developmental cross-sectarian aims.
However, many of the rumours surrounding this deal, as well as similar proposals, have been fuelled by a blatant disregard for transparency and the proper pro­cedures that govern government tenders, especially ones that come with a hefty price.
That notwithstanding, oppo­sition to the leasing of the ships did not come from the FPM’s tra­ditional political rivals but rather from their main Christian ally, the Lebanese Forces (LF), which has echoed the concerns of other factions over the way this deal is being conducted. Instead of devel­oping its own power plants and a sustainable electricity plan, the government is planning to spend almost $1.2 billion, with more than $800 million either unaccounted for or unwisely dispensed.
The crux of the Turkish ships fiasco is that this wheeling and dealing has proven enough to es­sentially sever one of the FPM’s key alliances, its relationship with the LF.
Over the last few months, the FPM and the LF have demonstrat­ed completely different philoso­phies to governance and to public office. While the latter has been accused of irregularities in their ministerial portfolios over the last decade, the LF has refused to rub­ber stamp any project without due diligence. Yet their sectarian alli­ance has kept both Christian par­ties joined at the hip, maintaining a unified front and ensuring their communities’ so-called rights.
It might be conceivable to most of the Lebanese population to con­done this. However, the depths of corruption plumbed so far may present a new low, even for Leba­non.
If the Lebanese political elite re­fuses to acknowledge this, perhaps the taxpayers might. After all, it is they who are funding these reck­less projects, which will only en­sure that the electricity sector, as well as the whole country, is dead in the water.