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

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map