The hard and urgent mission of fighting corruption in Lebanon
Beirut - Setting up a state Ministry for Combating Corruption in the new cabinet of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has raised eyebrows, leaving Lebanese wondering how it is possible to eliminate widespread and ingrained corruption that has permeated the lowest level of society.
Corruption in Lebanon is not just about a few leaders at the top who crossed the line and abused their powers. It is about a system in which politicians, public administration, parliament, police and the judiciary are involved in corrupt conduct. Nepotism, bribery, kickbacks, embezzlement, favouritism and mismanagement have become part of the daily life.
Coupled with the absence of a strong political will, transparency and accountability, they have greatly affected the country’s economic and political performance as well as its reputation.
Past shy attempts to combat corruption were never serious enough and turned to be mere cosmetics to cover for bad governance.
Nicolas Tueni, the new state minister for Combating Corruption, said he is aware of the difficult mission with which he was entrusted. Coming from outside traditional political circles and as he said wealthy enough with “moral values” that make him “incorruptible”, Tueni was enthusiastic enough to establish a mechanism to combat corruption and take action.
“Lebanon is entering into the era of anti-corruption properly and surely,” a confident Tueni said during an interview with The Arab Weekly.
He referred to four laws “fundamental” to his ministry, including the law to access information that was issued on January 26th, the law against illicit enrichment, the law establishing a high commission for anti-corruption and one related to the protection of whistle-blowers.
“Our duty is to set up the legal framework and enlighten the president and prime minister on any wrongdoings or any tender that the government can engage itself in and lose money,” Tueni said.
Journalists, former civil servants and volunteers have been engaged in the anti-corruption drive, giving tips and gathering information on suspected corruption cases, the minister said. Civil society groups, such as Sakker El Dekkene (Close the Shop), have been active for years in encouraging people to report acts of corruption, which are documented and shared online.
Seven cases are under investigation by the new ministry, with one having been referred to Justice Minister Salim Jreissati, who ordered a look into alleged corruption at Casino du Liban.
“Any wrongdoing will be punished… Any file I have will go to the Justice Ministry,” Tueni assured.
The urgency in tackling corruption was probably due to deteriorating economic conditions. The situation reached an alarming level because of the spillover of the war in Syria, fleeing Gulf investment and tourists as well as the political disputes that paralysed the country for more than two years. A year-end settlement led to the election of Michel Aoun as president and the formation of Hariri’s cabinet.
“We explained that the cow has no more milk… We are saying to everyone (politicians): If from now till the end of the year, you don’t solve the problem, everything will explode,” Tueni said.
Restoring confidence in Lebanon by acting on rampant corruption is a must if the tiny country expects European, Arab and other countries, as well as international organisations, to continue investing in it and refraining from shifting interest to other countries in the region.
The task is not easy, if not impossible, with the ruling elites and their protégés, many of whom have been involved in corruption, greatly benefiting from the power-sharing system. Illicit enrichment is so blunt while a project cannot pass unless people in power secure personal gains.
The 2-year waste management crisis is one such example. Squandering public funds persists in most sectors and is mostly visible with the failure in restoring a constant power supply 27 years after the 1975-90 civil war ended. In 2016, the state electricity company registered a deficit of $1.4 billion.
It is thus hard to measure the extent of corruption or estimate the losses. Figures provided by former ministers range between $1.5 billion-$10 billion per year. Tueni estimated losses in Lebanon treasury at $3.3 million.
Although he acknowledged that there is “no magic stick” to end corruption in Lebanon, Tueni appeared determined to expose any corruption case, even if it involves officials and followers from his own political camp.
Setting up the anti-corruption ministry has been hailed as “a good but yet insufficient move” by Ziad Abdel Samad, the executive director of the Arab NGO Network for Development. He emphasised the need for more laws to secure the independence of the judiciary and the financial inspection authority and for measures to stop squandering, smuggling, taxes not being collected and spending from outside the budget.
For Riad Tabbarah, director of the Centre for Development Studies and Projects (MADMA), the system has proved to be “very strong” and facing “no major pressures” to change it.
“We have new things coming up like the oil that is a whole field of corruption that could last for another 50 years,” noted Tabbarah.
That, Tueni said, would not stop him from trying hard to fulfil his new mission.
“Either I succeed or leave,” he concluded.