Lebanon's vast web of corruption unravels - News - The Independent

Lebanon's vast web of corruption unravels

WHEN Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud (ex-general, former head of the Lebanese army, trained at Royal Naval College, Plymouth) met the country's Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri (holder of Saudi passport, shareholder in the company rebuilding Beirut, listed in Forbes as one of the world's 100 richest men), last week, the conversation was short and to the point. "I've accepted your resignation," Mr Lahoud said. "I know," Mr Hariri replied. "I heard about it on the radio."

Behind this Pythonesque exchange, which preceded Mr Hariri's replacement by Selim al-Hoss, is a serious affair. It involves Syrian power politics, a web of extortion, an alleged Israeli spy, a hopelessly indebted nation, and a string of alleged commissions to Lebanese ministers which - if proved true - would substantiate international banking statistics that Lebanese corruption surpasses even that of Colombia."We are not experts in corruption," a Lebanese academic said indignantly last year. "We are professors of corruption."

No one is accusing Mr Hariri of anything. His government, perhaps. But the Prime Minister was so rich that nobody stood a chance of bribing him. True, he owns 10 per cent of the shares in Solidere, which has the contract to rebuild the centre of Beirut. True, his Finance Minister, the affable Fouad Siniora, found himself explaining to the state prosecutor last week that his ministry was not destroying its records - merely transferring them to new offices. And it is fair to say that President Lahoud, like all generals, believes there can only be one national leader.

Mr Hariri saw himself as Mr Lebanon: when it was once suggested to him that the Lebanese economy would collapse if he died, he replied: "So keep me alive." Mr Lahoud - with President Assad's support, since the Lebanese army is a true ally of Sister Syria - is probably happier to have as his prime minister Dr al-Hoss, four times a premier in the war, survivor of a car-bomb attack and so honest he is in danger of being boring.

The battle for influence occasionally surfaces in public. When, for example, a new law closed down most television stations in Lebanon, it turned out that Mr Hariri, an ally of the parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, and a close relative of the Interior Minister, Michel Murr, owned three of the four surviving stations.

Finance ministry officials, meanwhile, face possible charges of illegally authorising the destruction of a building in central Beirut on land annexed to Solidere. The owners are suing four officials and the chairman of the company (not Mr Hariri) because Solidere workers and policemen forced them from the building, which was subsequently torn down.

Most of the time, unsavoury issues such as these remain safely out of sight. But enter Najah Wakim, an MP who has been screaming abuse at Lebanese ministers for years and has just published a book called Dirty Hands, which details all kinds of skulduggery by government ministers. President Assad, so it is said here, has been deeply upset to learn of such corruption (Syria, of course, being the most squeaky-clean state this side of the Euphrates).

So what on earth has been going on in poor, war-ravaged Lebanon?

Well, according to Mr Wakim, a series of shocking scandals has torn apart the fabric of Lebanon's body politic:

One minister ran petrol imports through a relative's company, raising its share of the market to 30 per cent.

A minister vetoed a company for regional development because he was not cut in on the project.

A minister agreed to a telephone network which would reward him and two colleagues with $500m (pounds 300m).

A minister seized 7,500 acres of public land in Lebanon.

A minister accepted $5bn from US sources for giving Palestinians citizenship in Lebanon (no such citizenship was ever forthcoming).

A militia leader brought toxic waste into Lebanon through a company owned by a minister.

Most people in Lebanon have their own stories. One of the most popular (the names are well known) is of a contract for a road junction, awarded by a government official to a construction engineer at three times the cost price - because the construction engineer had agreed, for the increased price, to let the government official sleep with his young wife. The wife, so it is said, was duly sent to the official's bed.

More seriously, one government official close to a senior minister was accused by the Syrians of passing information to the Israeli intelligence service. The official has been flown out of Lebanon, but his protector has not been forgiven.

And not just officials but ministers, so it is being hinted, may find themselves locked up for many years for alleged dishonesty. President Lahoud said as much in his inaugural speech last month.

Electricity is one department at which the justice department is taking a close look. So is construction. Salim Azar, a leading Lebanese judge, recalled that he had had no luck in bringing prosecutions against officials since he vainly tried 30 years ago to start an inquiry into alleged corruption by a ministry director-general.

Why, Mr Azar asked, had no prosecutor sought information from Mr Wakim about his book?

As for Mr Hariri, he has promised to work with the new president. "We have faith in Lebanon's future," he announced, adding that he would continue to sit in parliament, opposing the government if he chose, but supporting the nation.

"The problem with Mr Hariri is that he wants to be remembered as the man who saved Lebanon," one of his detractors once said. Given the number of Lebanese who wanted to go down in history for destroying Lebanon, that is not a disgraceful ambition. But Mr Hariri was a big man in a tiny country, and he didn't tolerate dissent kindly.

Last week the Lebanese pound - standing pre-war at three to the US dollar but which Mr Hariri brought down from 2,200 to 1,500 to the dollar in six post-war years - slipped to 1,515, but was then reinforced by the central bank. If it fell too disastrously, Mr Hariri might be back again as Mr Lebanon.

In the meantime, the general's anger may embrace a minister or two.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
filmMatt Damon in talks to return
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
News
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Life and Style
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
tech(but you can't escape: Bono is always on your iPhone)
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig is believed to be donning skies as 007 for the first time
Arts and Entertainment
Fringe show: 'Cilla', with Sheridan Smith in the title role and Aneurin Barnard as her future husband Bobby Willis
tvEllen E Jones on ITV's 'Cilla'
News
i100
Sport
Tim Wiese
sport
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Manager with some Agile experience

£45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

Data/ MI Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

KS1 Teacher Cornwall

£23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd...

Corporate Communications Manager - London - up to £80,000

£60000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Corporate Marketing Communications M...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week