City Life-Beirut: Pity the nation that is paralysed by corruption

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The Independent Online
HAVE YOU heard the one about the former Lebanese minister who was sent three army trucks and told to fill them up with $3m (pounds 1.8m) worth of ill-gotten carpets, furniture and jewellery if he wished to avoid prosecution for accepting bribes? Or the one about the ex-minister who paid exorbitant fees to a construction company for a new highway roundabout as part of a deal to share the favours of the company manager's wife? Or about the minister with an import licence for fire extinguishers who demanded legislation forcing every motorist in Lebanon to carry a fire extinguisher?

Stewed in corruption Leban-on has always been. The Leb-anese prefer to use the word "facilitate" for "bribe". Here, you "facilitate" someone to help you, to "minimise the inconvenience", as Thomas Cromwell would say.

Local journalists were used to collecting hundred dollar bills from their favourite minister - they fought like jackals to travel on his overseas state visits - and the minister was always given favourable reviews.

But fraud had reached such epic proportions in Lebanon's post-war government that when the former army commander General Emile Lahoud became president last year - with the infinitely honest Salim al-Hoss as his prime minister - he declared war on corruption.

And those same Lebanese who had welcomed the old government of billionaire Rafiq Hariri, sat back to enjoy the embarrassment of their former masters.

"Pity the nation," Kahlil Gibran wrote, "that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again."

Well, the hootings began right away. Lorryloads of official documents were said to have been secretly removed from the Ministry of Finance. A former minister, Fouad Siniora, was said to have fled the country - the story was untrue but Lebanese journalists (yes, those same reporters who liked all those hundred dollar bills) gave it front page treatment. Security agents pounced on Ogero, the public telephone company created by Hariri, "to prevent the removal of official documents".

Then came the body-blow from Michel al-Murr, the Interior Minister and one of the only cabinet holders to keep his office. He called together parliament members and municipal leaders to announce - and this was whistle- blowing on a grand scale - that pounds 327m had disappeared from local government funds. Worse still, the money had come from the IMF. But 24 hours later, Mr Murr confessed it was all a mistake; the accounts had not been read correctly and the cash was all there. Then the hootings began.

The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, a minister in the old Hariri cabinet and a very big hooter, claimed that the new government faced "a total loss of credibility" and that Murr should resign, pointing out - damagingly - that Murr "is the in-law of the president ... the credibility of the president is at stake."

Murr did not resign. His son is married to President Lahoud's daughter.

Lahoud hit back. Unintentional mistakes by the new government, he said, were the fault of the previous administration which was bankrolling media campaigns against the Hoss cabinet.

Hariri has indeed been busy. He not only controls the Future TV station in Lebanon but has been buying up the best journalists in town to work for a new daily paper he plans to launch in April called Mustaqbal (Future). Since he already runs the Al-Sharq radio station, the former prime minister is shaping up to become a Lebanese Rupert Murdoch.

In his administration, he and his fellow ministers did manage to close down a number of television stations - although, oddly, they didn't touch Future or a company owned by the speaker of parliament or a television station run by another of Murr's sons. Mustaqbal will surely contain quite a lot of hooting.

The civil service has meanwhile been hacked back by the corruption-seekers. Fifty top officials were told to resign, one accused of chairing 60 committees (officials can get paid according to the number of committees they run).

Now the new Finance Minister, George Corm, is saying that the Hariri government owed money to private hospitals - around pounds 123m, according to Fawzi Admi, the president of the Hospital Owners Association. More hootings.

Corm announced 1,000 extra agents to stop tax cheats. Less hootings. Fouad Siniora attacked Murr. Murr is now taking libel action against Siniora. More hootings.

But back at the bank - my own little local bank off Hamra street - there is no hooting at all. About 75 per cent of government revenues (aroundpounds 1.9bn) goes to service the public debt. Last year, the government issued pounds 1.35bn in treasury bills to cover the debt.

New rules to prevent bribery and corruption are tangling up legitimate investors in massive amounts of red tape. Highway construction and building projects have suddenly petered out.

"Paralysis," is how a visiting Lebanese banker described the place when he called me the other day.

And the message? That honest men will save Lebanon from itself? Or that a certain measure of corruption is needed to move the economy? Stand by for more hootings.